Eat, drink, savor: convincing Pinot Noirs from Calera Wine Company
Mount. Harlan limestone is one of the secrets of its production of fine wines.
Hollister’s story Calera Wine Company begins with founder Josh Jensen going through survey maps for two years, trying to find an area in California with similar geology and climate to the Burgundy region of France, where he apprenticed in the Domaine’s prestigious cellar de la Romanée-Conti (DRC), considered by many to be one of the best vineyards in the world.
Jensen arrived in the DRC in 1970 with no previous winemaking experience, having studied history at Yale University and anthropology at the University of Oxford. After less than two years, he returned to the United States to create his own winery, looking for a place with the chalky soil that creates the best Pinot Noirs.
“Wherever a vine has to struggle, it produces more intense fruit,” said Calera winemaker Mike Waller. “In calcareous soils, you have more drainage, so little water is available. The roots should go deeper into the soil and this contributes to the complexity of the grapes.
In 1974, Jensen discovered Mt. Harlan, a limestone dome and the site of an old lime kiln (“calera” in Spanish). Limestone is burnt to produce quicklime, an ingredient in everything from steelmaking to glass to cement, even food. Limestone is formed at the bottom of the ocean, but seismic events in geological time have pushed Mt. Harlan to a ridge at 2,200 feet above sea level.
The first vineyards, with pinot noir vines, were planted on Mt. Harlan in 1975. There were three: Selleck (5 acres), Reed (5 acres) and Jensen (14 acres). These three vineyards are still the pride of the cellar.
That same year, Calera produced its first wine, 1000 cases of zinfandel, made from purchased grapes. The first vintage of the newly planted vines did not arrive until 1978, when the first bottles, labeled California Pinot Noir Table Wine, were launched.
One of the unique features of the cellar is the gravity flow system installed next to the tasting room. The grapes are crushed at the top of the seven-tier structure, then allowed to descend through the remaining tiers, from fermentation to cask, by force of gravity, with no pumps involved at any stage.
“You want to simplify the time you spend through a pump,” Waller said. “The wine is treated with great kindness throughout the process. It doesn’t make it easier for workers to get on and off – they stay in shape. But wine tends to retain its structure and backbone and it is allowed to express itself.
Waller came to Calera in 2007, after being an assistant winemaker at Chalone Vineyards in Monterey County for three years. Discovering that they shared a similar approach to creating wine, Jensen named him in 2009 the winemaker of Calera. Waller remained in that role after Jensen sold the winery to Duckhorn Wine Company in 2017.
“As winemakers, at the beginning, when we taste and smell the wine, we look for flaws,” Waller said. “Once you get past that, you start looking for nuances. What I’m looking for in wine is the most expressive fruit you can have but with a tension in the middle that carries the wine much longer in the mouth. Especially with wines that people will keep for 10 or 20 years. For me, that’s what makes a powerful wine, this balance between fruit and tension.
Although Calera has an on-site laboratory to test the grapes as they progress into wine, the key to Waller’s vintages lies more in an intimate knowledge of the characteristics of each block of vines.
“Science is a tool that you use,” Waller said. “But I see myself more as a craftsman. I don’t see myself as an artist; I am not Picasso painting a picture here. I think anyone can make wine. But you have to understand the numbers as well as the flavors, but not take them too seriously because each vintage is different. “
Mike’s brother Cory is the neighbor’s winemaker Eden Rift Wine Estate. Michelin-starred chef Jarad Gallagher of Smoke Point BBQ in San Juan Bautista once told me, “If you have the chance to drink wine made by the Waller brothers, grab it.
I was fortunate to be accompanied to my tasting in Calera by the two brothers, as well as assistant winegrower Amy Gill and sales manager Danielle Burke.
2018 Mt. Harlan Chardonnay ($ 55) “We’re known for our pinots,” said Waller, “but I’m more proud of the chardonnays. I think you can do more in the cellar to handle the grapes and the wine. With the pinot, we put them in the barrel, we overcome them, then we leave them alone. With Chardonnay, it’s about how much you stir the lees, when you take them out of the barrel – it’s more convenient. It’s a nicely balanced and austere wine with sifted fruit, a touch of minerality, some crisp acidity and a long finish. It would go very well with a pork loin served with apple risotto, pasta served with pesto or a handful of smoked almonds.
Santa Lucia Highland Pinot Noir 2018 ($ 50) The grapes for this wine are purchased from vineyards in the highlands of Santa Lucia in Monterey County. “We thought we were showcasing some of the other wineries that we love,” Waller said. “It’s exclusively for our wine club and tasting room, not for the general market. It’s not a typical Calera wine and we don’t make a lot of it, but it’s fun to have. It is a full bodied wine with a beautiful ruby red color and a rich fruity taste, with notes of plum and berries. It’s a party wine for the perfect lunch with grilled meats. The self-confidence of the wine would allow a range of foods, from burgers and potato salad to steak and grilled stuffed mushrooms.
2017 Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir de Villiers vineyard ($ 75) The Villers vines were planted in 1997 and the wine has an appealing youthful spirit. “It’s probably the most fruity wine we produce,” Waller said. “You will notice more tannin but the finish is smooth and velvety. It’s something you can buy now and let sit for about 15 years. This Pinot is aggressive and distinctive, with a slight cedar aroma, a deeply penetrating flavor and a smooth finish. There are notes of blackberry and black tea that fill the mouth without the tannins sucking it in. It’s an easily accessible wine that would go well with veal cutlets but would pair well with Italian dishes such as cannelloni or ricotta-stuffed shells as well as Mexican dishes such as carne asada.
2017 Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir Mills Vineyard ($ 100) The vines that produce the grapes for this wine are unique, they are the only vines planted on their own roots. “I asked Josh the reason for this,” Waller said, and he said, “In 1984 we didn’t have a lot of money, so we just planted them. Because it is on its own roots, it struggles a little harder, with a low tonnage per acre. It is a very smooth wine that has an impact hard to describe on the palate – it flows and absorbs with unparalleled sweetness. Any strong food pairing would dominate the subtle flavors, so I would keep it simple: warm French bread with brie, pasta with a mild red sauce, dark chocolate – anything that will keep this wine like the star of the show.
2017 Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir Jensen Vineyard ($ 100) Jensen Vineyard, one of Calera’s original three wineries, is exposed to the sun from four different angles. This complicates the harvest, which takes place over six weeks, as the grapes ripen in the different blocks. “We have to make several different choices and each is a snapshot of the vineyard at that time,” said Gill. “At the end of the day, we have three different expressions of this vineyard that we can play with, marry them to create a stellar wine.” Wine reviewer Jeb Dunnuck gave this wine a rating of 99 points, describing it as “astonishing in every way.” It is a luxurious wine, structured but with elegance and grace and is an excellent wine to sip. If you are going to serve it with food, you need something equally fine, like grilled beef tenderloin with mushrooms.
2007 Mt. Harlan Pinot Noir Selleck Vineyard ($ 105) This wine was a little extra. After tasting the 2017 Jensen, Waller left for a while and returned with an incredible treat – the very first wine he oversaw at Calera and a wine hailed by influential critic Robert Parker. “This was the last vintage Parker rated pinots and he gave it a 98,” Waller said. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’ll have a job here for a while.’ We think of those scores as “whatever”, but when you get one like that from someone in their position, it gives you validation. In his review, Parker described it this way: “The aromas of sassafras, black cherry, raspberry, plum, pomegranate, cedar and undergrowth are accompanied by a full-bodied and ripe wine with nice acids, an intense underlying character of minerality / terroir, and a long finish. Being a library wine, only available in the cellar, it was an honor to drink it. After trying the younger wines, which were good in themselves, this one comes across as a senior statesman, refined and confident without overestimating himself. It is extremely beautiful and I would drink it on its own to savor its incredible complexity and subtly.
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