Thursday, August 19, 2010

Food Night Field Trip - Calera, part 2

By now, I’m sure you’ve noticed that the interweb is absolutely, positively buzzing about Food Night’s Field Trip. We are even linked to on’s blog roll. Thanks, heavytable! On the off chance you are a new Food Night reader… I offer you parts one, two, and three of our Field Trip extravaganza to get you caught up as we resume our blogcast, already in progress from….

11300 CIENEGA ROAD, HOLLISTER, CA – We are here at Calera, Food Night’s wine Mecca. While we sample the day's offerings, we are roaming all over the Calera Campus, like teenagers in a comic book store, or wolves in a henhouse… not sure which is a more apt analogy. As we roam, we are bombarded with images of mountains and boxes and stacks upon stacks of Calera…

… not to mention treasures like this… a case of 1990 Jensen Pinot Noir…

It’s a sensory overload of Calera!!! I cannot even begin to imagine the Food Night we could throw down here in Calera’s warehouse. And speaking of aged Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir, about a year ago, Josh Jensen came to Minnesota for a tasting in Bloomington, which your Food Night correspondents happily (and obviously) attended. While there, we got a sip of 1992 Jensen out of a magnum. And um, yeah, that wine was preposterously good. A Top 5 wine of all time, for yours truly. The only thing I can compare it to… Leroy. The uber-Leroys that is, not the simple little Cotes du Beaune Villages discussed previously on these pages.

Anyway, I don’t even remember how this happened, if everyone gets this treatment, or if you have to practically foam at the mouth and act like 10 year olds at Disneyland for the first time… but eventually our very gracious and PATIENT hostess Lindsay was leading us up a staircase to Calera’s barrel rooms. I don’t know if there is a more technical term, but I’m going with “barrel rooms”. Some of the barrels Calera uses are brand new…

… while some barrels are older…

But all are made of French Oak, which imparts more subtle and gentle aromas/flavors/textures to the wine than does American Oak. And of course the older the barrel the softer still the impact it has on juice it contains. I believe Calera keeps barrels around for a max of 4 years, before they are put out to pasture in the great “barrel room” in the sky. There is certainly a TON of expertise that goes into blending wines from barrels of various oak volumes, and Calera does it brilliantly.

This first barrel room was fairly dark and even eerie feeling. Water sprayed/dripped from the ceiling in an effort to… I have no idea but it was certainly a moist environment.

Then there was barrel room #2, or so I’m calling it, where we saw cool stuff like this… remember this…

What do you think that is? Wow, why yes, that’s correct, it IS the inspiration for the tattoo I just got! How did you know?! But, it is ALSO a close-up of the absolute coolest door in the history of the world…

How neat is that??!! If you can't tell, the doors are like 13 feet tall... roughly. Don't they look like something out of a Medieval Castle?! Or from Lord of the Rings, like these are doors that keep the Orcs out. But actually, these doors lead up to the unloading zone, which I believe is where grapes picked up on Mt. Harlan arrive for processing. I could be wrong. If anyone who actually knows what they are talking about is reading… BY ALL MEANS… chime in. I’m just your host here, I don’t claim to know much of anything about anything*.

* Except for scallops. I can sear you a helluva nice scallop.

Next, we went to a pretty special place... Calera's Wine Cellar. Residing here are things so completely and utterly awesome that my head nearly exploded. Things like the first* Reed Pinot Noir ever bottled…

*At least I'm pretty sure 1978 was the first year the Reed was bottled...

And these “Leaking” bottles of 1996 Selleck Pinot Noir, that all of us would have GLADLY taken off the premises so as to prevent them from leaking all over anything but our mouths…

And even THIS…

A magnum of 1980 Calera Zinfandel?!??! Are you kidding me?! And speaking of Calera Zin, remember that one additional bottle I said we tasted at the end of the last post… YEP. We got to try a bottle of 1979 (NINETEEN SEVENTY NINE!!) Calera Zin!

I was absolutely shocked at how disparate the aroma and flavor of the wine were. The nose was almost… how do I say this delicately… the nose smelled nearly rotten. Decaying organic matter was all I could come up with for a description.* My expectations were immediately reduced to virtually nothing as I smelled this seemingly off-putting wine.

*”Decaying organic matter.” Not something you often see on a wine’s label as a selling point.

But then we tasted it, and of COURSE it was spectacular. Smooth, silky, and still totally alive. Absolutely astonishing. I don’t even know how to process a 1979 Zinfandel… but that just happened!

Finally, we purchased some wine (Pinot Noirs – 1996 and 2000 Mills, and 2002 Jensen), some t-shirts, and scooped up some dirt from these sacred grounds to take home as a memento. OK – I made that last part up, but I would have likely done so had I thought of it at the time. And you think I’m kidding…

Well, I suppose that about wraps up our visit to Calera. As we drove away, we couldn’t help but think… where do we go from here? We thought; "We are going to be in the Napa Valley all day tomorrow, but, how can we POSSIBLY top a day that featured a Monte Bello tasting, AND a tasting at Calera?" It’s like Usain Bolt running the 100m in like 2.73 seconds or whatever he does… that's simply as good as running gets. Monte Bello and Calera in one day? That's as good as wine tasting gets in America.

As we navigated our way north back toward San Francisco, we contemplated just cancelling all our appointments the next day and flying home a day early. Actually no, that is totally false, we did not consider that at all. What we DID do was stop by K&L Wines near Palo Alto, where we secured a little something to enjoy with dinner at the Market Bar in San Fran (the view from Market Bar is pictured above)...

The wine we bought at K&L was a 1992 Howell Mountain Dunn Cabernet. That's it above, along with one of the best Chardonnays you will ever have, from Navarro Vineyards. If there is a better pairing than Drake's Bay oysters and that Navarro Chardonnay... I'm not aware of it. Also pictured is the 1996 Mills we bought at Calera, which went unopened due to our relatively brief stay at Market Bar (you’ll understand why it was a brief stay in a moment). I won’t belabor the details of the Dunn other than to say 1). Dunn is atop the destination list for the next trip to Napa, and 2). all three of us thought the Dunn was EASILY in the top 3 wines we tried on the entire trip. Spectacular stuff, even out of these preposterously tiny B.S. wine glasses they had at the Market Bar.

Apparently the owner of Market Bar decreed that all wine and spirits (and maybe even beer, I’m not sure) shall be consumed out of these thick little glasses with 1 inch stems and small bowls. Mind you, this is a pretty nice restaurant. Maybe not this nice...

... but pretty dang nice. And as the manager of the restaurant was relaying this bit of flawed glassware logic to us, he was actually simultaneously asking us to LEAVE because we had stayed until the preposterously late hour of……….10pm. I kid you not. Anyway, my inner wine-snob may be showing a bit here, but it was borderline criminal to drink the Dunn out of these glasses. Imbibing from these “stems” was like trying to listen to a live performance by Miles Davis... underwater. The fact that the Dunn was STILL so spectacular blows my mind to this day. Dunn makes two wines… the Howell Mountain and the Napa Valley. The Howell Mountain is the top label, and contains 100% fruit from Howell Mountain. The Napa Valley label contains up to 15% fruit from the Napa Valley floor, the rest from Howell Mountain. Do yourself a favor, and get some. Post haste.

In any case... wow, Calera. We actually went to Calera! Here's the proof...

Thank you to Lindsay, Dora, and to Josh Jensen and every single person at Calera. There is nothing else like Calera in this country.

Up Next; Food Night Field Trip A.C.*

*After Calera. And yes – it was worth it. Very much so, in fact.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Food Night Field Trip - Calera

If you missed part1 or part2 of Food Night Field Trip, please consider checking out part1 here and part2 here. And understand that what follows here is a VERY special post for Food Night. Kind of like in the 80’s when you’d hear TV promos for “very special episodes” of your favorite sitcoms. Like this; “On a very special episode of ‘Silver Spoons’, Ricky gets caught lying… “, or this; “On a very special episode of ‘Diff’rent Strokes’, Arnold asks Kimberly what she is talkin’ ‘bout”. You get the idea. Anyway, let’s get the ball rolling from…

11300 CIENEGA ROAD, HOLLISTER, CACalera. We made it. We awoke Friday morning and thought “Holy Shizzle Sticks, we are actually going to go to Calera today”. How can I even begin to convey the anticipation? The sense of “This is actually going to happen. We are actually going to go to Calera."

Allow me to attempt an analogy, to try and lend some perspective. Imagine you are a hopelessly devoted Red Sox fan… but you live in Nebraska. You DVR all their games. You collect memorabilia. You wear Sox gear, are rote on the rich history of the franchise, and generally spend an irrational amount of your free time obsessing ABOUT, thinking OF, and spending your cash ON all things Red Sox. But you’ve never been to Fenway Park. And then, an opportunity presents itself to go to Boston... so, you go. You get on a plane, and the anticipation begins. You land in Boston. You get off the plane, trying to keep calm, trying to retain some sense of composure. After all, you are thirty-sizjheuhhhh years old, come now! It’s just a baseball game, a baseball park, bricks, mortar, grass… but no, there is history there. There is depth. Tradition. Excellence. It’s more than just a physical space, or an address. The "contents", if you will, of that building have made your life better, have given you untold hours and enjoyment.

So you climb in a cab, and as you ride, your mind races as you realize your previously held perspectives and visions and assumptions are going to get a massive dose of REALITY. From now on, you won't have to imagine what Fenway is like anymore. You'll have actual, tangible experience to draw from. It’s really happening, and you don’t know what to expect. Have you built the experience up in your mind to a point where your fantasy and reality cannot possibly intersect? Will you be underwhelmed? Overwhelmed? Plain-old-whelmed? Who knows. You just know, you literally can barely sit still as you anticipate that first glimpse of the Green Monster…

So yeah, going to Calera is a pretty big deal to Food Night. We’ve smelled and tasted and ranted and raved and hooted and hollered and recommended and re-recommended and sought out and pondered and reminisced about dozens of different bottles of Calera’s wines. It is hard to capture exactly how excited three grown men* were as we pulled into the gravel parking lot next to the warehouse. Calera is our Fenway Park, so to speak. It has history. Depth. Tradition. Excellence. Calera is, in our opinion, the pinnacle of what can be achieved in wine in this country.

* "Grown men"... as in, men that are all grows up. Yeah, like that.

To visit Calera, one needs to make a point of doing so. That is to say, you aren’t going to happen upon Calera on your way to… pretty much anything else. Unless perhaps you are trying to get lost. Because it seemed to me we were about a stone's throw away from downtown "Lost" before we pulled up Calera's driveway. Check out the view out the front door at Calera

Looks like something out of an old Clint Eastwood Western, right?!? Calera is indeed a destination, and one absolutely worth seeking out. Before we dive into the tasting deets

… we should briefly go back to the start, where this fascination with Calera began. It was one bottle… the 2001 Calera Selleck Pinot Noir. I believe it was Alex, Tyler and Tom that opened it one night. So utterly profound was this one bottle of wine, that in subsequent weeks we began buying up and opening others. Without fail, each new bottle we tried was absolutely astonishing in its own way. But all of them, every one (of the pinot noirs, that is), had that “Calera perfume”. I would say without exaggeration that any of the Food Night fellas could pick out a Calera pinot noir via smell alone. Recently, I had the 2004 Calera Central Coast Pinot Noir out of a lowball glass in a hotel room, and even THEN I could easily pick out that unmistakable aroma.*

* I'm not even going to attempt to describe the Calera smell, as it defies my powers of description. Just buy some Calera, and see for yourself.

Calera. Even out of a hotel lowball glass. Josh Jensen, if you are reading, feel free to us that little beauty in future marketing campaigns.

One final (I promise) quick point before we get to the bottles we tasted. Without oversimplifying things too much, Calera’s wines can be divided into wines produced from grapes grown on their vineyard sites on Mt. Harlan, and wines produced from grapes purchased from other growers in the Central Coast Region of California. The Mt. Harlan wines are Calera’s top shelf offerings, while the Central Coast wines are a more cost effective (and still fabulously delicious) alternative to the singular Mt. Harlan offerings.

So, the tasting. Let’s begin before we run out of bandwidth. You’ll notice right away from the roster above that the world’s greatest Rosé was in play. I have to stress to you… it is soooooo faaaaaaar superior to any other Rosé any of us have ever had. The level of richness, the perfect balance of subtle sweetness, crisp acidity, bright fresh fruit flavors, and lush, creamy mouth-feel are simply unheard of in other Rosés. It is a wine that is at home by itself, and with virtually any cuisine you could think of.

Before writing this, I had no idea why Calera called their Rose “Vin Gris”. For you non-link-clickers… here is the most interesting nugget from that link; “Producing a small volume of Vin gris (or rosé) can also be used as a technique to improve Pinot noir. Removing some clear juice increases the concentration of colour and flavour compounds from the skins in the remaining juice intended for making red wine.” Makes total sense, right? We’ve all had Pinot Noir that tastes… to be blunt… watered down. Well, what if after crushing pinot noir grapes, some of the clear juice is removed from contact with the skins. Strike the right balance, and I would assume you have not only improved the richness and concentration of your red wine juice, but you also have a killer Rosé to boot. Obviously I’m oversimplifying here a bit, and generally have no idea what I'm talking about since I'm not, you know, a winemaker. But I think you get the idea.

Moving on, also tasted were two Central Coast white wines; the 2008 Chardonnay and the 2009 Viognier. At the risk of sounding repetitive, Calera’s Mt. Harlan versions of these two wines are easily and securely among the top chardonnays and viogniers we’ve ever had. I would say the Mt. Harlan Viognier is EASILY the best viognier we’ve ever had, and the chardonnay is definitely in the running in that race as well. And get this… they both retail for under $30!!! That’s INSANE for wines of this quality. Yet another reason to love Calera, the extraordinary price the value ratio.

The Central Coast whites we tried were “baby” versions of their Mt. Harlan parental units. Pleasures to drink, and at roughly $16/bottle, absolutely incredible values.

And now, the Pinot Noirs. First up was the 2008 Central Coast Pinot Noir, which was delicious, but perhaps not as “Calera-like” as the 2004 I had in that hotel room. Who knows why it was not as Calera-like, and frankly who cares, it was still fabulous. Then we moved into the Mt. Harlan single vineyard pinot noirs, beginning with the newest vineyard site, the de Villiers. This 2007 is the very first bottling of the de Villiers, and I believe we were told the grapes from this vineyard had previously been used in the Central Coast cuvee. What a treat it was to be able to taste the first edition of what will surely be another classic label.

Next was the 2007 Ryan, which was more restrained, subtle and softer than some of the blockbuster Mills and Selleck Pinot Noirs your Food Night Fellas have come to admire so much. This Ryan is certainly a great wine, and adds diversity to the Mt. Harlan offerings.

Finally, we got a splash of the 2002 Mills. Ho. Lee. Cow. This wine had absolutely incredible funky, earthy, organic notes exploding out of the glass (in addition to that special Calera perfume), to go along with lush pinot noir sophistication on the palate. All kinds of non-fruit things happening in that bottle – we could have lingered all day and still not gotten to the bottom of every inch of intricacy this wine had to offer. One of the best pinot noirs I have had, no question.

Finally, there was the 2006 Dessert Viognier, a wine I didn’t even know Calera made. And of course, it was all you’d expect… a near perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. You know how some dessert wines you have leave you practically licking a film of sugary residue off your lips? Not this one. Lots of concentrated viognier flavors like melon and citrus, without the sticky sweet finish, yet retaining the fuller texture that perhaps you would expect in an “after dinner” libation. Brilliant.

There was one more wine we tried, but that will have to wait for the second part* of this Calera posting. The mere EXISTENCE of this wine at Calera blew us out of the water. What was it? The answer, and glimpses “Behind the Scenes” at Calera are coming up next.

* You didn't really think I could pack a two hour visit to Calera into one post, did you?

So don't wander off. From the looks of the landscape out here, you might get lost and run into these fellas. And that wouldn't be good, but rather bad... or even ugly.