The 4th annual Big Sur Food & Wine festival held November 1 through 4, 2012, offered many a glimpse into what makes winemakers tick.
But none was so insightful as the rare opportunity to sit at the feet of the colorful and often controversial, Josh Jensen of Calera, tasting through 4 vintages of Calera Pinots spanning 18 years, from the Mills and Jensen Vineyards.
Ranked among the most revered Pinot producers in the U.S. if not the world, Calera is a story whose chapters keep getting juicier as the novel unfolds.
Starting with 2009, which is Calera’s current vintage, we worked back in 5-year increments, visiting the 2004, 1999 and 1994 vintages of both the Jensen and Mills vineyards. These two vineyards have decidedly different voices, and although they are both possessed of the same welterweight fighter alacrity and dexterity, they swing very different punches.
The Jensen vineyard, planted in 1975 as a test block of 500 vines, exhibits freight train-like intensity, voluptuous acidity, gorgeous liveliness and a texture of velvety robustness that persists onto the engaging finish. Its core expression across all vintages appeared to be violets, cranberry, licorice, balsamic, gingerbread and mint.
Fearing bogus plant material prevalent at the time, Jensen eschewed nursery budwood and instead harvested cuttings from a vineyard with a field blend of clones imported originally from the Mother Soil of Burgundy. If he knows what the clones are, he’s not saying. He just didn’t want to be taken for a ride.
After all, this was one of two sites he discovered in all of California that had the limestone soils he wanted: an ingredient he felt essential to creating the perfect Pinot Noir. (The other site was the property Henry Cowell, a limestone millionaire, deeded to UC Santa Cruz for construction of the campus.)
Fittingly, “Calera” is the Spanish word for limekiln: the Calera label bears the image of such a kiln found on the property.
As gnarly as the Calera property was, literally in the middle of nowhere, at 2200 ft elevation in the Gabilan Mountains range of San Benito County, he wanted this experiment to work right the first time.
“Gamay could be sold as ‘Pinot Noir’ in those days, and I wanted to make sure I got the real deal,” says Jensen. He later took cuttings from the Jensen vineyard to plant the Mills vineyard in 1984. Even this precaution couldn’t prevent him from unwittingly planting one Chardonnay vine in the “Mother Block” which he used for cuttings for subsequent vineyard plantings. Eventually, he budded all the errant Chardonnay vines over to Pinot.
Given to a more earthy, wild personality, the Mills Pinots posses more brown flavors, including soy, pine, roasted grains, dried fruits and roasted coffee. They proffer that indelible funk that makes a truly head-turning Pinot. Like the Jensen wines, they all soar with the righteous acidity and minerality that comes from high elevation limestone soil that sees little water. In fact, it sees little at all, save the occasional red-tailed hawk flying high overhead.
Of water, Josh says, they have precious little. You could call this place god-forsaken: few angels come to shed their tears. “We water when we have water. With a warming planet and hotter weather, it is going to be even more of a struggle.”
Jensen has been preparing the stalwart vines by trying to give them 75 gallons per year. He waters in 48-hour increments at 1 gallon per hour. This results in deep irrigation, which forces the roots to go very deep. He estimates they’re about 20 to 30 feet by now. He believes this is one reason his wines have gotten less tannic over the years. He once asked a vigneron from Burgundy how deep vine roots go in France, and was told of a cave in the Loire Valley where vine roots were spotted in the ceiling. “The cave was 25 meters down,” says Josh. “That’s 80 feet.”
Jensen is a site purist. He keeps all the vineyard designates strictly separated: he would never add grapes from one estate vineyard to another. “We never ever add Mills to Jensen, or vice-versa,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll add a block or a picking from the Jensen vineyard to the Central Coast designate.”
Of the Jensen vineyard, he says, “This is an overall phenomenal vineyard. It is a very special site.”
Taking site purism to another level, he declares, “A site can’t be improved (by blending). On its own, it can be perfect.”
Some critics would agree, giving Calera Pinots near perfect scores: the 2009 Calera Pinots were recently rated by Parker’s Wine Advocate from a low of 91 points (2010 Central Coast, $30) to 97 pts for Jensen, $73, with DeVilliers ($35) scoring 96+, Ryan ($40) and Reed ($52) both scoring 93, and Mills ($45) and Selleck ($78) both coming in at 95 points. Clearly, there is something teasingly close to perfection about this chalky piece of planet.
The idea of adding another kind of grape – Syrah, perhaps – to Pinot in those lean years, to juice it up, as many do? “Heresy!!” he declares. “Bordeaux is all about blending,” says Jensen. “Pinot is not.” Period.
Josh would like everyone to know that he does not refer to his Pinots as Burgundian in style. No, he only makes his Pinots using Burgundian practices, including gravity flow, little handling, racking only once, native yeast fermentation and general hands-offishness. “We follow Burgundian protocols,” says Jensen. “This is radically different from all other red wines. We ferment as whole clusters with stems.”
When to drink Calera Pinots? Says Josh, wait 12 years after the vintage and go up to 20. Based on this seminar tasting, he’s right on. The 1999’s are glorious and the 1994s are climaxing, the Mills perhaps more rapidly than the Jensens, which typically rack up the highest scores. There are still some ‘99s available. He re-prices them each year, adding $3 per bottle per year.
Fittingly, the Jensen vineyard is named after his father, Stephen. The Selleck vineyard is named for a dentist in San Francisco who first introduced Josh to wine, the Reed vineyard for a family friend and original investor, and the Mills vineyard, for a “working guy” from Hollister who was employed by the mining company that once owned the property home to the Calera vineyard and winery site. The Ryan vineyard is named for Jim Ryan, Calera’s vineyard manager, and de Villiers for the author of “The Heartbreak Grape,” an account of Jensen’s struggle with Pinot at this site.
Jensen suggests he may be done planting vineyards: “I’ve run out of people to name them after.”
Jensen, who admits the 2010 through 2012 vintages have been pretty challenging – he lost 40% of his estate Chardonnay and nearly 30% of his Viognier in 2012 – says he’s certainly concerned about climate change. “With global warming, we get higher sugars but the flavors are just not there. We get to the numbers where we used to pick, but our flavors are herbaceous.” He admits this results in higher alcohols than ever.
Yet, he notes that Hollister, often thought of as hot and dry, is the overall coolest of the 5 cities he’s been tracking for 30 years: Napa, St Helena, Sonoma and Healdsburg. “We are close to the ocean, about 26 miles, and we have the overall lowest day time max and the lowest overnight minimum. We pick our grapes much later than Carneros.”
Site, clones, lack of water, viticulture techniques, gravity feed, limestone, native yeast, whole cluster, French protocol, luck, charm or a smattering of colorful curmudgeon: what creates the unique style that is Calera?
The answer is.. yes. With a slight nod to the always colorful curmudgeon who defied all the odds to set a benchmark for Pinot in California that has rarely, if ever, been surpassed, except by himself.