Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

We had friends over this past Sunday to have dinner and watch the Academy Awards. Between cooking, eating, drinking and conversing, we pretty much missed most of the awards, though we all paused to watch Tom Hooper and Colin Firth graciously accept their well-deserved Oscars for “The Kings Speech.”

Anyway, the slight sting of missing out on what I discovered the next day was a rather tepid program, was replaced by the joy of drinking one of Josh Jensen’s beautiful Calera Pinot Noirs that our guests had brought. They had gone to Sopris Liquor and Wine in Carbondale and asked Johnny Ivansco for a nice, special-occasion wine. As is invariably the case when Johnny gets queried, he responded with a fine selection.

For people who love Pinot Noir, one cannot go wrong with Calera. Josh Jensen is one of the great California winemakers and I have admired both him and his wines for some time. This past April, I had an opportunity to spend some time with Jensen at the Taste of Vail and sample some of his single-vineyard wines, both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and a wonderful dry Rose, a Vin Gris he makes from Pinot Noir grapes.

So around the time when Melissa Leo dropped the F-bomb and we had opened the glass-top closure (all the Calera wines have elegant glass stoppers, an example of Jensen’s obsession with detail) on the 2008 Calera Pinot Noir Central Coast, I began to consider a little of the history that Jensen had shared with us atop Vail Mountain.

Josh Jensen grew up in Northern California and was fortunate to have exposure to some great French wines at an early age. His father, a dentist, appreciated wines and was friendly with Maynard Amerine, a legendary wine researcher who mentored dozens of California’s most significant post-Prohibition winemakers.

Finding his life-long passion at a young age, Jensen went to Yale, where he graduated in the same class as nordic skier and Aspen local Howie Mallory. While Mallory struggled through a career in banking, Jensen took off from New Haven for a stint at Oxford (where he was a member of the crew that won the Oxford-Cambridge race) and then moved to the continent where, among other things, he worked stints at the Burgundy wine estates, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti and Domaine Dujac.

Jensen returned to his native California, obsessed with the concept, no doubt fostered by his experience in Burgundy, that soils make the difference between great wine and any other wine. He drove the Coast looking for land that was dominated by Limestone. No easy task.

But eventually, in 1974, he found his Valhalla, a site 100-or-so miles south of San Francisco, high in the Gavilan Mountains on a peak called Mt. Harlan. He named his winery Calera, the Spanish word for “lime kiln,” a tip of the hat to the history of his site, which 100 years before hosted a commercial lime quarry. So distinctive was the site that in 1990 the area was designated as its own American Viticulture Area called the Mt. Harlan AVA, despite the fact that Calera was the only maker inside its boundary.

His first vintage of Pinot Noir was produced 35 years ago and in the ensuing years there was struggle and hardship, much of which is documented in the aptly titled tome “The Heartbreak Grape: A Journey in Search of the Perfect Pinot Noir” by Marq de Villiers.

But today Jensen and his wines are considered to be among the most unique Pinot Noirs anywhere. The style of his winemaking is definitively French, with the grapes starring and the winemaker’s hand playing a mere supporting role. His quest for perfect soils that mirror the Cote d’Or where he first cut his teeth, some of the world’s most esteemed grapes, the terroir of the California coast and the influence of the Pacific, combine to make Calera’s wines one-and-onlys.

The wine we drank is a blend of grapes from vineyards in four different counties and a dozen or more vineyards. At $24 it is a steal, and Robert Parker awarded the blend 90 points. Parker called it medium- to full-bodied, but I thought the wine was huge for a Pinot Noir. A lingering texture in the mouth, sweet and supple fruit and, best of all, a taste of California in every sip.

On the night of the 83rd Academy Awards, Josh Jensen took the Oscar in my house.