HomeInvestmentJosh Jensen, California Pinot Noir Pioneer, Is Dead at 78

Josh Jensen, California Pinot Noir Pioneer, Is Dead at 78

Josh Jensen, who, after a single-minded 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 through his Calera Wine Company, inspiring a new generation of West Coast winemakers, died on Saturday at his home in San Francisco. He was 78.

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

Good American pinot noir was rarely seen in 1972, when Mr. Jensen, enamored with the Burgundy region of France, the source of the world’s great pinot noirs and chardonnays, set out to produce his own version in California. With a few exceptions, most American pinot noir at the time was at best simple and fruity; more often it was stewed stuff from the hot Central Valley.

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

It took him a solid two years of monkish devotion — poring over geology charts and mining surveys, 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 high on the remote 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 put it, the site was “a Frisbee toss” from the San Andreas Fault. His vision outshined the potential pitfalls.

He bought the parcel, on which he found a well-preserved old limekiln. Soon after, living in a trailer with his wife, Jeanne Newman, and her small child, he began to plant 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 limekiln.

The first small crop arrived in 1978, a year after Mr. Jensen bought additional land 1,000 feet down the mountain to build a winery, a makeshift facility that was largely exposed to the elements.

“The isolation of Calera was striking,” said Ted Lemon, who worked briefly with Mr. Jensen in the early 1980s before working in Burgundy and establishing Littorai in Sonoma County, Calif., where he continues to make noteworthy pinot noirs and chardonnays. “There was no winemaking community, no one down the road to borrow equipment from if something broke. However, that also contributed to the sense of adventure and to the pioneering spirit.”

In contrast to the prevailing methods in California, Mr. Jensen used the ambient yeast on the grapes for fermentation rather than inoculating the grapes with commercial yeast. He did not filter the wines. Early on, he needed to supplement his own production, buying zinfandel grapes so that he had enough wine to sell to pay the bills.

Soon enough, in the mid-1980s, the Calera pinot noirs began to receive notice. They were classically styled in the Burgundy tradition, not easy to enjoy young yet structured to age well, with the intense fruit flavors that come from California sunshine.

Each of the vineyards seemed to offer its own singular expression. Most important, the Calera pinot noirs were consistently good year after year, unlike the one-off pinot noir triumphs that had occasionally tantalized other producers but that they were unable to reproduce.

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. The Calera vineyards eventually totaled 85 acres.

“It is easy to forget how few prominent pinot noir producers there were in California in the 1980s and how few were able to maintain and improve quality over the decades that followed,” Mr. Lemon said. “Calera did that. In that alone, Josh accomplished an extraordinary feat.”

Mr. Jensen did not just make exceptional wines. His success inspired others to try their hand with pinot noir. New vineyards were soon planted in other remote areas of California, like the Sonoma Coast, the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Rita Hills, in the western extremes of the Santa Ynez valley in Santa Barbara County. Yet nobody else ventured out to Mount Harlan, which the federal government approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1990.

“Josh’s complete commitment and passion to take anything to the limit to achieve quality became an inspiration for many who followed,” Mr. Lemon said. “Few had the courage to strike out into such an intimidating, remote location, but many were inspired by his work.”

Jonathan Eddy Jensen was born on Feb. 11, 1944, in Seattle to Dr. Stephen Jensen, a dentist, and Jasmine (Eddy) Jensen, a homemaker. He grew up in Orinda, Calif., 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 crew. He then spent two years at New College at the University of Oxford in England, where he received a master’s degree in anthropology and continued to row, taking part in a race in 1967 in which Oxford beat Cambridge, its archrival.

Mr. Jensen had been introduced to wine by a friend of his father’s. After getting his degree, he went to France in 1970 to work the harvest at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the famed Burgundy estate in Vosne-Romanée. He fell in love with Burgundy and spent parts of the next few years there, including at Domaine Dujac, then a fledgling estate in Morey-St.-Denis and now one of the region’s most esteemed producers.

When he wasn’t working in Burgundy, his son, Duggan, said, he crisscrossed Europe and the Middle East in an old Volkswagen van, often sleeping in the back, a foretaste of his California hunt.

Mr. Jensen’s marriage to Ms. Newman ended in divorce. In addition to his son and his daughter Silvie, he is survived by another daughter, Chloe Jensen; a stepdaughter, Melissa Jensen; two sisters, Thea Engesser and Stephenie Ward; and five grandchildren.

Calera pinot noirs were considered among America’s best through the 1990s and into the 2000s. Mr. Jensen’s license plate read “Mr Pinot,” as he had been nicknamed in Burgundy, where he was considered an honorary Burgundian. He often returned there to bicycle with his friends.

Mr. Jensen was a mentor to younger pinot noir producers like Andy Peay, an owner of Peay Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast.

“He was not simply a lover of pinot noir but of books, clothes, culture, and banter — that is what drew me to him,” Mr. Peay said on Monday. “He was strong-minded, open-minded, and did not push his agenda on you.”

As pinot noir became popular in the United States in the late 1990s, the prevailing style began to change. Instead of the tense, structured yet restrained wines that Mr. Jensen preferred, critics lauded plush, powerfully fruity pinot noirs that were high in alcohol content. Mr. Jensen was not a fan.

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

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

In 2017, Mr. Jensen, whose children were not interested in carrying on his work on Mount Harlan, sold Calera to Duckhorn Portfolio, which owns several prominent California wineries.

Mr. Jensen, whom the California winemaker Randall Grahm recently called “the Werner Herzog of vignerons,” never wavered in his devotion to the combination of limestone and pinot noir.

“I’m a true believer,” he said.

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