Wine is a quest. And making great wine is the quest of a lifetime.
Just ask Josh Jensen, founder of Calera Winery, one of the world’s most renowned producers of pinot noir. In 1974, he purchased a stunning, water-starved, bleak piece of land in the wilds of San Benito, as far off the beaten path as one can possibly get in these parts, precisely because he believed in its potential. It possessed the holy grail of limestone, making him hopeful that he could craft fine pinot noir in the style of Burgundy from this middle earth of heat and stone.
Ask also Christian Pillsbury, who in 2017 rescued a spectacular 230-acre vineyard nearby. The property, most recently called Pietra Santa, has a view of a great uplift of crinkled mountains called the Swanson Bluff, just to the east. It’s a dramatic white cliff of crumpled rock visible from the wind-whipped hillside vineyards that ring the Eden Rift estate.
Pillsbury fell in love with the epic scale, the sweeping views, the eternal calm. The land here, brooding under fog and gleaming in the blaze of sun, rewards the eye with vastness. He called it Eden Rift, being somewhat east of Steinbeck’s fabled Eden of the Salinas Valley, and proximal to the San Andreas fault.
This property was once owned by Almaden Wine Company, one of its many caretakers since it was first planted in 1849. It was also owned by Hiram Walker for a time. The only other winery close by is DeRose, with whom Eden Rift shares a driveway. DeRose has some of the oldest vineyard plantings of cabernet franc and zin in the state, and also a very rare varietal called Cabernet Pfeffer, known for its almost sneeze-inducing black pepperiness.
Accessing great wine is also a quest. You don’t stumble on these wineries in the wilds of San Benito County unless you are looking for the Hollister Hills off-road park and pass it accidentally. Wine tasting here is an intentional pilgrimage.
Eden Rift and Calera share a boundary with the old limestone mine for which Calera was named: it means “limekiln” in Spanish, and that symbol on the Calera label is just that: an old limekiln.
Both wineries make pinot noir their raison d’etre. Both wineries share more than that, though: The winemakers are brothers. The elder, Mike Waller, is at Calera; the younger, Cory, is at Eden Rift. They both have plenty of toys, keeping rivalry at a minimum.
At Eden Rift, visitors can taste daily (11am-4pm), in the classic old Dickinson farmhouse, named for the man who purchased the property in 1906, expanding planted acreage until Prohibition put an end to the party. This vineyard site has continually produced wines for 170 years, and is the oldest planting in San Benito County. When it was planted, the property was then part of Monterey County, and precedes Chalone Vineyard by 70 years.
Browse the historic trove of old photos and tear sheets from the properties’ storied past in the paneled dining room, or just sit outside and drink in the tranquil vineyard setting, surrounded by vines much older than yourself. Something for every taste is available on the menu, with a range of price points, but don’t miss the Pinot Rosé, Terraces Pinot Gris, the Terraces Chardonnay, the Reserve Pinot and the Dickinson Block Zinfandel. Each one, well-crafted by Cory, is exemplary and speaks of place.
Calera, also open daily (11am-4:30pm), provides a different perspective, as you look down from its lofty perch, upon sand dune-like alluvials of white limestone. Climb to the top of the crush pad of this seven-level gravity operated winery and you totally grasp the concept of how winemaking of any scale was done before power and pumps. It all flows naturally down from destemmer to press to tank and barrel
Then there are the caves lined with barrels, some bearing inscriptions of exhausted yet celebratory harvest crews commemorating the vintage, not unlike petroglyphs on a rock wall of a canyon depicting the success of a hunt of a long ago.
The single-vineyard pinots here are the stuff of legend. There’s the ripe red cherry velvet of Jensen, the rhubarb, strawberry, white pepper and autumnal potpourri of Reed, the voluptuous cassis-laden and tannic de Villiers, and the plummy, savory earthiness of Mills. The Mt. Harlan Chardonnay walks a line between stone and tropical, yielding a wine of precision and depth.
This piece of paradise, somewhat east of Eden, lies 15 minutes south of Hollister. Your cell service and GPS will probably peter out, but you’ll know you’re almost there when you see the DeRose tasting room on your right. Take the next right and follow the signs to the house by the palm trees on your right. Just a little over a mile past Eden Rift on Cienega Road, you’ll come upon Calera.
It’s a quest worth making.
Eden Rift Vineyards is located at 10034 Cienega Road in Hollister. For information, visit edenrift.com.
Calera Wine Company is located 11300 Cienega Road in Hollister. For information, visit calerawine.com.