Danielle Burke in Calera's wine cave. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Danielle Burke in Calera's wine cave. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Calera Wine Company’s tasting events attract more than just locals looking for great wine, a beautiful view and some barbecue. The winery is also a magnet for Japanese tourists, reflective of a large percentage of Calera’s sales that come from exports to their country. It is fitting that the very large and unlikely amount of business from Japan has an equally unlikely backstory.

“Our market is 35% Japanese, which is hugely significant,” Burke said. “The Jensen is highly marketed there, and it all started with a manga that had a blind taste test.”

The manga was “Sommelier,” written by Joh Araki and published almost 25 years ago. In an issue published in 1999, the hero of the manga, a crime-solving wine expert named Joe Satake, was faced with two bagged bottles and was charged with deciding which of was a Domaine Romanée-Conti Burgundy, one of the most expensive wines in the world—their 2006 Burgundy, for example, will set you back about $32,000.

Satake was able to identify the wine but remarked that the other bottle, still wrapped in a bag, was even better. When the wine was revealed, it turned out to be a bottle of Calera Mt Harlan Jensen Vineyards Pinot Noir.

“We got an order for one palette,” Burke said, “and it sold right away. So then they ordered two palates, and so on from there. It is amazing. They have an official Calera fan club in Japan, and tourists will bring their Japanese magazines and have Mike Waller, our winemaker, sign them. And they will buy every piece of merchandise we have.” 

Calera founder Josh Jensen, on his visits to Japan, would be treated like a rock star, with lines of people waiting for him to sign bottles of the wine.

“Whenever he went to dinners or tastings there,” Burke said, “they would play the Rocky theme. And last November, the president of the fan club came over for his memorial. It is really awesome that our wine can reach people so far away and have such a great impact. It is definitely historic.”

As the grape harvest approaches and wineries begin to focus more intensely on making wine rather than selling it, Calera’s happy hour will wrap up its happy hour event Sept. 29, which happens from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays.

“We feature some of our newer releases and a lot of our Central Coast varietals,” said Danielle Burke, Calera’s hospitality and sales manager. “There’s food trucks, charcuterie, live music, and wines by the bottle or glass.”

The final two happy hours cap off what has been a summer filled with appearances by Calera at events like the Gabilan Chapter Seneca Wine and Food Tasting held at Swank Farms and the first Del Mar Wine and Food Tasting Festival in San Diego. There have been events at the winery as well, such as the Taste of Calera, where guests had a curated tasting with Calera winemaker Mike Waller. 

“The yearly Seneca event, in particular, is a great cause,” said Burke, who is also on the board of directors of the chapter. “We’ve raised money to start a clinic to check in on the mental health of foster and adopted children, making sure that they’re good, and they have someone to  talk to.”

Calera Wines. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Calera Wines. Photo by Robert Eliason.

2022 Central Coast Vin Gris of Pinot Noir ($28) – “It’s very refreshing, especially in the summertime.” Burke said. “It’s got just a little strawberry kind of thing going on that makes it very popular up here.” Made with 100% whole cluster pressed pinot noir grapes, it has a rich, full-on fruit aroma and a distinct crispness. Burke’s strawberries are there, but so are tones of grapefruit and watermelon. It is a delightful lunch-time wine with nicely balanced acids and minerality, perfect for sipping while nibbling some sharp cheddar cheese.  

2021 Mt. Harlan Chardonnay ($65) –  “This has always been one of the fan favorites here,” Burke said. “It’s more on the dry and fruity side compared to something like a Rombauer.” It’s a very smooth chardonnay, nicely balanced with an oak and lemon aroma, a tingling tinge of green apple acid, lingering passionfruit and a hint of baked bread and sage. This is my favorite kind of chardonnay: bright, buttery, and utterly compelling.

2020 Mt. Harlan Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir ($125) – (94 points Wine Spectator, 96 points Wine Review Online) “This one was definitely a great release,” Burke said. “It is one of our more sought-after wines, and we have a lot of guests who come up here just to purchase this wine.”  This is Calera’s flagship wine, bearing a gorgeous aroma of black raspberry, dark tea, and tobacco. It is stunningly well-rounded and fruit-forward, with balanced notes of strawberry, bay, dried cherries and rhubarb against light tannins and modest acidity. The wine finishes with an elegance that makes you want to immediately sip again. 

2019 Mt Harlan Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir ($85) – Forbes Magazine wine critic Katie Kelly Bell described this wine as being “both decadent and serious at the same time” when she named it as one of the 12 best wines of 2022. It is a stately wine, with restrained notes of oak, sage and pepper gliding over a base of rustic dark cherry, modest tannins and charming minerality. “It does have an earthy tone,” said Burke, “but it has a lightness and airiness to it that gives it a great drinkability.”  If Joe Satake is going to monopolize the Jensen pinot, I would be happy to have this one around. Of the four wines, this is my pick. With a beautiful aroma, an excellent mouthfeel, a swirl of flavor notes that keeps you engaged and a graceful finish, this one is worth keeping around for company. 

Recommendations for future Eat, Drink, Savor articles can be emailed to roberteliason@benitolink.com.

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.