5 Ways Calera Wines Remain Exceptional

 

In August, 2017, after reading the daily wine news headline announcing that Calera, one my favorite wineries followed since day one, was bought by a big company, my gut feeling was, ‘“oh crap, another one bites the dust.” 

The all-too familiar and disturbing pattern is that invariably about a year after the acquisition of a small, quality-minded winery, production will be ramped up, key people depart, and what’s left is yet another brand. Only the name will be the same.

 It happened to St. Clement in Napa which is now home to Faust, and St.Clement is just another brand discounted at Trader Joe’s. Matanzas Creek, another favorite, is now stacked high with other Jackson Family brands at many Safeway Stores. I could list a dozen or more once proud family wineries than have been converted into big volume corporate brands. 

But to move on. There were two good reasons why Calera might not follow that pattern.

First, Josh Jensen who founded Calera in 1972 never went with the crowd, always took the road less travelled.  In 1972 he focused on Pinot Noir, not Cabernet, explored regions to the South, not Napa and Sonoma, and looked for vineyards with special soils, not cool climates.

Secondly, Calera’s new owners, TSG Consumer Partners, control the Duckhorn Wine Company and they quietly fine-tuned Goldeneye after taking it over. Today, as part of the Duckhorn portfolio, Goldeneye is a Pinot Noir superstar.

So in 2020, I’m happy to report Calera is another rare exception and appears to be in very good hands.

Tasting the 2007 Calera Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir alongside the 2016 Calera Ryan Vineyard made a strong case even stronger.

For more, check out the wine club membership at http://www.calerawine.com

Brief Background

In 1972 Josh Jensen who worked a few harvests in Burgundy returned to locate a vineyard site in California that first and foremost had soils rich in limestone and chalk that distinguish the best Burgundy vineyards.

This was a time when Pinot fanatics were rare and those few looked for cooler sites in Sonoma, Carneros, Monterey and Oregon.  Trust me, soil types were only of passing interests to other newcomers to the wine scene throughout the 70s.  

Yes, after phylloxera hit in the 80s, soil considerations became a hot topic. But Jensen and his soil emphasis were way ahead of the times.

The search eventually led Jensen to Hollister where he developed 85 acres on what’s now known as Mt. Harlan. Where is Hollister? Wow, that would be a great question on Sommelier tests. And I’d bet most candidates would flunk.

Hint: it is south of San Jose, east of Gilroy in San Benito County. Hollister is the road to nowhere in the Central Coast. From another direction, Mt Harlan is located in the Gavilan Mountains 25 miles east of Monterey Bay. 

Or in other words: remote and in the middle of nowhere. You approach the area on Cienega Valley Road, so poor the potholes have potholes and you suspect your GPS is messing with you.

The barren, remote mountain site had just what Jensen wanted: limestone soils and ideal climate. A nearby quarry sells dolomite or limestone to many North Coast wineries.  Calera means limekiln in Spanish, and the winery is built into the hillside.

At an average elevation of 2,200 feet it is among the highest and coolest vineyard sites in California.  Cooler than the Carneros region by 5-6 degrees.

Three vineyards were developed in 1975. Today, Calera consists of 6 separate vineyard blocks, each with unique growing conditions and each bottled as a vineyard designated Pinot.  

Chardonnay also grows here and there is a 6-acre block planted to Viognier. Looking back, it was Calera’s early vintages of Viognier that made me hold out great hope for Viognier in California. Oh well!

Back to Calera Pinot Noir Tasted in February 2020:

The 2007 Calera Jensen, made from vines planted in 1975, was showing beautiful maturity and grace, not old age. Smooth, silky, and harmonious with subtle strawberry, lavender, earthy notes. At a peak, but can still be cellared. 

Side notes: this was one of the first vineyards planted, and 07 was the first vintage for Mike Waller at Calera.

The 2016 Calera Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir gradually unfolds and changes in the glass. It begins with ripe fruit and spice, shows a little earthiness and leather, then round, fine grained tannins balanced by acidity, all leading to a long finish. Powerful, yet polished…hallmarks of classic Pinot. 

Sidenote: Ryan was planted in 1998 and enjoys the highest elevation at 2, 500 feet.

5 Reasons why Calera will remain a Rock

  1. The 6 Pinot vineyards are old, well established and cant be expanded.
  2. Mike Waller, who grew up in Hollister, is now the winemaker after serving as assistant winemaker with Josh Jensen.
  3. Mike’s brother, Cory is now the winemaker at Eden Rift, the up and coming Pinot Noir winery a mile away. The competition is healthy.
  4. The winery, a renovated rock crushing facility is built into the hillside and works by gravity flow.
  5. The vineyards and winery are very close to the San Andreas faultline. Yes, earthquakes. Nobody wants to shake things up there.

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