Josh Jensen, Founder of Calera Wine Company, Dies at 78

The California pioneer turned his passion for Pinot Noir into one of the state's most recognized and celebrated wineries

Josh Jensen, Founder of Calera Wine Company, Dies at 78
California Pinot Noir pioneer Josh Jensen helped establish the Mount Harlan AVA. (Chris Leschinsky)
Jun 13, 2022

The limestone hills of Mount Harlan in California's Central Coast are forever intertwined with vintner Josh Jensen. The founder of Calera Wine Company, Jensen was not only a pioneer for the region, located within the remote Gavilan Mountains near Monterey, but also a trailblazer for California wine. Jensen chased an impossible dream to make Burgundy-style Pinot Noir in California, and succeeded, becoming one of the state’s top Pinot Noir producers. The visionary and icon of the California wine industry died June 11 at his home. He was 78.

Born Feb. 11, 1944, in Seattle but raised in Orinda, Calif., near San Francisco, Jensen did not grow up in a household with wine, save for the special occasions when a friend of Jensen's father, George Selleck, would visit. Selleck was a wine connoisseur and introduced Jensen to wine.

While at Yale, earning a degree in liberal arts, Jensen was a member of the crew team, and later traveled to England to attend Oxford, earning a master's degree in social anthropology. While there, Jensen began traveling throughout Europe’s winegrowing regions.

Jensen spent much of his twenties in Europe, sleeping in ramshackle hotels or on friends' couches. While his accommodations left much to be desired, the food and wine did not. Jensen often ate at some of France's finest restaurants and became enamored with Burgundy.

He landed a gig picking grapes at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. The subsequent year, he worked at Domaine Dujac, followed by a stint at Château-Grillet in the Rhône. He then returned to California, determined to find a vineyard site that would be on par with the limestone-laden soils of Burgundy's Côte d'Or. With no winemaking or business experience, Jensen's dream was lofty, but he showed dedication.

In a 2013 interview, Jensen told Wine Spectator, "I didn't want to be a lawyer. I didn't want to be a doctor. I didn't want to have a hardware store. I didn't want to be a stockbroker, and I didn't want to work in a bank. Why don't I turn this question around and do what I love, what turns me on? And the obvious answer was wine."

In California, he began searching for the perfect property to plant Pinot Noir. Jensen pored over old geological maps that identified potential limestone. Finally, in 1974, he found what he believed would be the ideal spot, on the slopes of Mount Harlan, in the Gavilan Mountains, which divide Monterey and San Benito counties. At the time, the remote and rugged location had no paved roads nor electricity and practically no running water.

Jensen lived out of a trailer with his wife and then 7-year-old daughter and dubbed the property Calera, after the Spanish word for "limekiln." The first of his three vineyards were named in honor of his father; Dr. Selleck, who introduced him to wine; and Bill Reed, an investor in the business. The vineyards are planted on steep inclines reaching as high as 2,500 feet. In 1978, Jensen debuted his first wines.

Calera wines have a signature style unlike any other in California Pinot Noir. Each of the six estate Pinot Noirs is made the same: 100 percent whole-cluster fermented using ambient yeasts, then aged in French oak before being bottled unfiltered.

"The thing about Josh is you knew what you were going to get," Calera winemaker Mike Waller told Wine Spectator. Waller noted that while the wine business evolved over the years, Jensen never did. "He stuck with what he believed in, and that's what has made Calera a special place."

Loaded with natural acidity, these medium-bodied wines display vivid fruit flavors with an underpinning of limestone and mineral. "I was a U.C. Davis grad, where they teach you how to make wine in a very clean and precise way," recalled Waller, who joined in 2007. "When I got to Calera, I got thrown for a loop. The essence of Calera is all about the vineyards."

Jensen would go on to establish his own Calera Pinot Noir clone and plant three more estate vineyards, as well as small blocks of Chardonnay, Aligoté and Viognier. He also led the establishment of Mount Harlan as an American Viticultural Area (AVA), which was achieved in 1990.

After 43 harvests, Jensen sold the winery to Duckhorn Wine Company in 2017. Jensen commented on the sale at the time, "Having started the winery on a hope and a prayer, this is a wonderful way to ensure the future of Calera. I was able to place my life's work in the hands of true wine people that believe in quality."

Jensen will be remembered for his great wit and charm, unique fashion sense, generosity of spirit, and his generosity toward his beloved team at Calera. "We're going to miss him tremendously," said Waller. "He cared deeply about the land, and was extremely generous with all his employees. People have stuck around because he treated people so well."

Jensen is survived by his three children—Silvie Jensen, Duggan Jensen and Chloe Jensen—and five grandchildren. "I'm not sure my words are adequate to express my love for my dad and how much I will miss him," said Silvie, "but I'll add that Josh was a true original. 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. We will all miss him tremendously."


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