A tribute to Mr. Pinot.
For many, wine is a passion. For Josh Jensen, it was a calling. One that he answered with gusto–forever changing the landscape of American wines.
Josh fell in love with wine while touring Europe in his early 20’s. And while he saw much of the continent in a VW van, he quickly became enamored with Burgundy–the region that would inspire his life’s work. During his stays, he got jobs picking grapes at legendary growers Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Domaine Dujac, and Château-Grillet in the Rhône.
At the time he returned to the US, pinot noir from California was described as “stewed stuff from the hot Central Valley.” But Josh became determined to produce Burgundy-quality pinot noir in the state. From his experience in France, Josh believed he knew the secret of successfully growing this grape: limestone.
It took two years of single-mindedly pursuing the perfect location, but Josh eventually stakes his claim atop Mt. Harlan–a remote location without paved roads, electricity, nor plentiful running water, and no other wine-producers in sight. But he dug in, planting three vineyards that would be the start of Calera Wine Co.
Josh debuted his first wines in 1978, with each of the six estate pinot noirs being produced the same way: 100% whole-cluster fermented using ambient yeasts, then aged in French oak before being bottled unfiltered. The result was medium bodied wines with tons of natural acidity, vivid fruit flavors, and underpinning of limestone and mineral.
He would go on to trademark the “Calera clone of pinot noir” and plant more vineyards. He also expanded into Chardonnay, Aligoté, and Viognier, of which he was one of the first growers in the state.
Through his success, Josh inspired more growers to establish vineyards in other remote parts of California, including the Sonoma Coast, the Anderson Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Santa Rita Hills.
But, Calera remained the only vineyard on Mt. Harlan, which I interpret as a sign of well-earned respect. And, in 1990, Josh successfully lobbied the federal government to give Mt. Harlan its own American Viticultural Area designation. This effectively created one of the country’s only monopole appellations, and poetically allowed Calera to follow in the footsteps of the great wineries that shaped Josh’s education.
After 43 harvests, Josh sold Calera in 2017.
Even as a godfather of California wine, Josh still considered Burgundy a second home throughout his life. It was there that he was given the nickname Mr. Pinot, which, considering the source, I believe to be one of Josh’s most impressive accolades.
Because of Josh Jensen, California has become a preeminent global producer of pinot noir. A region so prolific that one might not even realize that it wouldn’t have been possible without the passion and insights of one man.
With Josh’s passing last month, he leaves behind an incomparable legacy, having made a profound impact on the region’s past, present, and future. Thank you, Mr. Pinot.
Danilo Diazgranados is an independent investor in the global food and wine, financial services, real estate, and the hospitality sectors.