Eight miles southeast of the beautifully restored Mission San Juan Bautista, country roads wind upward through the Cienega Valley to the benchland wineries of the Gavilan Mountain range. The first vineyards were planted here in the 1880s, and William Palmtag, then mayor of nearby Hollister, became widely known for medals that his wines won in Europe.
Over the decades, the Palmtag vineyard had a number of owners, including Prof. Frederic Bioletti, the famed viticulturist of the University of California during the first decade of this century, and, later on, after the repeal of Prohibition, Edwin Valliant, who made some of the finest Riesling wines in the state. Unfortunately, Palmtag, without realizing the potential perils of his decision, had built his Cienega Valley cellar astride the San Andreas Fault; a deep cleft in the concrete floor has widened after every tremor. Not only that, but according to historian Leon Adams, a few years ago, when Almaden still owned the vineyard, a mild temblor jolted a tank off balance and 8,000 gallons of red wine stained the ground. Alas, in the current reshuffle of Almaden properties, the old vineyard plot in the Cienega Valley is going untended.
Higher up the valley road is the small but distinguished Calera Wine Co. winery ( calera is Spanish for lime kiln ), established by Josh Jensen in 1974. Jensen, an anthropologist out of Yale and Oxford, selected the 2,200-foot elevation as the site for his vineyard because of the presence of limestone, which he deemed essential for the low-yielding Burgundian Pinot Noir vines he was about to plant
in an almost Herculean pursuit of excellence.
For gravity-flow handling of the temperamental Pinot Noir wines, Jensen adapted the concrete-buttressed walls of an abandoned rock-crushing plant, which today is an imposing, four-story, tiered winery. The building looks across the valley to the oak-covered Diablo Mountains in the distance.
Last April, this charming site was the scene of a luncheon and wine tasting by 28 fairly sophisticated travelers--my students. The luncheon, prepared by local catering chef Jon Kaski, was created to set off the Calera 1984 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay. The wine elicited passionate praise. Every drop from the frequently refilled glasses evoked rapturous comments. Golden, diamond-bright, fragrant of both oak and fruit, it was reminiscent of the splendid Burgundian Montrachet that Dumas said should be drunk "bareheaded and kneeling." Happily, it is available at a modest $11.25, and with normal cellar storage, it will keep--and improve--for at least three or four years.
I asked wine maker Steve Doerner, Jensen's young co-worker since the beginnings of the vineyard, for the full history of this buttery-rich Chardonnay. Fully ripened Santa Barbara grapes were brought to the site and crushed, the nectar going into one- and two-year Francois Freres French oak barrels for fermentation with native yeasts--a practice that, although common in France, is considered slightly risky here. After the fermentation had subsided somewhat, the must was inoculated with bacteria for malolactic formulation in the barrels. (That is a method in which the often-sharp malic acid is converted to the lesser, more beguiling lactic acid.) In the process, a natural molecular by-product, diacetyl, is formed; that is the same substance found naturally in butter, one reportedly used to give margarine that coveted butter taste. The wine then spent nine months in oak before being fined with bentonite (powdered clay mined in Wyoming) and bottled.
The world of wine lovers and wine makers is divided in its opinion about the use of malolactic fermentation for white wines (the practice is universal for red wines). Some believe that it is unnecessary, particularly in warmer areas such as the central Napa Valley where higher acidities are not prevalent. Some say it diminishes the fruitiness of the wine, but there are those fans to whom ML spells the most butterscotch-rich Chardonnays. This Calera 1984 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay is just such a wine.