Josh Jensen, who, after a single-minded quest within the Nineteen Seventies to seek out the right web site in California to develop the pinot noir grape, turned the primary producer of persistently wonderful American pinot noir via his Calera Wine Firm, inspiring a brand new technology of West Coast winemakers, died on Saturday at his house in San Francisco. He was 78.
The trigger was a number of well being points, his daughter Silvie Jensen mentioned.
Good American pinot noir was hardly ever seen in 1972, when Mr. Jensen, enamored with the Burgundy area of France, the supply of the world’s nice pinot noirs and chardonnays, got down to produce his personal model in California. With a couple of exceptions, most American pinot noir on the time was at greatest easy and fruity; extra usually it was stewed stuff from the recent Central Valley.
However Mr. Jensen had a unique concept. He had labored briefly in Burgundy and noticed firsthand pinot noir’s affinity for limestone, the area’s bedrock. He was satisfied that if he might discover limestone in California, the place it was uncommon, he might make nice wines with the complexity and talent to age that was typical of excellent Burgundy.
It took him a strong two years of monkish devotion — poring over geology charts and mining surveys, scouring the countryside for the mixture of limestone and gentle local weather that may give him the nice wine he envisioned.
In 1974, he discovered his web site, 2,200 ft excessive on the distant slopes of Mount Harlan within the Gabilan Vary in San Benito County, two hours southeast of San Francisco. By no means thoughts the isolation, or the dearth of paved roads, electrical energy and working water, or the truth that, as Mr. Jensen later put it, the location was “a Frisbee toss” from the San Andreas Fault. His imaginative and prescient outshined the potential pitfalls.
He purchased the parcel, on which he discovered a well-preserved outdated limekiln. Quickly after, residing in a trailer together with his spouse, Jeanne Newman, and her small baby, he started to plant his first three vineyards — Jensen (named after his father), Selleck (for a mentor) and Reed (for an investor) — circumscribing the mountain, every with totally different exposures to the solar. In 1975, Calera Wine Firm was born, taking its identify from the Spanish phrase for limekiln.
The primary small crop arrived in 1978, a 12 months after Mr. Jensen purchased further land 1,000 ft down the mountain to construct a vineyard, a makeshift facility that was largely uncovered to the weather.
“The isolation of Calera was hanging,” mentioned Ted Lemon, who labored briefly with Mr. Jensen within the early Nineteen Eighties earlier than working in Burgundy and establishing Littorai in Sonoma County, Calif., the place he continues to make noteworthy pinot noirs and chardonnays. “There was no winemaking group, nobody down the street to borrow gear from if one thing broke. Nevertheless, that additionally contributed to the sense of journey and to the pioneering spirit.”
In distinction to the prevailing strategies in California, Mr. Jensen used the ambient yeast on the grapes for fermentation slightly than inoculating the grapes with industrial yeast. He didn’t filter the wines. Early on, he wanted to complement his personal manufacturing, shopping for zinfandel grapes in order that he had sufficient wine to promote to pay the payments.
Quickly sufficient, within the mid-Nineteen Eighties, the Calera pinot noirs started to obtain discover. They have been classically styled within the Burgundy custom, not simple to take pleasure in younger but structured to age properly, with the extreme fruit flavors that come from California sunshine.
Every of the vineyards appeared to supply its personal singular expression. Most essential, the Calera pinot noirs have been persistently good 12 months after 12 months, not like the one-off pinot noir triumphs that had sometimes tantalized different producers however that they have been unable to breed.
Over time, Mr. Jensen added three extra vineyards, Mills, Ryan and de Villiers, to the unique 24 acres, planted with pinot noir, chardonnay, aligoté and viognier. The Calera vineyards finally totaled 85 acres.
“It’s simple to overlook how few distinguished pinot noir producers there have been in California within the Nineteen Eighties and the way few have been in a position to preserve and enhance high quality over the a long time that adopted,” Mr. Lemon mentioned. “Calera did that. In that alone, Josh achieved a rare feat.”
Mr. Jensen didn’t simply make distinctive wines. His success impressed others to strive their hand with pinot noir. New vineyards have been quickly planted in different distant areas of California, just like the Sonoma Coast, the Anderson Valley of Mendocino County, the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Santa Rita Hills, within the western extremes of the Santa Ynez valley in Santa Barbara County. But no person else ventured out to Mount Harlan, which the federal authorities permitted as an American Viticultural Space in 1990.
“Josh’s full dedication and fervour to take something to the restrict to realize high quality turned an inspiration for a lot of who adopted,” Mr. Lemon mentioned. “Few had the braveness to strike out into such an intimidating, distant location, however many have been impressed by his work.”
Jonathan Eddy Jensen was born on Feb. 11, 1944, in Seattle to Dr. Stephen Jensen, a dentist, and Jasmine (Eddy) Jensen, a homemaker. He grew up in Orinda, Calif., the place he was nicknamed Josh; the nickname caught. He later legally modified his identify to Josh Edison Jensen, taking his center identify from the inventor, with whom he shared a birthday.
He graduated from Yale College, the place he majored in historical past and rowed crew. He then spent two years at New School on the College of Oxford in England, the place he obtained a grasp’s diploma in anthropology and continued to row, collaborating in a race in 1967 wherein Oxford beat Cambridge, its archrival.
Mr. Jensen had been launched to wine by a buddy of his father’s. After getting his diploma, he went to France in 1970 to work the harvest at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, the famed Burgundy property in Vosne-Romanée. He fell in love with Burgundy and spent components of the following few years there, together with at Domaine Dujac, then a fledgling property in Morey-St.-Denis and now one of many area’s most esteemed producers.
When he wasn’t working in Burgundy, his son, Duggan, mentioned, he crisscrossed Europe and the Center East in an outdated Volkswagen van, usually sleeping within the again, a foretaste of his California hunt.
Mr. Jensen’s marriage to Ms. Newman led to divorce. Along with his son and his daughter Silvie, he’s survived by one other daughter, Chloe Jensen; a stepdaughter, Melissa Jensen; two sisters, Thea Engesser and Stephenie Ward; and 5 grandchildren.
Calera pinot noirs have been thought-about amongst America’s greatest via the Nineteen Nineties and into the 2000s. Mr. Jensen’s license plate learn “Mr Pinot,” as he had been nicknamed in Burgundy, the place he was thought-about an honorary Burgundian. He usually returned there to bicycle together with his pals.
Mr. Jensen was a mentor to youthful pinot noir producers like Andy Peay, an proprietor of Peay Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast.
“He was not merely a lover of pinot noir however of books, garments, tradition, and banter — that’s what drew me to him,” Mr. Peay mentioned on Monday. “He was strong-minded, open-minded, and didn’t push his agenda on you.”
As pinot noir turned fashionable in america within the late Nineteen Nineties, the prevailing type started to vary. As a substitute of the tense, structured but restrained wines that Mr. Jensen most well-liked, critics lauded plush, powerfully fruity pinot noirs that have been excessive in alcohol content material. Mr. Jensen was not a fan.
“These huge, top-heavy fruit bombs, as an alternative of getting extra depth, they only get softer and change into flabby,” he mentioned in 2009.
Nonetheless, the alcohol content material of his personal wines started to rise with time, which he attributed to local weather change and drought.
In 2017, Mr. Jensen, whose youngsters weren’t keen on carrying on his work on Mount Harlan, bought Calera to Duckhorn Portfolio, which owns a number of distinguished California wineries.
Mr. Jensen, whom the California winemaker Randall Grahm not too long ago known as “the Werner Herzog of vignerons,” by no means wavered in his devotion to the mixture of limestone and pinot noir.
“I’m a real believer,” he mentioned.