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08.23.2010

1997 Calera Wine Company "Mills Vineyard" Pinot Noir, Mt. Harlan, CA

calera_mills.jpgThose of you who know me well understand the soft spot I have in my heart for iconoclastic winemakers. The crazier the better, in my book, but at the very least, so steadfastly committed to their idea of what makes for great wine that they're willing to persist in their quest even when everyone else says they are nuts.

And that's exactly what most people said when they spotted Josh Jensen driving up and down California in his beat-up Volkswagen stopping here and there to get out of the car and sprinkle hydrochloric acid on the ground -- even those who were able to figure out what it was he was doing.

Jensen was looking for limestone. And a lot of it. Several million tons, to be exact. It was the secret ingredient that made the great Burgundies of the world what they were, and Jensen wanted to make wine that was just as good.

It was 1971, and Jensen had just finished working two harvests in Burgundy at Domaine de la Romanee Conti, and Domaine Dujac. Thanks to his father and some generous friends, Jensen had been drinking top Burgundies since before he was legally able, and despite an education that might have sent him into academia (Yale undergrad, Masters in Anthropology at Oxford), Jensen was in love with wine, and though his prospects better there than looking for a tenure track position somewhere.

That was before he started looking for several million tons of limestone close to the surface in California (a state with very little of it to begin with). Jensen's challenge was compounded by the fact that he not only needed a lot of limestone, but he needed it in a place with decent weather for grapes (e.g. not Death Valley), and he needed to be able to buy the land.

The wacko winemakers of the world that I love are nothing if not persistent. Eventually Jensen found his limestone, in a place that even thirty years later still feels like the middle of freaking nowhere.

Jensen found an old limestone quarry high in the Gavilan Mountains on the side of a peak named Mount Harlan, about 30 miles south of the town of Hollister. He bought 324 acres, and planted a few acres of Pinot Noir, before he had electricity, running water, or even a proper road to the property. He named his winery Calera, Spanish for lime kiln, the remains of which he found on the property, and eventually restored. The first few years were hard going, but eventually, in 1978, Jensen harvested his first couple of barrels of Pinot Noir and has never looked back.

Over the past three decades, few winemakers in California could possibly compete with Jensen for fidelity to an original vision of what kind of wine they wanted to make. In those three decades, the only concession to modernity that Jensen has allowed is the addition of a mechanical crusher-destemmer to his operation. Apart from that he continues to make Pinot Noir the way he learned to in Burgundy: perfectly ripe, meticulously farmed grapes; whole cluster fermentation with native yeasts in small vats, punched down by hand; aging for at least 16 months, in French oak (of which only about 30% is new) and then bottling without any filtration.

In 1990 Jensen's patch of limestone (and about 7000 acres surrounding it) were granted the status of being an American Viticultural Area, but by then most people who cared about California Pinot Noir already had heard of the winemaker up on the mountain who was making some of the best Pinot Noir to be found outside of Burgundy.

Remarkably, that is still true today. Calera's single vineyard Pinot Noirs are some of the best around, yet more so than any other wine of their caliber, they are reasonably easy to find, and priced within the reach of mere mortals -- something to do with the fact that they don't have the words Sonoma or Napa anywhere on the label.

As further proof of his foresight and vision, Jensen has also long had a deep library program, meaning that older vintage wines are still available to purchase, in case you need to prove to yourself that his wines will last 15 years without blinking an eye.

Jensen often brings along these older vintages to tastings, where lucky folk like myself get a chance to taste them.

If you have not had a chance to taste the single vineyard wines of Calera, you are missing out on some of the most distinctive and characterful Pinot Noirs made in America. I recommend them highly.

Tasting Notes:
Bright ruby and orange in the glass with a bright amber color at the rim, this wine smells delightfully of red apple skin, river mud, and a sort of unspecific potpourri of spices. In the mouth, the wine distinguishes itself with two remarkable characteristics. The first is the sheer muscle of the voluminous tannins that still give a tensile structure to the wine, even as they are suede-soft in their feel against the edges of the mouth and tongue. The second is the bright acidity that still holds in suspension flavors of red apple skin, raisins, dried cherries and cedar. These flavors, poised as they are in very fine balance, linger through the very long finish with notes of cocoa powder.

Food Pairing:
Wines like this are often fun to appreciate on their own, if only to watch them shift and change in the glass with air and time, but if I were trying to find something to eat to complement the wine, I might opt for a classic tea-smoked duck from a little hole in the wall Shanghainese restaurant.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $60

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.

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