May 2010 Issue of Wines & Vines

Winemaker Interview: Josh Jensen

Calera's founder endorses glass closures and informative labels

by Laurie Daniel

When Josh Jensen picked a site in the Hollister, Calif., area to establish a vineyard, it was for one reason: limestone. After earning a master’s degree in anthropology at Oxford University, Jensen spent a couple of harvests in Burgundy—one at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and one at Domaine Dujac. He began to believe, as the Burgundians do, that limestone is essential to growing world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

After a two-year search, he found a site rich in limestone that also had a suitable climate, and he established Calera Wine Co., which has become particularly well known for its single-vineyard Pinot Noir releases. About three-quarters of the estate vineyard in the Mount Harlan AVA is Pinot, with the remainder planted to Chardonnay, Viognier and a little Aligoté.

Calera is known for its traditional, low-intervention winemaking, using native yeasts, minimal racking and, for much of the Pinot Noir, whole-cluster fermentation. But this traditional winery has recently made a big move into alternative closures, bottling more than 70,000 cases with the Vino-Seal, a closure developed by Alcoa that combines a glass stopper with an inert O-ring.

Wines & Vines: Calera is currently the biggest U.S. customer for the Vino-Seal. Which wines are you using it for, and how did you make the decision to use it?

Josh Jensen: We use it on our two big-volume items—the Central Coast Chardonnay and the Central Coast Pinot Noir—plus the Mount Harlan Cuvée Pinot Noir and the Mount Harlan Viognier.

For at least the past 10 years or more, I’ve been sick and tired of cork taint spoiling our beautiful bottles of wine at whatever percentage people want to guesstimate. Whatever it is, it’s unacceptable. In other consumer product industries, they wouldn’t tolerate 5% or 3% product spoilage. I thought that some geniuses were going to invent the perfect solution.

When I saw the first photo of the Vino-Seal closure, I said, “Yeah, that could be it.” So we immediately contacted the manufacturer and said we wanted to buy some. They said they didn’t have any bottles made yet, so we said, “When you get the bottles ready, you’ve got a customer here.” It actually was about two years after that first conversation that they made some bottles that would take the Vino-Seal closure.

W&V: Why Vino-Seal and not a screwcap?

Jensen: We did a trial with the 2006 vintage of our Mount Harlan Viognier, bottling half of the Viognier with Vino-Seal and the other half with a screwcap. The quality of wine seemed to be equal, but customers said they really preferred the Vino-Seal.

W&V: Has there been any negative reaction from customers?

Jensen: Nothing negative. Believe it or not, we’ve now bottled more than 70,000 cases of wine with Vino-Seal, and we still have not received our first complaint. We have not received a single complaint from any consumer, from any wine shop, any sommelier or restaurant, distributor or any of our importers overseas—which is pretty amazing, because wine people love to complain about things.

W&V: Are there any downsides to the Vino-Seal?

Jensen: The downside is that they just kept on raising the price, and it got to where it was way more expensive than the corks we use for the products we’re closing with it—58 cents versus about 45 cents for cork. We told them they were going to lose us as a customer, so they guaranteed the price through ’09. Now, for this year, they claim they’re going to sell it for 38 cents, because they’re going to start manufacturing it in the U.S.

W&V: What sort of adjustments have you made to your sulfur additions in the wines you bottle with the Vino-Seal?

Jensen: We don’t do a single thing differently. For four years, when we started looking at alternatives, we used screwcaps on our Mount Harlan Viognier. We did half of each batch each year with cork and half with screwcaps, and we did nothing different. We never had any stinky problems, not an iota. We try to always bottle with 30 parts per million of free sulfur. We do that whether it’s cork, or those few years when we tried screwcaps, or with Vino-Seal.

W&V: How have you incorporated it into your bottling line?

Jensen: We have what’s called a semi-automatic bottling line, which means it’s got a conveyor that moves the bottles along from one machine to another. As of now, there are no standard applicators, a machine that would dispense and drop the Vino-Seal glass closure onto the top of the glass bottle as it goes by. So we just hire an extra guy to stand there with hospital gloves on, and he just sets the Vino-Seal closure on top of each bottle as it goes by.

W&V: Are you considering bottling your entire production, including the six single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and the Mount Harlan Chardonnay, with the Vino-Seal?

Jensen: The wines of ours that we know some people age for 20 years or even more, we are not going to go to Vino-Seal for them until and unless we’re really satisfied that our wines will evolve and develop those wonderful aged complexities and character. It may be a few more years of trials and talking to other people and trying to find out what research is available on that subject.

Calera grows rare Aligoté

Calera Wine Co. is one of only a handful of U.S. wineries that produce Aligoté, the second white wine of Burgundy. Why Aligoté?

“I like Aligoté,” says Josh Jensen, Calera’s founder. “It’s a wine that has lovely, high acidity and can have a quite distinctive and pleasant personality and is just a really nice glass of wine. It’s never going to be a great wine that people are going to write poetry about, but it’s an absolutely enjoyable glass of wine to have with your dinner.”

In 2004, Jensen says, he decided to graft over some under-performing Pinot Noir to Aligoté. “Since we were grafting onto 30-year-old vines, I wasn’t sure if it was going to be successful, so we just picked two rows, 160 vines.” If the grafts took, he planned to convert 10 more rows.

The under-performing Pinot, he notes, was in rich soils at the bottom of the hill, so it got more water than the rest of the vines. Jensen decided to stop irrigating that part of the vineyard. “That actually fixed the quality problem,” he says, “so we never did graft over the rest.”

Ultimately, however, he converted a corner of a Chardonnay block, and Calera now has about 320 Aligoté vines. “And with ’09, we finally got over the 100-case mark.”

W&V: Your back labels are remarkably detailed, with information such as tons harvested, Brix at harvest, vine spacing, winemaking data and, for your estate wines, the fact that the vineyard is certified organic. Why did you decide to include so much information?

Jensen: Some people are interested in that, so I felt, “Why not? Let’s give full disclosure.” I’m sure that at least 90% of the people who drink our wines never look at the back label and aren’t interested. The one thing that everybody in the world seems to want to look at is the alcohol number. I just figured that as long as they’re going to look at the alcohol number, let’s give them the total acidity and the case production and the dates of bottling and the dates of harvest and the fact that since our beginning we’ve had natural yeast fermentations, even back when it was way radical and scary-dangerous in the U.S. Some people are really geeky and want to know all that vineyard information, vine spacing, the year the vines were planted and so on. There’s no reason to deprive them of that.

If we just change the date of picking and the date of bottling, for example, we don’t have to resubmit the labels for approval. If we change the core wording or layout, then we do.

W&V: Given the amount of information you’re already providing, have you considered including ingredient labeling?

Jensen: I haven’t, but I do think that the world is going in that direction. I think we’re going to be required to do that before much longer. We’re going to have to start doing it for wines going to the EU. We export a fair amount of wine. For space reasons, we’ll probably have to take some of our other information off the labels. Our basic ingredients are three things: grapes, sulfur dioxide as a preservative, and sometimes—but not always—tartaric acid. So it’s among your shorter lists of ingredients.

W&V: You named your winery Calera, the Spanish word for limekiln, and your label includes an image of an old limekiln you discovered on the property. How did you decide on the name?

Jensen: At the very beginning, I said, “I’m not going to call it Chateau Josh Jensen,” because I thought of poor old Paul Masson, who made high-quality wine up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But then the company that carried his name was sold to other people, and then sold to other people. Now it’s about low-end wines, and poor old Mr. Masson is turning over in his grave. I didn’t want that to happen. I didn’t want to be turning over in my grave for the rest of eternity.

I looked at all sorts of regional and local place names and different languages. Since we have this beautiful, very well-preserved masonry limekiln built in the 19th century on our property, right alongside what is now our Viognier vineyard, I looked at the Spanish, French, Italian, etc. words that mean “limekiln,” and the Spanish word was just a really pretty word, “calera.” Six letters, easy to pronounce.

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