California Pinot Noir pioneer Josh Jensen dies at 78

Josh Jensen, who, after a determined quest in the 1970s to find the perfect site in California to grow the pinot noir grape, became the ...


Josh Jensen, who, after a determined quest in the 1970s to find the perfect site in California to grow the pinot noir grape, became the first producer of consistently excellent American pinot noir thanks to his Calera Winery, inspiring a new generation of West Coast winemakers, died Saturday at his home in San Francisco. He was 78 years old.

The cause was multiple health issues, her daughter Silvie Jensen said.

Good American Pinot Noir was rarely seen in 1972, when Mr. Jensen, in love with French Burgundy, the source of the world’s great Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, set out to produce his own version in California. With few exceptions, most American Pinot Noirs of the time were straightforward and fruity at best; more often than not, these were hot central valley stews.

But Mr. Jensen had a different idea. He had worked briefly in Burgundy and had seen firsthand the affinity of pinot noir for limestone, the region’s bedrock. He was convinced that if he could find limestone in California, where it was scarce, he could make great wines with the complexity and aging ability typical of good Burgundy.

It took him two solid years of monastic devotion – poring over geological maps and mining prospecting, scouring the countryside for the combination of limestone and mild climate that might give him the great wine he envisioned.

In 1974 he found his site, 2,200 feet up on the isolated slopes of Mount Harlan in the Gabilan Range in San Benito County, two hours southeast of San Francisco. Never mind the isolation, or the lack of paved roads, electricity and running water, or the fact that, as Mr Jensen later said, the site was “a Frisbee throw” from the fault of San Andreas. His vision eclipsed potential pitfalls.

He bought the plot, on which he found a well-preserved old lime kiln. Soon after, living in a trailer with his wife, Jeanne Newman, and small child, he began planting his first three vineyards – Jensen (named after his father), Selleck (for a mentor) and Reed (for an investor) – circumscribing the mountain, each with different exposures to the sun. In 1975 Calera Wine Company was born, taking its name from the Spanish word for lime kiln.

The first small harvest came in 1978, a year after Mr. Jensen purchased additional land 1,000 feet down the mountain to build a winery, a makeshift facility largely exposed to the elements.

“Calera’s isolation was striking,” said Ted Lemon, who worked briefly with Mr Jensen in the early 1980s before working in Burgundy and establishing Coastline in Sonoma County, California, where he continues to produce outstanding Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. “There was no wine community, no one on the road to borrow equipment from in the event of a breakdown. However, it also contributed to the sense of adventure and pioneering spirit.

Unlike California methods, Jensen used ambient yeast on the grapes for fermentation rather than inoculating the grapes with commercial yeast. He did not filter the wines. At first he had to supplement his own production by buying zinfandel grapes in order to have enough wine to sell to pay the bills.

Quite early, in the mid-1980s, Calera Pinot Noirs began to be noticed. They were classic in style in the Burgundian tradition, not easy to taste young but structured to age well, with intense fruit flavors that come from the California sun.

Each of the vineyards seemed to offer its own singular expression. More importantly, Calera’s Pinot Noirs were consistently good year after year, unlike the one-off Pinot Noir triumphs that had occasionally won over other producers but were unable to replicate.

Over time Mr. Jensen added three more vineyards, Mills, Ryan and de Villiers, to the original 24 acres, planted with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Aligoté and Viognier. Calera’s vineyards eventually totaled 85 acres.

“It’s easy to forget how few top pinot noir producers existed in California in the 1980s, and how few were able to maintain and improve quality in the decades that followed,” Lemon said. “Calera did that. For that alone, Josh has accomplished an extraordinary feat.

Mr. Jensen did more than just make exceptional wines. Its success inspired others to try their hand at pinot noir. New vineyards were soon planted in other remote regions of California, such as the Sonoma Coast, the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Santa Rita Hills in the far west. of the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County. Yet no one else ventured Mount Harlanwhich the federal government approved as an American viticultural zone in 1990.

“Josh’s total commitment and passion for going to the limit to achieve quality became an inspiration to many who followed,” Mr. Lemon said. “Few have had the courage to venture into such a daunting and remote place, but many have been inspired by his work.”

Jonathan Eddy Jensen was born on February 11, 1944 in Seattle to Dr. Stephen Jensen, a dentist, and Jasmine (Eddy) Jensen, a homemaker. He grew up in Orinda, California, where he was nicknamed Josh; the nickname stuck. He later legally changed his name to Josh Edison Jensen, taking his middle name from the inventor, with whom he shared a birthday.

He graduated from Yale University, where he majored in history and rowed. He then spent two years at New College at the University of Oxford in England, where he earned a master’s degree in anthropology and continued rowing, competing in a race in 1967 in which Oxford beat Cambridge, its great rival.

Mr. Jensen had been introduced to wine by a friend of his father. After graduating, he left for France in 1970 to work the harvest at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the famous Burgundian estate of Vosne-Romanée. He fell in love with Burgundy and spent part of the following years there, notably in Domaine Dujacthen a nascent estate in Morey-Saint-Denis and today one of the most esteemed producers in the region.

When he wasn’t working in Burgundy, says his son, Duggan, he criss-crossed Europe and the Middle East in an old Volkswagen van, often sleeping in the back, a taste of his California hunt.

Mr. Jensen’s marriage to Ms. Newman ended in divorce. Besides his son and daughter Silvie, he is survived by one other daughter, Chloe Jensen; one daughter-in-law, Melissa Jensen; two sisters, Thea Engesser and Stephenie Ward; and five grandchildren.

Calera’s Pinot Noirs were considered some of America’s best in the 1990s and 2000s. Mr. Jensen’s license plate read “Mr. Pinot,” as he was nicknamed in Burgundy, where he was considered an honorary Burgundian. He often went there to cycle with his friends.

Mr. Jensen has mentored young Pinot Noir producers like Andy Peay, owner of Peay Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast.

“He was not just a lover of pinot noir, but of books, clothes, culture and banter – that’s what drew me to him,” Mr Peay said on Monday. “He was strong-minded, open-minded and didn’t impose his agenda on you.”

As Pinot Noir became popular in the United States in the late 1990s, the dominant style began to change. Instead of the tense, structured but understated wines Mr. Jensen favored, critics praised the mellow, powerfully fruity, high-alcohol Pinot Noirs. Mr. Jensen was not a fan.

“These big heavy fruit bombs, instead of having more intensity, they just get softer and flabby,” he said in 2009.

Nevertheless, the alcohol content of his own wines began to rise over time, which he attributed to climate change and drought.

In 2017 Mr. Jensen, whose children were not interested in continuing his work on Mount Harlan, sold Calera to Duck horn walletwhich owns several premier California wineries.

Mr. Jensen, who California winemaker Randall Grahm recently called “the Werner Herzog of winemakers,” has never wavered in his dedication to the combination of limestone and Pinot Noir.

“I am a true believer,” he says.

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Newsrust - US Top News: California Pinot Noir pioneer Josh Jensen dies at 78
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