Josh Jensen, founder of Calera Winery and pioneer of pinot noir in California, died on Saturday June 11 at his home in San Francisco. He was 78 years old.
“He was larger than life, a dreamer, an idealist, a generous spirit, a man devoted to his friends, his community and his family, and above all to the ideals of friendship, truth, fairness, good food and good wine, and stewardship of the land,” said his daughter, Silvie Jensen, who was with him when he died. “He will be sorely missed by all of us.”
His tumultuous journey to plant pinot noir atop Mount Harlan in the remote mountains east of California’s Salinas Valley was detailed in Marq de Villiers’ 1994 book, The Heartbreak Grape: A California Winemaker’s Search for the Perfect Pinot Noir. The quest began in Oxford, where Jensen studied social anthropology in the early 1970s. He fell in love with wine while touring Europe, eventually working the harvest at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. as well as at Château-Grillet in the Rhône Valley.
Upon returning to California, he spent nearly two years searching for true limestone soil, which he believed was essential to growing quality Pinot. He found it atop the 3,278-foot peak of Mount Harlan and planted three vineyards there in 1975. During those early years, he lived in a trailer with his wife and young daughter surrounded by nature. remote wilderness of the Gabilan Mountains, which straddle the border. of Monterey and San Benito counties.
After his first wines caught the eye in 1978, Jensen trademarked the Calera clone of Pinot Noir and planted three more vineyards. He expanded to small quantities of Chardonnay, Aligoté and Viognier, of which he was one of the first producers in California.
In 1990, he convinced the federal government that Mt. Harlan deserved its own designation as an American wine region, creating one of the only monopoly designations in the country. Wine critic Robert Parker called Calera “California’s Romanée-Conti” and Jensen achieved celebrity status in Japan after the popular manga, drops of godshowcased its wines.
In August 2017, Jensen, whose three children were uninterested in the wine business, sold Calera to the Duckhorn portfolio. “It’s wonderful, it really is,” Jensen told me that week. “I’ve considered this move for the past few years and at 73 I don’t have the energy I once had. I thought new faces and new blood would be nice, and they’re the best people to trust with my life’s work. They’re excited about a new business in a new area of California for them, so it’s really mutually beneficial.
I have enjoyed the pleasure of Jensen’s company a few times. I once attended dinner at the World of Pinot Noir in 2016 when it was honored as a Rock Star of Wine. Never one to shy away from celebrating in style, Jensen was dressed in a cherry red leather jacket. As the wine flowed and the music sounded, Jensen danced with a broad smile.
On another occasion, I shared dinner with Jensen and a few other winemakers at the historic Dickinson House on the Eden Rift property, just a few miles from the Calera winery. He opened up old vintages, including a stellar 1987 Calera from Selleck Vineyard, and wowed us with stories from his life and career.
Brewer-Clifton’s Greg Brewer remembers the stormy evening in December 1992 when he first tasted Calera, specifically the 1987 bottling from Jensen Vineyard. “It changed my life,” says Brewer. “It set me on the path to including stem and naming gravity and block. Literally everything I’ve done since with Pinot Noir has tied into that aesthetic and the energy that he deployed long before me.
Brewer places Jensen alongside the late Burt Williams of Williams-Selyem atop Mount Rushmore of California Pinot Noir. “It was a generation of people who took Pinot from nothing in California to a real deal,” he says. “Without them, none of us would be able to do what we do today.”
“Josh came from the heart.” —Richard Sanford
Richard Sanford, who planted pinot noir at the Sanford & Benedict vineyard in Santa Barbara County in 1971, knew Jensen well. Decades ago, they met quarterly to “rip each other’s wines” in a group called the Small Winery Technical Society. “It was about pioneering and priming,” Sanford recalls. “We learned a lot from each other.”
They became friends and shared many meals around the world, including dinners laden with white truffles in San Francisco during the annual Pinot Days.
“Josh came from the heart,” Sanford says. “Even though he liked the plumage and the dress, there was also a more spiritual aspect to him. We loved him.
In 2007, Jensen hired Mike Waller, and he has been Calera’s winemaker ever since. “He was one of those guys that you go to work for and you don’t leave,” says Waller, noting that cellar master Abraham Corona has been at the winery for 35 years. “He was very generous with all of us. We were like an extended family to him.
Waller is now responsible for keeping Jensen’s dream alive. “I want to make sure I can continue that legacy,” Waller says. “I have a responsibility to keep Calera true to Josh’s vision.”
Jensen is survived by his three children, Silvie, Duggan and Chloe Jensen, and five grandchildren.