Léal Vineyards: The Secrets of San Benito

Léal Vineyards was a little farther away than the other wineries we visited on our San Benancio trip, but it absolutely worth the extra mileage. And to be honest, it wasn’t that far from the others.

We saw their sign and turned up what looked like a little residential side-street. After cresting a gentle hill we saw Léal’s front gate and immediately realized “Yeah, there’s a winery there!”

This is the tasting room floor, not the front gate.

The main building has a rather utilitarian look, befitting its function. The attached tasting room has an elegant patio in front (complete with a fountain) and the front wall of the room is pretty much absent, creating an open, welcoming feel. The tasting room itself, with its black stone floor, dark wood tones and wine bottles smartly arrayed, has the feel of a swank, opulent nightclub.

The only things missing were velvet ropes and a line around the block.

And look! Purse hooks!

Nikki loves purse hooks.

Léal is also set up for weddings and other events, with a spacious pavilion on a rise above the tasting room.

Scads of seating and social area to the left and right of this picture.

They even have a bocce court!

Gotta love a game you can play with a wine glass in your hand.

We were delighted but not surprised to encounter a group of people whom we had seen at every other winery we visited that day. This social aspect of wine tasting is something I really enjoy.

Owner and winemaker Frank Léal is involved with every element of the business from the grape-growing to the décor and presentation in the tasting room, and his care and vision have produced something to be proud of.

The Wines

2010 Viognier (San Benito): The scents of tropical fruits and peaches wafted off this delightful Viognier. The flavor matches the aroma, adding an unexpected but welcome tartness with a distinct lemon character. The tartness seemed mellower on subsequent sips. This wine presents a classic dilemma – it’s a wine you want to show off to friends, yet you feel like having it all to yourself!

2008 Pinot Noir (Central Coast): There was a meaty quality to the aroma of this wine which put me in mind of charcuterie and buttered bread. Nikki noted that this is the kind of wine you want to have with a great steak. The flavor opens with an earthy, ashy quality which transitions into a swell of mellow fruit. The flavor closes with a rich lacquer taste. In many wines the tannins come all at the end, but in this wine they’re apparent earlier in the arc and provide structure and balance throughout.

2007 Estate Threesome (San Benito): The three players in this drama are Syrah (72%), Grenache (21%) and Mourvedre (7%). Nikki again noted a meaty quality (with a sugary edge) to the aroma which carried into the flavor. My palate parsed the richness differently – I got a swell of tannins that dissipated to reveal berries and cream. Again, I found the tannins to be at just the right intensity, providing a stately frame and keeping the sweeter components from seeming frivolous.

2006 Estate Merlot (San Benito): My first impression upon sniffing this was of chocolate-covered raisins (my favorite movie treat BTW). If I didn’t know what it was, I might have guessed Port from the aroma. Nikki detected a hint of fava bean in the smell. We both found raisin and plum in the deep, rich flavor. I also got some definite cacao notes and (again) just the perfect application of tannins.

2007 Carnavál (San Benito): Here we have a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 11% Cabernet Franc and 6% Malbec. Nikki was getting palate fatigue, but she noted “Just good – can’t get precise about it.” Let me try: The aroma was nicely layered, with currants, milk chocolate, and strawberry Pop-Tart (both the filling AND the crust!). The flavor presents the fruit first, followed by a crescendo of tannins that tails off into a toasty finish. This is expertly blended – the blend yields layers and definition that reward attention rather than being a gregarious but shallow crowd-pleaser as blends so often are. It’s like a good book that you like the first time you read it, which rewards subsequent readings with new details and insights.

I’d like to give Léal special praise for what I can only describe as precision in how tannins are implemented in the flavor profiles of their wines. Never overwhelming, they always seemed to contribute to the flavor rather than dominating it and they emerge in the flavor just at the right time.

Léal, we raise a glass to thee.

Calera Wine Company: The Secrets of San Benito

Calera Wine Company is named after a calera, or limekiln, that is located on the property from the time when it was a limestone mining operation. The book “The Heartbreak Grape,” about owner Josh Jensen’s drive to create the perfect Pinot Noir, was written in the early 1990s, showing just how inspirational their wines can be. And the views? They’re pretty inspirational, too.

Just one of the amazing views from Calera Wine Company.


Notably for our project, Calera Wine Company is the only area winery currently producing wines from the Mt. Harlan AVA. It’s fascinating to me that micro-appellations like this exist, especially when I visit other wine regions and find what seems like hundreds of wineries all clustered in one appellation. Two other single-winery appellations in the area are Chalone (in the Chalone AVA in Monterey County) and Lime Kiln Valley (owned by Enz Winery, which according to the folks at DeRose has ceased producing wines for the time being).

The friendly bunch at Calera Wine Company.


When we rolled into Calera, we discovered that we’d already shared a tasting with most of the people in the tasting room. Some had been at Pietra Santa, others at DeRose. I guess that’s what happens when there are four wineries in town and three of them are located within a three mile radius of each other. As we moved forward with our tasting, even more people we’d seen on our journey arrived, making it feel like old home week.

A face only a winemaker could love.


The tasting room is located in a very industrial space, although Calera has added unique decorating touches that give the area a flavor all its own. Proprietor Josh Jensen himself, as well as a very friendly female tasting associate we sadly did not get the name of, poured this great tasting for us.

The Wines

2009 Chardonnay (Central Coast): I tasted hits of soda pop and saffron, while Mike tasted toasted marshmallow and vanilla. We both agreed: yummy! Then the woman tasting right next to us said she thought it tasted like Two-Buck Chuck, which just goes to show – everyone’s palate is different.

2009 Viognier (Mt. Harlan): Mike smelled Froot Loops and noted its fruity sweetness, which we agreed were well mediated by a hint of bitterness and dry tannins.

2002 Viognier (Mt. Harlan): Now this wine is what I expect from a Viognier! The smell reminded me of paella, with a strong hint of saffron. It tasted of saffron, oak, a hint of vanilla and blackened toast. I actually burn my toast on purpose because I like the taste, so this was a flavor combo that really worked for me.

2010 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir (Central Coast): This is Calera’s take on a Rosé, made with Pinot Noir grapes. It smelled like sugar and tangerines to me, but was dryer when I tasted it, although there was still that hint of tart tangerines. If I’d had my eyes closed, I would have been sure it was a red. Mike tasted ruby red grapefruit and toasted sugar.

2008 Pinot Noir (Central Coast): This smelled of sugared plums and had a rich, savory taste. It reminded Mike strongly of a German raspberry syrup that his mother used to buy to make soda out of, with a hint of tannins and just a touch of bell pepper.

2001 Pinot Noir, Mills Vineyard (Mt. Harlan): It smelled like tart raisins, and both of us could taste an edge of alcohol in this wine.

2007 Pinot Noir, Ryan Vineyard (Mt. Harlan): I still got that alcohol edge on this one, with a taste and texture on my tongue like powdered grape skins. Mike described it as “more stately than the 2001.”

2008 Pinot Noir, Mills Vineyard (Mt. Harlan): Both of us found the flavor profile on this to be very similar to the other two, with perhaps a few more tannins. This could be a sign that Calera has a wine groove, or a sign that our palates were getting burnt out.

DeRose Vineyards: The Secrets of San Benito

We were happy to be making our second day-trip to the Hollister area in as many weeks. Last week we visited Fremont Peak for a camping trip; this week it was for the more refined activity of wine tasting. We’d always imagined that Hollister was a long drive, but it turns out it’s only a half hour from Monterey! It’s just gorgeous out there and well worth the time in the car.

The DeRose Vineyards tasting room is located in a complex that looks like a pre-war factory from the outside.

DeRose Vineyards


By contrast, the inside looks like a pre-war factory.

The tasting room -oom -oom -oom


I asked our tasting associate what the building had been used for originally. I expected him to say it had been an airplane plant during WWII, but in fact it had been purpose-built as a winery and had never been anything else!

This building had been built in 1940, but the winery itself was established a long time ago and was, at the time, located on what was Main Street, Central California. In the 1800s, this spot was on a major stagecoach line, and the area was more densely populated during that period than it is today. The winery was able to survive Prohibition by making sacramental wine for the San Benancio Mission until the amendment was repealed. (Did some of the sacramental wine mysteriously vanish out the back door? We’ll never know.)

The winery changed hands several times over the next 80 years, including a period in the 1950s through 1970s when their grapes were used to produce wine for Almaden. The DeRose folks bought the winery in 1888. They have many interesting historical photos and artifacts, including the original U.S. citizenship papers for Frenchman Theophile Vaché, who established the winery in 1854.

Someone got an "A" in penmanship.




Another interesting aspect of the facility is that is sits directly on top of the San Andreas Fault. If you don’t believe me, believe the US Department of the Interior:

It's all our fault.


And if you don’t believe them, believe your eyes:

That should buff right out.


DeRose may be the only winery that appears in as many geology books as wine publications. College students come from all over California to look at the fault line and take readings from monitoring instruments in the building. A field trip to a winery? Yeah, that’s a selling point for any geology class.

If the proximity of the San Andreas Fault makes you a tad nervous, don’t worry. The tasting area is at least 40 feet away from the faultline.

Let's not forget why we're here.


DeRose is a Green winery (no, that doesn’t mean you can get Vinho Verde there). They dry-farm their grapes, use natural fertilizers and also utilize solar energy.

The Wines

2007 Chardonnay (Cienega Valley): The aroma was fruity with a hint of that Chardonnay richness. Nikki found the scent reminiscent of perfume. I found the flavor to be lightly fruity with a nice mellow warmth. A hint of alcohol, and a light grape flavor on the finish. Nikki got more citrus in the flavor – grapefruit and orange zest.

2007 Famiglia DeRose Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano (Italy): Nikki said she smelled strawberries, pastilles and figs. I just said “Oooohhhhh…” I thought the aroma seemed structured with a slight ashy tannic scent supporting a plum/prune/raisin fruit aroma. The flavor delivered on that promise. The fruit was present but restrained on the palate, and the tannins nicely supported that. I think this wine would achieve its fullest expression with food.

2005 Monte Cinco Malbec (Argentina): On the nose this suggested caramel, plum and berry, and the flavor matched. It was delightfully rich with light but welcome tannins.

2007 DeRose Cabernet Franc (Cienega Valley): I got blackberries and cream both in the aroma and flavor. This wine also had a rich quality that made it almost creamy! The fruit was present but it stopped short of being jammy, with a nice tannic swell at the end.

Hollywood Red, Release #13 (Cienega Valley): This is part of the Car series of reds that DeRose produces. It’s a blend of 7 varietals – 65% Zinfandel, 20% Syrah, plus Negrette, Alicane Bouchee, Rose of Peru, Cabernet Pfeffer and Cabernet Franc. Rose of Peru is related to the Mission grape, and DeRose is apparently the only winery that has it. Only 7 wineries have Cabernet Pfeffer (I’d never even heard of it!).

The aroma was a symphony of fruit, with plum and especially blackberry predominating. Nikki also got strawberries, blueberries and pastilles. The flavor added toasted sugar and a light swell of tannins. Nikki described the flavor as “sugar-dusted plum pudding.” While this blend was fruit-forward and very accessible, it maintained structure and had its own character, in contrast with many red blends that are perfectly drinkable but often lack complexity.

2007 Old-Vine Zinfandel (Cienega Valley): The vines for this wine were planted in 1905. Nikki noted the aroma as sugary and plummy, and described the flavor as caramelized plums. I noticed a slight lacquer aroma (in a good way). The flavor is fruit-forward but with a richness that suggests nostalgia, like a sepie-toned photograph. It’s a big wine, with a nice blush of tannins at the end.

2004 Port (Cienega Valley): This is a Cab Franc Port, bottle-aged for 6 years. I guess Nikki had pastilles on her mind, because here again she noted their presence in the aroma. She described the flavor as highly-sugared dark chocolate. My palate found more fruit. While I did get some hints of chocolate I primarily detected sweet raisins and prunes cloaked in dark, mysterious warmth.

Pietra Santa Winery: The Secrets of San Benito

Spectactular? Why yes! Yes, it is.

Just a short drive down the road from De Rose, Pietra Santa Winery came into view. And what a view! The winery, which looks like a historic mission but was actually built in 2005, is surrounded by steep hills that were lush and green due to California’s unusually rainy spring.

The eyes get to enjoy some tastings of their own out here.

A road between the rows of grapevines led to the massive front door, which is bracketed by two tall palm trees.

Jimmy Stewart would have freaked out if he saw this.

To our surprise, the parking lot was packed. Wine drinkers sat at all the tables by the entrance, enjoying a picnic.

Rarity and intrigue aren't limited to the barrel...


...although we're pretty sure not all of the cars we saw are daily drivers.

As we walked in, we discovered the reasons for the throngs; it was wine club pick-up day, and members filled the downstairs area. The clink of glasses echoed around the large room. As non-club members, we were sent upstairs to enjoy our tasting.

While the downstairs area is stripped down and geared toward wine storage and production, a long wooden stairway leads up to a lushly paneled room that looks like a men’s smoking room from the Victorian era. Beautiful stained glass fills the windows; doors on either side of the window lead to lovely balconies where tasters can bring their glasses in order to enjoy the wine and the view simultaneously.

We can't show all the woodwork - some of it is NSFW.

The view was great, but we wanted wine. The tasting room associates made sure we felt welcome as soon as we stepped in. Though the tasting bar was very crowded, we did manage to carve out a spot for ourselves. “It’s not normally this busy,” tasting room associate John told us as he poured our first selection.

The Wines

2009 Rosato (Cienega Valley): Pietra Santa’s Rosato is made from 100% Dolcetto grapes. The scent was tart, and the flavor was lightly tannic with a strong hit of tart unripe strawberries. Mike found that the flavor, while tart, stopped short of sour and was mediated by a richness.

2009 Signature Collection Amore Pinot Grigio (Cienega Valley): This was crisp and tart, with flavors of grapefruit and lightly sugared lemon rind. Mike tasted a hint of pear, and thought the flavor had hints of bubble gum.

2008 Signature Collection Chardonnay (Cienega Valley): Good luck getting this one – according to the website, it’s all sold out. I detected two distinct scents, grapefruit and sugar; the two were very separate. On the palate, the oak provided some backbone to the wine, and there was enough butter to it to take the edge off the tartness. Mike tasted hints of vanilla as well, and described it as “round.”

2008 Gewürtztraminer (Cienega Valley): John’s pouring partner magically made this off-the-list wine appear in our glass, and for that I will be forever thankful. As soon as Mike smelled this, he said, “It smells like happiness.” The smell reminded me of orange soda, but the taste was much drier than I expected, with flavors of orange blossom and lemon zest. Mike tasted a hint of vanilla and noted there was something almost effervescent about it. He also tasted a hoppy, yeasty flavor like an apricot ale.

2009 Pinot Noir (Cienega Valley): The smell reminded me of moist clay. The flavor was rich and hard to define. I wrote, “I could drink a bottle of this (and enjoy it) trying to name all the flavors.” Mike said the flavor was “big, warm, brandied cherries and vanilla with a perfect amount of tannins to wrap it up.”

2009 Sangiovese (Cienega Valley): We don’t see a lot of Sangiovese in Monterey County; in fact, I’m not sure we’ve seen any. It’s Mike’s favorite varietal, so we were delighted to get a chance to taste this. To me, it smelled like sweet cherries and leather. I tasted tannins, cranberries and a hint of cherry. Mike tasted lemon as well, and called it “fruity but not jammy.”

2007 Zinfandel (Central Coast): This blends Zinfandel from Pietra Santa vines that date back to 1905 with fruit from other Zinfandel vines in the area. It smelled of sweet raisins, and tasted like raisins and unripe berries with a hint of A-1 sauce. Mike tasted grape with a hint of cherry.

2004 Veche (Cienega Valley): The Veche is a blend of 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. I smelled the french oak immediately. It tasted like currants and tart blackberries and had a nice oaky backbone. Mike noted the tannins as well but pronounced it “balanced” with a “sophisticated flavor.” He continued “This doesn’t taste like other blends, which are usually big, ‘accessible’ and don’t need food. This is a bit more austere and doesn’t lose its structure like other blends.”

2005 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon (Cienega Valley): I found this to be very tart and a little astringent. Mike agreed, but said “the fruit emerges victorious.” It’s still quite tannic, and Mike noted that it may get even better as it ages.