The arresting life story of a true California pioneer. Image courtesy of Calera.
Josh Jensen, 78, founder of Calera and champion of Mount Harlan AVA, has died after a prolonged period of ill health. Pneumonia contracted after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was exacerbated by a particularly serious case of COVID-19. In 1967, as the heaviest-ever oarsman in the annual Boat Race for triumphant Oxford, six foot four and more than a stone (14 pounds) heavier than any of his teammates, he had seemed indomitable. He would have rowed in the 1968 Mexico Olympics had his rowing partner been fit enough.
He was in Oxford studying anthropology after studying history at Yale because, unlike his peers, he couldn’t think of anything else to do. But he had been tasting fine wine since his early teens, partly thanks to George Selleck, a wine-loving friend of his parents in the Bay Area. The cellar of New College presumably helped continue his wine education and, after the regulation hippie wander round India, he ended up in Burgundy, armed with an introduction from Becky Wasserman, in time for the late 1970 grape harvest at the world-famous Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. There he also did a bit of interpreting for winemaker André Noblet and English-speaking visitors but was encouraged to move on to Jacques Seysses’ nascent Domaine Dujac when DRC’s Lalou Bize-Leroy tired of answering all his questions.
So began his lifelong veneration of Pinot Noir grown on limestone. Back in California he began a long search for limestone in a spot cool enough to grow Pinot, poring over Bureau of Mines geological maps. To make ends meet during his search he wrote restaurant reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle. He was a lifelong gourmet and could have had a literary career.
By 1974 he had found his spot, high up on the slopes of Mount Harlan way above the windswept vineyards on the Monterey valley floor. The fact that there was no supply of either water or electricity and the proximity of the San Andreas Fault put him off not one jot. He was more interested in what was beneath his feet and the 2,200-ft (670-m) elevation that exposed his chosen site to cooling Pacific breezes.
In 1975 he moved his then-wife and first (of three) children into a mobile home up there and began planting his three best-known vineyards, Jensen, Reed and Selleck, backed by his parents and, presumably, George Selleck. He would go on to plant three more blocks nearby, de Villiers, Mills and Ryan, having acquired a site for a winery halfway between the vineyards and the town of Hollister. He called this new enterprise Calera, Spanish for the nearby lime-kiln that features on Calera labels.
This single-vineyard approach was extremely unusual in California then, as was a focus on the sensitive Pinot Noir grape. (This was 10 years after his friend Dick Graff bought the site for Chalone about 15 miles further south and at a slightly lower elevation, and three decades before Sideways.) But Jensen was always his own man. He and his close friend Paul Draper were pioneers of spontaneous fermentation when US Davis maintained that only cultured yeast would do.
He also remained close to Jacques Seysses, who remembers him as ‘elegant and provocative’. (Jensen would pretend not to know where Oregon was.) They were both members of a group of vintner-cyclists including Egon Müller of the Mosel, Jean-Pierre Perrin of the Rhône Valley and high-profile Burgundians such as Dominique Lafon and Christophe Roumier, who would meet annually to bike during the day and eat and drink like kings at night, typically when Jensen was en route to meetings of the Académie Internationale du Vin. According to Seysses, Jensen was known by other members of the group not as Josh but as Mr Pinot.
He was an early exporter to the UK, his unusually reticent, characterful wines being imported initially in the early 1980s by the late Geoffrey Roberts. His subsequent UK importer, Simon Farr of Bibendum, remembers that Jensen would fly over to London tastings – always coach – with a square of carpet to fend off joint stiffness after a day standing pouring. I certainly remember him as a beacon of civility at these tastings; he had not a corporate bone in his body. I must have taken a shine to him because Nick remembers his coming to our house for dinner and towering over us.
Farr’s colleague Willie Lebus, a California specialist, remembers first encountering Jensen at the San Francisco Wine Fair in the early eighties. ‘He was wearing Versace jeans and I thought he was the coolest person I ever saw. His wines were totally immaculate. They never had the cloying sweetness that other wines of that ilk had. He was a bit of a showman and, most importantly, he was just class: a really nice man who respected other people.’
In 1990 Jensen succeeded in having Mount Harlan recognised as an American Viticultural Area. In 1994 Marq de Villiers published a book, The Heartbreak Grape: A California winemaker's search for the perfect Pinot Noir, devoted to Jensen’s story. In 2007 he was made the San Francisco Chronicle’s Winemaker of the Year, vindicating his long-standing search for the holy grail, and six years later his handsome features made the cover of Wine Spectator as California’s ‘Pinot Pioneer’.
But he never gave the impression of seeking outside approval. What he did do was produce a steady stream of anti-government invective in his newsletters, which American hotelier Paul Henderson, champion of California wine at Gidleigh Park in Devon, remembers as ‘both informative and amusing’.
Jensen was one of the first to plant Viognier and Aligoté vines in California. But as California’s drought years proliferated, Calera’s lack of water presented an increasing challenge and decreasing yields, which had always been very much lower than in Burgundy, typically under 20 hl/ha. Jensen’s daughters and San Francisco financier son were not interested in taking charge of the enterprise and in 2017 Jensen sold Calera to the Duckhorn Wine Company, by then owned by the private equity TSG group.
He then moved from the rustic home he had built close to the winery to ‘a beautiful apartment with a fine view of Alcatraz’ in San Francisco, according to barrel broker Mel Knox, who took him to a baseball game last summer when he already had difficulty walking.
The California wine scene is the poorer for his loss.