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A Tribute to Josh Jensen, California Pinot Noir Pioneer

Josh Jensen, founder of Calera Winery and a 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 dedicated to his friends, community, and family, and above all to the ideals of friendship, truth, fairness, good food and wine, and stewardship of the land,” says his daughter, Silvie Jensen, who was with him when he passed. “We will all miss him tremendously.”

His tumultuous path to planting Pinot Noir atop Mt. Harlan in the remote mountains east of California’s Salinas Valley was detailed in Marq de Villiers’s 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 harvests 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 crucial to growing quality Pinot. He found it atop the 3,278-foot peak of Mt. Harlan and planted three vineyards there in 1975. In those early years, he lived in a trailer with his wife and young daughter amid the remote wilderness of the Gabilan Mountains, which straddle the border of Monterey and San Benito counties. 

After his first wines won attention in 1978, Jensen went on to trademark the Calera clone of Pinot Noir and plant three more vineyards. He expanded into small amounts of Chardonnay, Aligoté and Viognier, of which he was one of the first growers in California. 

In 1990, he convinced the federal government that Mt. Harlan was worthy of its own American Viticultural Area designation, effectively creating one of the country’s only monopole appellations. The wine critic Robert Parker called Calera “California’s Romanée-Conti,” and Jensen achieved celebrity status in Japan after the popular manga, Drops of God, featured his wines prominently. 

In August 2017, Jensen, whose three children were not interested in the wine business, sold Calera to the Duckhorn Portfolio. “It feels wonderful, it really does,” Jensen told me that week. “I’ve been considering this move in recent years and, at 73, I don’t have the energy I once had. I thought that new faces and new blood would be good, and these are the best people to hand my life’s work to. They are enthusiastic about this as a new venture in a new region of California for them, so it really is mutually beneficial.” 

Josh Jensen
Image Courtesy Calera Winery

I enjoyed the pleasure of Jensen’s company on a handful of occasions. Once, I attended the dinner at the World of Pinot Noir in 2016 when he was honored as a Rock Star of Wine. Never one to shy away from celebrating in style, Jensen was clad in a cherry-red leather jacket. As the wine flowed and music bumped, Jensen danced with a wide smile. 

On another occasion, I shared dinner with Jensen and a few other winemakers in the historic Dickinson House on the Eden Rift property, just a few miles from the Calera Winery. He cracked open old vintages, including a stellar 1987 Calera from Selleck Vineyard, and wowed us with stories from his life and career. 

Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton recalls the stormy December 1992 evening when he first tasted Calera, specifically the 1987 bottling of Jensen Vineyard. “It changed my life,” says Brewer. “It set me on the path of stem inclusion and gravity and block designation. Literally, everything that I have done since with regards to Pinot Noir is linked to that aesthetic and to the energy that he put forth well before my time.” 

Brewer places Jensen alongside the late Burt Williams of Williams-Selyem atop the Mount Rushmore of California Pinot Noir. “That 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’re doing these days.” 

“Josh was from the heart.” —Richard Sanford

Richard Sanford, who planted Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County’s Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in 1971, knew Jensen well. Decades ago, they’d meet quarterly to “rip apart each others’ wines” in a group called the Small Winery Technical Society. “It was all about pioneering and bootstrapping,” remembers Sanford. “We learned a lot from one another.”

They became friends and shared many meals around the globe together, including white truffle-laden dinners in San Francisco during the annual Pinot Days. 

“Josh was from the heart,” says Sanford. “As much as he liked plumage and dressing up, he had a more spiritual aspect to him as well. We loved him.”

In 2007, Jensen hired Mike Waller, and he’s been the hands-on winemaker of Calera ever since. “He was one of those guys you go to work for and you don’t leave,” says Waller, noting that the cellarmaster, Abraham Corona, has been at the winery for 35 years. “He was very generous with all of us. We were like extended family to him.”

Waller is now in charge of keeping Jensen’s dream alive. “I want to make sure that I can carry on that legacy,” says Waller. “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.