Josh Jensen, pioneer of California Pinot Noir, dies at 78

Josh Jensen, who, after a single-minded search in the 1970s to find the perfect spot in California to grow the pinot noir grape, became the first producer of consistently excellent American pinot noir through his Calera Wine Company, inspiring to a new generation of West Coast Winemakers, passed away Saturday at his home in San Francisco. He was 78 years old.

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

A good American pinot noir was rarely seen in 1972, when Jensen, enamored with the French region of Burgundy, 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 Noirs of the time were simple and fruity at best; more often it was stewed things from the warm 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 found limestone in California, where it was scarce, he could make great wines with the complexity and aging ability of good Burgundy.

It took him two solid years of monastic devotion: poring over geological maps and mining surveys, scouring the countryside in search of the combination of limestone and temperate climate that could give him the great wine he envisioned.

In 1974, he found his niche, 2,200 feet up 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 pitch” from the San Andreas fault. The sight of him overshadowed any possible traps.

He bought the plot, on which he found an old well-preserved lime kiln. Shortly thereafter, living in a trailer with his wife, Jeanne Newman, and their young son, he began planting his first three vineyards: Jensen (named for 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 oven.

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 that was largely exposed to the elements.

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

Unlike prevailing California methods, Mr. Jensen used the environmental yeast on the grapes for fermentation instead of inoculating the grapes with commercial yeast. He didn’t filter the wines. At first, he needed to supplement his own production, buying Zinfandel grapes to have enough wine to sell and pay the bills.

Very soon, in the mid-1980s, Calera’s pinot noirs began to receive attention. Classically styled in the Burgundy tradition, not easy to enjoy young but structured to age well, with the intense fruit flavors that come from the California sun.

Each of the vineyards seemed to offer its own unique expression. More importantly, Calera’s pinot noirs were consistently good year after year, unlike the one-off pinot noir triumphs that had occasionally tempted other producers but 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’s 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,” Lemon said. Calera did that. With that alone, Josh accomplished an extraordinary feat.”

Mr. Jensen didn’t just make exceptional wines. His success inspired others to try their hand at pinot noir. New vineyards were soon planted in other remote areas of California, such as the Sonoma Coast, Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Santa Rita Hills, in the western reaches of the Santa Ynez Valley in the Santa Barbara county. However, no one else has ventured to visit Mount Harlan, which was approved by the federal government as an American Viticultural Area in 1990.

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

Jonathan Eddy Jensen was born on February 11, 1944, in Seattle, the son of 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 rowing team. He then spent two years at Oxford University’s New College in England, where he earned a master’s degree in anthropology and continued to row, taking part in a race in 1967 in which Oxford beat arch-rival Cambridge.

Mr. Jensen had been introduced to the world of wine by a friend of his father’s. After earning his degree, he went to France in 1970 to work the harvest at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the famous Burgundian estate in Vosne-Romanée. He fell in love with Burgundy and spent some 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 growers.

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

Mr. Jensen’s marriage to Mrs. 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’s pinot noirs were considered among the best in the United States during the 1990s and into the 2000s. Jensen’s license plate read “Mr. Pinot,” as he had been nicknamed in Burgundy, where he was considered an honorary Burgundian. . He often went back there to ride bikes with his friends.

Mr. Jensen mentored younger pinot noir producers like Andy Peay, owner of Peay Vineyards on the Sonoma coast.

“He wasn’t just a lover of pinot noir but of books, clothes, culture and jokes; that’s what attracted me to him,” Peay said Monday. “He was strong-minded, open-minded and he didn’t impose 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 taut, structured yet understated wines that Mr. Jensen preferred, critics praised the powerfully fruity, luxurious pinot noirs that were high in alcohol. Mr. Jensen was not a fan.

“These big, top-heavy fruit bombs, instead of getting more intense, they get softer and limp,” he said in 2009.

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

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

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

“I am a true believer,” he said.

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