SAN BENITO COUNTY in central California is one of the oldest grape-growing regions in the state. Franciscan friars planted grapes at the Mission San Juan Bautista in the late 18th century. Today Almaden's Cienega Valley winery is by far the largest. The traveler passes Almaden's huge vineyards near Paicines, irrigated by sprinklers that in cold weather can coat the fruit with ice and, paradoxically, prevent the individual berries from freezing.

A mile farther south, in narrow Lime Kiln Valley, lies a newer winery of much different proportions and prospects. It is Calera winery, and most people would pass it without suspecting that grapes are grown and some of the finest California pinot noir is made on those steep, isolated slopes.

Calera means lime kiln in Spanish; it was founded in 1975 by a restaurant critic named Josh Jensen, who correctly surmised that the intensely limey soil would produce excellent pinot, as similar soils do in Burgundy. Since 1978 Calera pinots have consistently won medals and accolades from wine drinkers who have managed to sample Calera's tiny production. The winery also produces a steely chardonnay and a full-bodied zinfandel from purchased grapes, but it is the Calera pinot that rivets attention, all grown at 2,200 feet in the Gavalan Mountains.

The hillside location allows winemaker Steve Doerner to move the wine by gravity between stages of vinification, thus eliminating pumping that often damages delicate pinot. All whole grapes are used, and the cap on the fermentation tanks is hydraulically punched down twice a day, for as long as two weeks, to impart good color.

Some sulphur is used for sterilizing after secondary fermentation. The wine is aged in French oak barrels, half of them new, for about 16 months. It is not racked, so handling and oxidation are kept at a minimum; it is lightly fined with egg whites before bottling. "We have no secret formula," says Doerner. "We just have good grapes."

They come from three different vineyards, totaling only 14 acres, with slightly different exposures that give the fruit its distinct characteristics. Each vineyard is designated on the label. They are Jensen, Selleck, and Reed. Limited production and high quality mean relatively high prices for domestic pinot noir, but Calera is still cheaper than comparable burgundy.

The Selleck is the earliest to mature. The '84 Selleck I tasted had wonderful, approachable fruit. The '83 Selleck was similar, but more closed. The '84 Jensen was a bigger, tighter wine, with more guts and tannin. The '83 Jensen was the best of that vintage for Calera.

The most individual of the Calera pinot noirs is the Reed. Doerner describes it as "wild," meaning that it can take on surprising nuances of flavor. The '84 is bricky in color, with a fragrant, Burgundian nose and a very long finish. The '83 Reed is tight and tannic, and the '82 somewhat woody -- a big, powerful pinot to last.