Calera Wine Company’s Mike Waller was the first winemaker interviewed for the Eat, Drink, Savor series and his first question was memorable: “You like wine, right? We had a reporter here before who didn’t like wine.”
It is hard to imagine anyone not thoroughly enjoying the wines Calera produces from its Mt. Harlan vineyards high above the Cienega Valley. Founder Josh Jensen searched for and found the perfect combination of limestone, climate and grape varietals to produce wines that have resulted in Calera consistently mentioned as one of the 100 best wineries in the world, most recently in August 2021.
Waller was named winemaker at Calera by Jensen in 2009 and has carried the responsibility of maintaining the winery’s reputation since Jensen’s retirement in 2017.
“At the start of the pandemic,” Waller said, “we shut the doors for a couple of weeks because we did not know what to expect. But you can’t do that because you have to keep making wine and being sure they are up to par. It was hard to predict demand at first, but with people staying home and not spending money in restaurants, a lot of them went out and bought wine to drink at home.”
As with all the wines we tasted, except the Vin Gris, Calera uses only 100% estate-grown grapes. Waller said that the forest fires in 2020 created concern because of the potential impact of smoke on the grapes.
“We had no idea what we were going to get out of the vineyards or if we were going to have to buy grapes to keep up production,” Waller said. “We were very cautious and sent a lot of grapes, juices, and wines out for analysis that year—but the numbers came back good with no smoke taint.”
Still, Waller proceeded with caution that year.
“We were careful because we just didn’t know,” he said. “We did things a little differently. I brought in the pinot and washed the grapes just in case there was any ash. But all you are doing is washing off the native yeast, so I won’t ever do that again. We found that smoke taint affects the grapes at a certain point in their growing life, but we were so close to picking and had so little smoke that it made me determined just to make wine the way I know how to make it.”
When tasting wines with Waller, he is more interested in describing the complex structures as opposed to grasping at comparisons to exotic tastes and smells.
“I don’t dig deep into wine like that,” he said. “I only have about eight descriptors in my head and I use them over and over and over. I see wine as more of a vehicle. I want to see some tension in the middle of the wine, whether it be like tannin or acid. I want fruit characteristics up on the front of the nose that will continue back. I want to see a wine stretch, I want to see the finish go on for a long time.”
Jensen’s death on June 11 focused the wine world again on the remarkable achievements of Calera in both Jensen’s vision and style of wine production and Waller’s interpretation of the Mt. Harlan vineyards.
As the most challenging days of the pandemic fade and wine aficionados make their way back to Calera to pay respects to Jensen’s memory, Waller is always busy but content.
“I can say that my crew is happy,” he said. “We are making extremely good wines. And things are going very, very well.”
The Wines of Calera Wine Company
2020 Mt. Harlan Chardonnay ($60 – 14.5%) – Aged for 15 months in French oak, the floral aroma leads to subdued fruitiness and crisp mineral intensity. The wine leans toward more tartness than butter, and lemon zest than tropical fruit, which is Waller’s goal. “This is always one of my favorite wines,” Waller said. “This is not the prototypical chardonnay that you see everywhere in California. We are not looking to make a big, buttery, flabby wine; we want a wine that can stand up to time.” Ah, but there is no time like the present for this smooth and relaxed chardonnay; it is accommodating enough to be an excellent dinner wine and complex enough to merit enjoying on its own.
2021 Central Coast Vin Gris of Pinot Noir ($26 – 13.5%) – The grapes for this wine comes from, according to the Calera website, “a prized single vineyard in the Central Coast’s Cienega Valley AVA,” or, as Waller put it, “I bought the fruit from my brother”—who is Cory Waller, winemaker for Eden Rift Vineyards. “For this wine, I am only taking the real free-run juice and I am not pressing it very hard,” Waller said. “Then I put it in a tank and let it ferment at really cold temperatures. It makes it an acid-driven white wine with pinot noir characteristics, along with some red fruit and strawberry.” The wine is nice, light, and not overly sweet, with an apple blossom aroma and a delicately pink color. A beautifully smooth wine, it drifts cleanly away as you drink it and should be served very cold as a refreshing summertime wine.
2019 Mt. Harlan de Villiers Vineyard Pinot Noir ($85 – 14.5%) – It is rated 93 by Wine Spectator. “We have six single-vineyard pinots and Josh wanted to prove that they are all very unique,” said Waller. “De Villiers is one of the younger vineyards here and is on an undulating hill, so it is difficult to predict ripeness. When we harvest it, we do it in four or five different picks. Each pick gets crushed and then ferments on its own.” The aroma bursts out of the glass, and the wine is rich with dark berry tones and light, underplayed tannins that give it a fine structure and just enough backbone. Waller said that de Villiers produces the most fruit prominent of their pinots and that adds to a sense of youth in the brightness of the wine and its easy drinkability “Our long-time Calera fans might put this down for 15 years or so,” said Waller, “but I think the wine always needs to be approachable now.”
2019 Mt. Harlan Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir ($85 – 14.5%) – It is rated 93 by Wine Spectator.
“Pinot noirs are the hardest grape to grow,” said Waller, “but the easiest grape to make wine from. Reed was planted in 1975 and we get a decent crop out of it. For most vineyards, you are looking at three or four tons per acre, but with Reed, it is closer to a ton to a ton-and-a-half.” The quality that comes from the maturity of the vines, in comparison to de Villiers, is very discernible. The aroma is more subdued and subtle and the wine is less fruity, but there is a burst of acid followed by a slow, clean finish. The tannins are slightly more pronounced and the tones of the wine are more plum than dark cherry. This is an appealing, thoughtful wine, something to drink while watching a sunset and contemplating the infinite.
2018 Mt. Harlan Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir ($100 – 14.7%) – It is rated 95 by Wine Enthusiast and 94 by Wine & Spirits. “The Jensen vineyard is shaped like an amphitheater,” Waller said, “so it has all four exposures to the sun. It makes a huge difference when you are going to pick for this wine—it can be a six-week spread.” Jensen is a fruit-forward wine that has a very simple aroma that belies the burst of flavor on your palate, which Waller describes as “surrounding your palate with raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries.” It is a phenomenal wine, one that you experience as much as drink. I found myself closing my eyes while I sipped so I could focus on the revolving tones of this wine that were playing with my taste buds. This wine pays tribute to Josh Jensen—more than any memorial notice possibly could; it is Calera at its finest, produced from one of the world’s great vineyards by a master winemaker.
BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market, for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.