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Californian Pinot Noir pioneer Josh Jensen passes away

Pioneering Californian winemaker Josh Jensen died peacefully at the age of 78 over the weekend.

Josh Jensen was famed for producing elegant, silky Pinot Noirs at Calera Wine Company on the Central Coast. 

Leading wine critic Robert Parker Jr once described Calera – the company that Jensen founded in 1971 – as ‘California’s Romanée-Conti.’

Jensen completed undergraduate studies at Yale, but his love of fine wine blossomed while completing an MA in social anthropology at Oxford University in the UK. He was a key member of the rowing crew at both universities, but he still found time to develop a fondness for wine at Oxford.

That took him on a whirlwind tour of Europe, where he worked as a winery hand in various regions, before finally landing a dream job harvesting for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy.

Jensen went on to work at Domaine Dujac, followed by a stint at Château-Grillet in the Rhône Valley.

A Quest for Elegance in California

Upon returning to the US, Jensen set out to create unique wines that paid homage to the finest Burgundies.

His Burgundian mentors insisted that truly great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay must be grown in limestone-rich soils, as found in the Côtes d’Or.

He spent two years searching California for limestone, and he finally settled on a wild patch of land located on the steep slopes of Mt. Harlan, a 3,278-foot peak in the Gavilan Mountains that divide Monterey and San Benito counties.

The following year, while living in a trailer on the remote property with his wife and her seven-year-old daughter, Jensen founded Calera, named after the Spanish word for ‘limekiln’.

He did not have a paved road, electricity or a phone line, but he began doggedly planting his first three estate vineyards. They yielded their first small crop in 1978.

The wines immediately enjoyed critical acclaim, showcasing levels of structure and sophistication rarely found in the New World at the time.

Throughout his winemaking career, Jensen’s Pinot Noirs continued to effortlessly straddle the line between elegance and power, benefiting from harmonious tannins and outstanding complexity and concentration.

He established his own Calera Pinot Noir clone, and planted three more vineyards on Mt. Harlan – Mills, de Villiers and Ryan – as well as small blocks of Chardonnay, Aligoté and some of the earliest plantings of Viognier in California. 

He also began working with some of the top vineyards on California’s Central Coast to make Calera’s Central Coast Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier and a Vin Gris of Pinot Noir.

Jensen established Mt. Harlan American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1990, making Calera one of just a handful of wineries in the world with its own AVA.

He is credited with kickstarting the Pinot Noir boom in California, and he garnered several accolades on either side of the Atlantic.

Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac described Calera’s wines as ‘the most Burgundian of Californian Pinots’, while journalist and wine writer Jon Bonné described them as ‘the best of American winemaking’ when handing Jensen the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2007 Winemaker of the Year award.

‘They are a reminder that the most extraordinary wines still come from a personal quest for perfection, a willingness to brush back sceptics and persevere in untested places,’ added Bonné.

A Lasting Legacy

In August 2017, Jensen decided to sell Calera to The Duckhorn Portfolio. He had helmed the project for 43 years, and his three grown children were pursuing careers outside the wine industry, so the time was right for a new chapter.

Following the sale, he served on The Duckhorn Portfolio’s board of directors alongside his good friend, Dan Duckhorn.

Alex Ryan, president and chief executive of The Duckhorn Portfolio, described him as ‘one of the most unique and influential figures in the modern American wine industry’ and ‘a visionary’.

‘I consider myself very fortunate to have worked alongside him and gotten to know him,’ added Ryan. ‘For those who understand the story of American Pinot Noir, his contributions cannot be overstated.’

‘He changed our industry forever. While his passing is an immeasurable loss for everyone who knew him, we honour and celebrate his life by continuing his legacy.’

Jensen passed away peacefully at home on Saturday, 11 June. He is survived by his three children – Silvie, Duggan and Chloe – and five grandchildren.

‘He was a true original,’ said Silvie. ‘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.’

A remembrance book will be available at the Calera Tasting Room for the next four weeks for anyone wishing to share a message or condolences. The books will then be given to the Jensen family.

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