Josh Jensen, founder of Calera Winery in Hollister and owner-operator of one of the most unique vineyard sites in California, Mt. Harlan, died in his sleep at his home in San Francisco this week. He was 78.
Jensen was a student at Oxford in the late sixties when, traveling in France on a post-graduate fellowship, he got bitten by the wine bug. He worked a stage in Burgundy and toured the Rhône Valley as a side trip; there at a dinner at Beau Rivage on the banks of the Rhône he had his first taste of Condrieu and it changed him: “It just knocked me out,” he says. “I had become familiar with German wines, which, like Condrieu are very aromatic and floral; when you put them in your mouth those wines are very elegant, delicate, even elusive. But Condrieu was like this blockbuster. It wasn’t small and elegant and delicate. It was huge and explosive and rich—a powerhouse. I used to think of the wines as almost schizophrenic, because the aromas lead you to expect one thing and then when it hits your mouth, kapow!”
At Calera, his entire oeuvre settled into Burgundian varieties (pinot noir, chardonnay and aligoté) and viognier. He went in search of limestone—his French compatriots insisted that pinot noir must be planted in limestone—which led him to the Gabilan Range east of Monterey and Mt. Harlan, a rugged, remote outcropping rich in limestone, more than 3,000 feet above sea level. Planting a vineyard in this isolated, desolate, hard-to-reach spot was one of the most quixotic efforts in modern California wine history, a testament to Jensen’s dogged, indomitable vision. It paid off: a monopole composed of nine different vineyard blocks, Mt. Harlan became synonymous with the Calera Winery and with Jensen; the wines from the site are some of the most unique in California.
They were, above all, monuments to the terroir of the place. This was a simple lesson he learned in his earliest days, at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. “When I got to DRC I was anxious to see all the bells and whistles,” he told me in 2009, “and I looked in vain. It was absolutely the simplest process you could imagine. You bring the grapes in, wait until they start to ferment on their own, punch down with your feet, press into barrels, and you bottle. ‘Where were the gizmos?’ I wondered. ‘Where were those special tricks and high-tech gadgets?’ There ain’t none. It’s basic, basic farming, a nineteenth-century methodology. My only conclusion was that the greatness of DRC came from the terroir. That it couldn’t be duplicated was such a fascinating concept. That was my gotcha moment, when I realized that there was no razzle dazzle.”
Calera’s Mt. Harlan’s wines were devoid of razzle dazzle and specific to place: rich, flavorful, highly structured evocations of California pinot noir built not from wind and maritime conditions (not directly, at any rate) but from the uniquely harsh soils and radial intensity of his aerie in the middle of nowhere. His viogniers, meanwhile, were as pure as any in the state, a benchmark for a category that he established, and still reigns over.
Jensen reserved his razzle dazzle, perhaps, for his wardrobe. It’s nearly impossible not to think of him in one of his one-of-a-kind suits: bright, wildly patterned, usually radiating a soft satiny gleam, a bolo tie slung around his neck in a vain attempt to tether the ensemble. His outfits were far louder than he ever was. Jensen, who was well over six feet tall, towered above every tasting and reception he attended, rail thin, with chiseled features, conveying his experience and erudition in a low and quavery tenor. When he poured his wines, no one else in the California wine world commanded attention quite like he did.
Patrick J. Comiskey covers US wines for Wine & Spirits magazine, focusing on the Pacific Northwest, California’s Central Coast and New York’s Finger Lakes.
This is a W&S web exclusive. Get access to all of our feature stories by signing up today.