The curious story of Calera Winery and Comic Books

This is one of my favorite tales in the world of wine, and one that many people do not know. It’s a story of marketing, spies, superheroes, and comic books.

Josh Jensen has graced the cover of Wine Spectator and has been called one of the greatest Pinot and Chardonnay producers in the world by many critics. His back story of working in Burgundy at Domaine Romanée-Conti in the early 1970s, followed by traveling to California and laying out a huge geologic map of the state to find limestone, followed by buying a property that didn’t even have an access road going to it, followed by planting some of the greatest Pinot Noir vineyards in California, followed by international acclaim for his winery, Calera, is well known. (If you don’t know these stories, links are below.)

Calera is the only winery in Mount Harlan AVA, which is in the middle of nowhere, east of Monterey. You drive on what’s effectively a goat trail for 45 minutes to reach it.

The story that isn’t as well know is why so much Calera is sold in Japan. And it starts with a comic book.

Manga is a popular type of comic book style, related to Anime, written often for adults, and sometimes taking on big, complex, and difficult subjects. This style of literature is particularly popular in Japan where many adults absorb manga comics the way we absorb other forms of literature in the United States. 

Many manga stories will have heroes and villains, violence and tension, action and romance. Given the James Bond-like feel of many of the stories, it was bound to happen that a key figure would be a sommelier. His name was Joe Satake, in a manga created by Joh Araki called, appropriately, Sommelier.

In 1999, our hero Joe Satake was part of a blind tasting. Two bottles, two Pinot Noirs. One was the legendary Domaine Romanée-Conti, the other was not.

The bottles were bagged, and the host of the tasting switched things up determined to fool our hero. Could he identify the legendary Romanée-Conti?

The tasting began. Our hero, without much energy, easily picked out the Burgundy. But then he said the other wine was even better. Even better than Romanée-Conti? How can that be? What wine is that?

The bottle was revealed, and it was …. the Calera Jensen Pinot Noir.

That was twenty years ago, and Calera-mania is still strong in Japan. Upwards of 20% of the Calera production is sold there, and even today when Josh Jensen visits the lines are hours long for him to sign empty bottles of Jensen Pinot Noir. Here’s a superstar winemaker in that country.

Calera, meanwhile, continues stronger than ever thanks to Duckhorn Vineyards, which purchased Calera a few years ago. There was a collective sigh of relief in the wine world after that purchase, for Jensen’s three children all vocally stated they were not interested in living the life of struggle and isolation that their father did for decades. The running joke by Jensen when asked about retirement was “my retirement plan is to never die.”

Josh Jensen, founder of Calera. Photo from Duckhorn Vineyards.

Calera makes a number of wines, and the two you’ll find the most often are the Central Coast Chardonnay and Central Coast Pinot Noir. Those are the ‘foot in the door’ wines and contain a small amount of fruit from the vineyards high up on Mount Harlan. But the real show for Calera is the single-vineyard Pinot Noirs from Mount Harlan AVA: Jensen, Selleck, Reed, and Mills. There is also a Mount Harlan Chardonnay, as well as a rare Viognier.

The Calera vineyard map, at the very top of Mount Harlan.
The gravity-fed schematic of the winery. No pumps! Grapes in the top, wine out the bottom.

If you want to get the deeper stories of all things Calera, there is a whole book written about the winery, Josh, and the Pinot Noir grape: The Heartbreak Grape.

In due time we’ll do a Calera feature here at The Wine Workshop. In the meantime, enjoy the links below. Lots of cool info!

Further reading: