Calera Wine Company
From modest beginnings, Calera's wines have increased in statue and garnered practically every award possible
It is entirely safe to say that the San Benito Valley’s Calera Winery can be correctly categorized as the most European of California wineries. This statement is backed up by the following undisputable facts.
Calera took shape more than thirty years ago when its adventuresome young owner Josh Jensen finally decided on a parcel of land that fit his needs. The land was located high in the Gabilan Mountains of California’s San Benito County, some ten miles from the town of Hollister and almost equidistant from the cities of Salinas and Gilroy. The area is also famous as the immediate neighborhood of the infamous San Andreas Fault.
That particular site was attractive to Jensen due to the fact that his previous training in the wine business in Europe (mostly France) had shown him that France’s best wines were grown in limestone soil, a venue where the plants flourished and produced excellent fruit. Since his return to his native California two years earlier, Jensen had set out to locate a piece of property that compared favorably to the type of soil he had experienced in France.
“Since France is comprised of about 96% limestone,” Jensen recently related, “finding good vineyard locations there was quite easy. The soil was a given and the other salient factors in grape growing became more important. But the United States is quite a different matter. Only 3% of this country has a limestone base and is therefore a really good location for vines.”
Jensen enlisted the help of two geologists from the U.S. Bureau of Mines and after two years of searching settled on the property above Hollister. His first 500 Pinot Noir vines were planted in 1974, “mostly to see if they would live through the winter.”
Results the following year pointed to a successful growing environment and another 24 acres were immediately planted. In the meantime, Jensen bought some quality Zinfandel and released the first Calera Wine Company wines in 1978. These included 1,000 cases of Zinfandel and 25 cases each of vineyard-designated Pinot Noir vineyards.
From that modest beginning, Calera’s wines have increased in statue and garnered practically every award possible. Calera has grown to around 30,000 cases annually, and plans to remain at the present level for the foreseeable future. The winery is located on a 100-acre parcel on Cienega Road, halfway between the vineyards location and Hollister itself. Its construction has occupied the better part of the past two and one-half decades. The finished complex is a truly state-of-the-art facility with a marvelous German grape press and an Italian bottling line that adds a further degree of European ambiance to Calera.
In 1982, Calera was honored with a pair of awards that Jensen feels “put us over the top and gave us a place on the national map.” Since that time, Calera has not looked back. Calera and Jensen have always been regarded as icons in the development of the Central Coast Region for locating in an area that was always considered too “hot” for producing really top caliber varietals.
Jensen points with pride to a study he commissioned that compared his location’s temperatures to those in the cities of Napa, Sonoma, St. Helena and Healdsburg. His property received the coldest daytime maxima and coolest nighttime minima of the five areas, thereby dispelling the aforementioned fears about the San Benito area.
“Most of the people who express concerns about our temperatures are those who have never been here,” he added. “Our vines average around 2200 feet above sea level, and that ranks us among the highest elevated vines in the entire country. Once the doubters are able to sit down and study the figures, they see what we are able to do regarding our vines.”
Calera’s wines are found in the finest shops and restaurants throughout the country and also in fifteen foreign countries, but not in Jensen’s favorite country, France. “Why would anyone want to waste their time trying to get their wines in France,” he explained. “France is one country that produces the best possible varietals. The make the best Pinot Noir (Burgundy), best Cabernet Sauvignon (Bordeaux), and best sparkling wine (Champagne). They can get by fine without a bottle from any other country. I’d rather utilize my time and efforts where it makes more sense.”
Calera is now and has always been a well-perceived and fully implemented concept that has proved wildly successful.
Josh Jensen - Proprietor
Now a youngish 60, Josh Jensen has lost little of the vital spark and vivacity that has highlighted his entire career. An East Bay native from the city of Orinda, he recalls being involved in wine from the age of five.
‘My Dad was a dentist and one of his friends was another dentist named George Selleck. Dr. Selleck was an ardent gastronomist and avid wine collector for most of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. When he came to dinner he would always bring some big guns with him. I remember him bringing La Tache, Cheval Blanc and a host of others. By the time I was a teen, he would bring wines to quiz me on. I guess a lot of his expertise rubbed off on me and I was bit by the good old wine bug.” Jensen received his undergraduate degree (in history) from Yale and went abroad to Oxford to pursue a post-graduate degree. It was in England that his passion for wines really reached fruition.
‘We would have wine with practically every meal and everyone seemed so well informed,” he related. ‘I got caught up in the spirit of wine.” Upon completion of his studies in 1970, Josh was able to secure employment with legendary Burgundian negotiant Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and equally revered Château Grillet in the Rhône Valley. When he returned to California in 1971, the seed of his plan for a French-style growing environment was firmly planted. He searched for a limestone based property and finally named the spot he selected Calera, Spanish for limekiln. His first task on his new property was to honor his former mentor George Selleck whom he considered a true wine titan by naming his first vineyard for his long time family friend. In the succeeding years, wines from Calera’s now famous Selleck Vineyard have won numerous medals and great critical acclaim. In the ensuring years, Josh Jensen has held steadfast to his principles and continued to produce the most French-styled wines found in the Central Coast area. He has allowed himself the luxury of planting another of his beloved French varietals, Viognier, a tribute to his time spent at Château Grillet. But his main passion is still reserved for the oft-maligned Pinot Noir, the grape he refers to as ‘the especially” varietal grape.
‘Whenever people describe a problem with either a grape or a particular growing situation, they always say, ‘especially the Pinot Noir’,” he chuckled. ‘I’ve always had a great fondness for this grape, ever since I first worked the harvest at Romanee-Conti. I’ve seen the levels the wines can achieve and I’ve always stood in awe of its results.” It is a matter of record that his peers have often heralded Josh Jensen’s own Calera Pinot Noirs’, but one particular accolade stands out in Jensen’s memory.
‘In 2003, I was invited to go to France and participate in what is called the Tour de Vignerons. This is multi-day a biking event that many of the greatest winemakers in France participate in. We pedal some 50 miles each day and then finish each evening with a wonderful dinner. Each of the participants is invited to bring along either two bottles or one magnum of his best wine and the wine is drunk with the evening’s meal. You can just imagine the quality and scope of the wines that are tasted. The selection is truly among the greatest in the world. When my wines were brought out for the evening, there was great apprehension at the table because of the fact that mine were the only American wines at the event. The wines went around the tables and I noticed that the tables had become hushed. After a bit, someone broke the silence and everyone began applauding. I will admit it was a most wonderful and exciting experience for me.” There is little left for Josh Jensen to accomplish at Calera, save the maintaining of the quality standards he had already achieved. He intends to eventually reach an even basis of production for his Mt. Harlan Appellation wines along with the winery’s Central Coast designates. Jensen figures that process will take another three years to complete.
So far none of Josh’s three children have indicated an interest in continuing his work at the winery. That’s okay for the present time with Josh Jensen, who considers the matter a bridge he will cross at its proper time. Would that we could all view our future so placidly.