Some winemakers I interview are introverted or so focused on the viticulture or oenology that they can’t reach far beyond that in polite social conversation.
Well, I’m here to tell you, that ain’t Eric Jensen of Booker Wines. Nope, don’t go to a tasting with Eric anticipating a leisurely exploration of a wine’s nuances. He’s a force of nature.
Maybe it’s his educational background (a graduate of Damien High School in La Verne, the alma mater of both myself and Mark McGwire, along with a few others), or his time as a real estate broker, or being a concert promoter. Who knows? But the fact is that he’s vocal and opinionated!
Oh, and I almost forgot, he makes award-winning wines. His 2014 Oublie (a blend of grenache, mourvedre, and syrah) was named Wine Spectator’s No. 10 Wine of the Year in 2017, among other accolades.
And, like so many of the other Paso Robles winemakers I’ve met, he champions Paso and what it has to offer. When he was recently on a press junket in New York, he told the journalists from Men’s Health, Saveur, and Bon Appetit (among others) that the story wasn’t Eric Jensen or Booker. It’s what’s happening in Paso and the talented winemakers based there.
He’s proud of more than just his fellow winemakers. He started Must Charities, an organization geared to “empower nonprofits to make strategic, sustainable change.” He recognizes that the backbone of any successful winery isn’t just the front-of-the-house folks (e.g., winery owners, tasting room staff, winemakers, etc.). Without the field workers and their families, any winery would struggle to succeed. Must Charities tries to improve the lives of Paso residents who aren’t raking in the big bucks.
His love of Paso has resulted in a new label for Jensen, My Favorite Neighbor. Eric attributes much of his success to the mentoring and friendship he enjoyed from the beginning with luminaries like Justin Smith of Saxum and Stephan Asseo of L’Aventure. His continued success is due to farmers and field hands who nurture the vines to produce all their potential. So, like Asseo, they are featured on some of My Favorite Neighbor’s bottles.
From the 2016 vintage: “Aurelio has been farming grapes for 16 years. He specializes in vineyard canopy management and thinks that wine was created by the gods… and him. Aurelio is My Favorite Neighbor.”
What Eric sees as two disturbing trends inspired My Favorite Neighbor, along with tributes to those fundamental to his accomplishments.
“All these sugar wines out there, crap sugar water that they’re selling now. Everyone’s in a race to add concentrates to make a cheaper, sweeter wine.” Eric eschewed the use of Mega Purple (a grape juice concentrate that’s pasteurized and concentrated to 68 Brix), which has reportedly been used in both less expensive wines as well as ones that sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle to achieve a certain color and to provide some “roundness” to the finished product.
Then there’s what Eric calls the “Napa knuckleheads.” These are wineries that justify raising their prices by $100 a bottle or more because they’ve scored well with some wine critic. As a result, many highly rated cabernets are well beyond the financial reach of most wine lovers.
Eric’s goal: Design an $80 world-class wine that can hold its own against Napa bottles priced $500 and above with no Mega Purple or other additives. And he can achieve this, according to Eric, because Paso allows him to plant at higher elevations, which produce higher color numbers that, he contends, “are almost unachievable anywhere else in the world.” And acid levels are close to ideal.
Consequently, folks like Juan Mercado of Napa’s exalted Realm are opening shop in Paso to exploit Paso’s potential.
Just like Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch and Guillaume Fabre of Clos Solene, Eric’s not resting on his laurels. My next column will cover his wines.
Carl Kanowsky is an attorney, a fledgling baker, an enthusiastic cook and an expert wine drinker.