Calera Wine Company produces and bottles a number of varieties of wine, including their widely respected Pinot Noir. Photo: John McKay

This column is probably more along the lines of what many would expect from a wine related column—this one is about a South Valley winery. This winery represents many of the aspects of my past columns, so let’s take a look.

We are fortunate to live in an area with many distinct wine regions nearby—Santa Clara Valley, San Benito County and Santa Cruz being the closest.

John McKay

I would like to look south to San Benito County for a winery which many of you have likely heard about: Calera Wine Company.

Calera Wine Company is known nationally as one of the top five Pinot Noir producing wineries. The founder, Josh Jensen, has been called the “Pioneer of Pinot,” which he certainly was in the U.S. The fact that many vineyards are producing stellar Pinot Noir from clones of his vines is a testament to him.

The story of Calera wines is like a textbook example of searching for the right location with the right conditions needed to make the desired wine. Jensen spent a lot of time in the Burgundy region of France learning about wine and knew what he was looking for, so he later spent two years intensively looking for just the right location up and down the west coast of California. 

The location had to have the right combination of soils, focusing on limestone, and it had to have the right climate, warmish days and cool nights, just like the favorable and influential conditions in Burgundy. If you remember my column about “terroir” you might remember that we have those very characteristics around us. Calera is just a perfect example.

Located in what I always thought could be a blazing hot area, in my mind unsuitable for the delicate Pinot Noir grape, it turns out there were mitigating influences. The vineyards are at an elevation of between 2,200 to 2,500 feet so it’s cooler than the valley floor which roasts me on my motorcycle rides in the beautiful area. The cool ocean breeze kisses the grapes goodnight in their bowl shaped valley to help baby their thin skinned and most difficult to grow selves. Pinot Noir fruit is known as the most finicky and difficult to grow grapes, or at least grow well.

The presence of an old limekiln on Calera Wine Company’s vineyard property proved there was an abundance of limestone in the area. Photo: John McKay

During that West Coast search, Mr. Jensen found a limekiln after which he named the winery; Calera means limekiln in Spanish. It proved there was an abundance of limestone in the area. He bought hundreds of acres in the Mount Harlan area and eventually planted on 85 of them, primarily with Pinot Noir but also chardonnay and viognier (vee-own-yea), but it’s the Pinot that gets the world’s attention.

Another interesting fact is the winery is one of only two in the nation with its own AVA (American Viticultural Area). Remember the last column about wine labels? To be granted an AVA the area must be unique—which this vineyard is. It’s also at the highest elevation of any winery in California. 

There is so much to say about this winery, but I hope I’ve helped you develop enough curiosity to look into Calera a bit more on your own—like how Jensen developed a one of a kind pure gravity fed seven-level winery on a hillside where grapes are crushed at the top, drained down to processing and further down to barrels where they are taken to the 15,000 square foot cave dug into the mountainside for aging. 

So after all that, what’s it like at the winery?

I always enjoy the drive and make it a regular ride on my motorcycle down Cienega Road southwest of Hollister. Along the way you’ll pass DeRose Winery with Eden Rift Vineyards tucked in behind just out of sight. 

San Benito County’s Calera Wine Company is a textbook example of searching for the perfect location to make the desired wine. Photo: John McKay

Heading up the driveway the view opens up and the nearby Diablo Mountain range to the east comes into view. You will get this beautiful view from the outdoor seating area under a canopy of trees. If the weather doesn’t cooperate there’s also indoor wine tasting and sipping. 

There is a charge for wine tasting, which starts at $20 for a very attentive five wine tasting with tours available where you get to see that unique hillside winery and the cave. 

I’m not going to go into details about the wines except to say Calera has been known as one of the top 100 wineries in the U.S. out of over 11,000. That should say something. 

We have a lot of great local wineries that are challenging the Napa quality, and this certainly is one of them. 

On another note, the Wineries of Santa Clara Valley wine association is hosting its second Vine to Wine event at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga on Nov. 4 from 2-6pm. I attended this event last year and it was an incredible showcase of our local wine talent. Save the date and get your tickets ASAP!

Please enjoy our local wineries and all they have to offer. Please do it safely.

John McKay has been working with the local wineries and restaurants for over a decade. Promoting local wines and food has driven McKay, a former city council member, to help establish the Morgan Hill Tourism Alliance and serve on the Board of the Morgan Hill Downtown Association (MHDA). He now serves on the MHDA and Visit Morgan Hill Board of Directors. He can be reached at [email protected]

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