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San Benito - California's hidden wine region
San Benito - California's hidden wine region

If wine lovers know about San Benito County, they probably think it’s a blistering hot region near Gilroy, home of the Gilroy Garlic Festival.

In truth, although it’s only about 16 miles away, much of San Benito County is cooler than much of Napa County.

According to local Agriculture Commissioner Mark Tognazzini,  San Benito ranges from Region I to Region III. The San Juan Valley is like Carneros, Hollister like Yountville and Paicines like Calistoga.

The county is ringed and crisscrossed by mountains including the Gabilán range, immortalized by Salinas’ John Steinbeck in “East of Eden.” Valleys through these ranges channel cold air from the cold Pacific Ocean only 20 or 30 miles away.

Local wine legend Josh Jensen has studied UC Davis temperature records and concludes that Hollister is measurably cooler than St. Helena in daytime highs and nighttime lows.

That means that the area vineyards can successfully grow a wide variety of grapes, from cool-climate pinot noir and gewürztraminer to zinfandel and sangiovese.

Still, San Benito County contains only about 3,000 acres of vineyards and only a handful of wineries. Its present reputation depends primarily on two of them, Calera and Pietra Santa, although some outside wineries use San Benito grapes.

For many years, San Benito vineyards were dominated by Almadén, once one of America’s premium wines. Its legacy lives on in existing vineyards and wineries.

A few miles to the south and east near tiny Paicines is a large remnant of Almadén, a ramshackle winery now owned by Diageo. Grapes from 700 acres of nearby vineyards go into moderately priced Beaulieu Coastal and Sterling Vintners Collection wines.

That winery is not open to the public, and in any case, it has little romantic appeal.

On the other hand, two of San Benito’s wineries do deserve close attention. Both Calera and Pietra Santa are in isolated  Cienega Valley, which is bisected by the San Andreas fault.

Calera Wine Company

The best-known San Benito winery among connoisseurs is Calera Wine Company, which has gained acclaim for its pinot noirs and chardonnays grown in limestone soil high on Mt. Harlan.

Josh Jensen is a native Californian who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, graduated from Yale in 1966 and earned a masters degree in anthropology at Oxford.

After Oxford, he lived in France for several years, becoming fluent in French and learning about French wines during lengthy visits to Bordeaux, Alsace, Champagne and, most significantly, Burgundy.

During that time, he decided to turn his love for Burgundy’s wines into his life’s work, and worked two harvests in Burgundy in 1970 at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and in 1971 at Domain Dujac.

He returned to California in 1971 to start looking for land and made the first vintage of Calera in 1975 with purchased zinfandel grapes.

Jensen’s winemaking mentors in Burgundy insisted that pinot noir and chardonnay had to be grown in limestone-rich soils like those of that region to make great wines. He spent two years searching all over California before buying a parcel with extensive limestone deposits near Mt. Harlan in San Benito County in early 1974. Lying at 2,200 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest and coolest vineyard properties in California.

Limestone was quarried there in the 1800s, and it still contains a well-preserved limekiln, or “calera” in Spanish.

In 1975, Jensen planted 24 acres of pinot noir in three separate parcels. These vineyards produced their first tiny crop in 1978.

He bought 300 acres nearby in 1982, and planted viognier, chardonnay and more  pinot noir as well as a little aligoté, another Burgundian variety.

 In 1977, Jensen bought an old factory on Cienega Road. It lay on a paved road, and had telephone and electrical service.

Calera Wine Company now has 84 acres planted, all on Mt. Harlan, which has its own American Viticultural Area  designation. Many of the vines are planted on their own roots due to the isolation; the limestone may be hostile to phylloxera lice, too.

One problem with the location is water. Jensen has occastionally had to truck it in, a huge expense, even though he has reservoirs to collect winter rains.

Calera’s wines continue to rate among some of California’s best Burgundian varieties, although they’re not easy to find. He also makes some Central Coast pinot noir and chardonnay.

Pietra Santa Winery

Near the Calera winery is Pietra Santa, which lies in its own private valley with only one entrance. Its vineyards were once part of the Almadén empire, as were the buildings now used by DeRose Vineyards, which shares the driveway.

The Pietra Santa estate was first developed in the 1850s by Frenchman Theophile Vache, who recognized the site’s potential and planted vines.

Over the years, other owners planted vines until the Blackburn family bought the property in 2005.

John Blackburn’s family has been farming in the area for almost 50 years, and Phyllis Harris Blackburn was born and raised in the Napa Valley, where she developed a love for the wine country lifestyle.

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The Blackburns primarily grew almonds, but bought the Dunne Ranch vineyard in Hollister. Son Cort (Brick) Blackburn manages the Blackburn Family farming enterprises and handles day-to-day operations.

Now about 130 of the property’s 455 acres of granite and limestone soils are planted; much of the land is too steep.

Many of the blocks were replanted in the 1980s and 30 acres of dramatic terraced hillside vineyards were added. The vines are at 1,200 to 1,800 feet with diverse microclimates that let varieties are different as cabernet sauvignon and dolcetto or pinot grigio and chardonnay thrive. Some of the zinfandel was planted in 1905.

Pietra Santa is also home to 25 acres of olive groves planted with 5,000 trees imported from Pistoia, Italy, and winemaker Alessio Carli also makes olive oil in the impressive Spanish mission-style winery. Although it was built in 1998, it looks as if it could have been built in Mission days and forgotten for two centuries. It has a dramatic belltower and a custom forged bell as well as huge wooden doors.

 Carli has degrees in enology and agronomy and experience in winemaking at Fattoria Il Castagno and the renowned Badia a Coltibuono in Tuscany as well as at Viansa Winery in Sonoma before joining Calera. He makes a variety of wines, including some from his native land.

There are half a dozen other wineries in San Benito County, including DeRose with its large collection of antique cars.

Leal Vineyards is probably the best known winery other than Calera and Pietra Santa. It specializes in Rhône varieties, but also hosts many concerts and weddings.    

The Web site of the San Benito County Winegrower’s Association is www.sbcwine growers.org.

What else is in San Benito County?

The major attractions of San Benito County, the mission at San Juan Bautista and the wineries, are just a short detour off highway 100 on the way to Monterey or south.    

Hollister is a pleasant small city that, like most American towns, sold its soul to shopping malls. It’s trying to redevelop its attractive but disused downtown with restaurants, entertainment and tourist attractions.

The town is still best know as the site of the motorcycle rumple in 1947 that was fictionalized in Marlon Brando’s seminal 1953 hit, “The Wild Ones.” The town has canceled its former celebration of the event, but motorcyclists still descend on the town each Fourth of July weekend.

And who can forget the scenes in the belltower of the old Mission San Juan Bautista in the Hitchcock’s classic “Vertigo?”  Although the tower was a fabrication for the film, the old mission is still worth a visit, as is the quiet town with its great old California Mexican food.  

And where would you stay if you visit? A hint: Monterey is 40 miles away.

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