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Josh Jensen's Succession Plan? "Never to die"

Josh Jensen's Succession Plan? "Never to die"
© Calera
After spending his life turning a remote mountain spot into the source of some of California's greatest Pinot Noirs, Josh Jensen now has to start thinking about his legacy.

First, Josh Jensen built one of the world's great Pinot Noir wineries from scratch. Now, the man behind Calera is building a treehouse.

Jensen recently celebrated his 70th birthday at his amazing home, atop his winery a few miles from his vineyards on Mt. Harlan. From the windows he can see for miles in every direction and he can count on one hand the number of man-made objects in view. When winery work ceases in the evening, and his staff goes home, it's so quiet. Birds. The wind. Your own thoughts, as if you'd spoken them.

Such a quiet place is no dating hotbed for a divorced man, even one with a great view and an amazing wine cellar. "Women don't like it here," he says. Hence the treehouse.

Jensen has three adult children, a son and two daughters, all in New York City. He's building the treehouse as a lure for his three grandchildren, hoping that it will encourage his family to visit more often.

It may be the final challenge of an extraordinary career: finding someone to protect and nurture his legacy.

"My succession plan so far has been that I plan never to die," Jensen says, though he has contacted two firms that specialize in the matter – succession plans, not immortality.

This is a problem he would have been glad to face 30 years ago, when he'd been losing money for a decade with no end in sight. And, just 10 years ago, Calera lost money for three straight years after some necessary rebuilding and the entire staff took a pay cut.

Now, however, with the continuing popularity of Pinot Noir in both the U.S. and Japan – where Calera sells a whopping 37 percent of its wine – Calera has assets no winery in California can equal, starting with the heavy amount of limestone in the soil of his remote mountain vineyards. If there are Grand Crus of California Pinot Noir, Calera's single-vineyard expressions surely top the list.

The Selleck Vineyard on limestone soil basks in the afternoon sun
© Calera | The Selleck Vineyard on limestone soil basks in the afternoon sun

Calera's Pinots are so different from each other. Calera Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir is still a cult item in Japan more than 15 years after a manga comic book called "Sommelier" compared it to Romanée-Conti, which is perhaps not coincidentally where Jensen first worked, as a harvest helper in 1969. Calera Jensen Pinot is smooth and rich compared to the earthy, spicy Reed Vineyard Pinot (winemaker Mike Waller calls this wine "the hippie chick"), or the fruit-driven Selleck Vineyard Pinot.

Jensen Pinot Noir

As different as they taste, they're all from nearby spots on the same plot of land, and Jensen has a low-key answer about how one wine differs from the other. "The Jensen is from here," he says, standing in that portion of the vineyard. "The De Villiers is from over there."

Jensen knows he has limestone down deep – it was the reason he spent two years searching for the site and bought it despite having no power, no water and initially not even any access to it without a neighbor's permission.

And he knows Reed gets the morning sun while Selleck gets the afternoon sun.

But if he has investigated the matter more deeply than that, he doesn't say.

"Old vines with deep roots, they tell you what the soil is like," he says. "If the wines tasted the same, we wouldn't have to keep them separate. But they're different. They taste different."

How it all started

Josh Jensen's father was a dentist in California and not originally a wine drinker. A fellow dentist, George Selleck, bought him some German Rieslings, a controversial move in the late 1940s. Josh's father stored them in a hut in the backyard with the family's cow, pig and horses.

Selleck never found an appreciative audience in Josh's father, but he did in young Josh, who went off to Yale and then Oxford with a thirst for wine at a time when great bottles were affordable. At Oxford, Jensen made the Guinness Book of World Records as the then-heaviest man (at 214 pounds) to row in the 1967 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race.

He drank plenty of Bordeaux at Oxford, but it was Burgundy that really floated his boat. So in 1969, after earning his master's degree in anthropology, he crossed the English Channel and presented himself at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, asking for a job picking grapes. He worked there for the next two harvests and there's a longstanding rumor that Jensen smuggled clones of DRC's Pinot Noir vines out of France in his pants but he will neither confirm nor deny the speculation.

Whether true or not, Jensen has remained friends with Aubert de Villaine, who now runs DRC, and took him to his first baseball game, if you can imagine that. "He liked it so much he's never seen another," Jensen says.

After stints at wineries in Burgundy and the Rhône Valley, Jensen returned home in 1973 intending to make great Pinot Noir. He was convinced that the contemporary style of U.S. winemaking, heavily dependent on technology, was wrong for the grape. He had seen the great winemakers of Burgundy pick their grapes and leave them alone to ferment. He believed in terroir, he believed in limestone, and he believed in minimal intervention.

By searching with geologic maps from the Bureau of Mines, he eventually found a 324-acre site in San Benito County that he bought for just $18,000. The land's value was low because it was – and still is – so remote. The unpaved road is near impassable after rains, and it is a 20-minute drive to a paved road when it is passable. From there, it's another 25 minutes to the nearest town, Hollister (population 36,000).

It's a long drive from civilization to Calera; Jensen in the early days of Calera
© Calera | It's a long drive from civilization to Calera; Jensen in the early days of Calera

Perhaps this is why on his frequent visits to San Francisco, about 2 1/2 hours north, Jensen pulls no punches in his quest for sartorial excellence.

"He's quite a character. Best-dressed man in the wine business," says Jason Smith, wine director for Bellagio in Las Vegas.

"Josh lets the vineyard speak for itself," Smith says. "That's his personality. He wears his personality on his sleeve. They're in the top five Pinot Noirs in California. You can put them in the top Pinot Noirs in the world, with the complexity standing up to Burgundy.

"His wines were trailblazing, and the pendulum has swung back to him. He was doing wines with finesse years ago and now that's the buzzword in the American wine industry."

Yet the buzz doesn't penetrate quiet evenings on the estate. Jensen watches some television in the evenings: he likes "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, "The Colbert Report" and BBC World News. He doesn't like to watch movies at home because he prefers the big-screen experience; another excuse to go to San Francisco.

He has collected books for years, and loves to discuss them, yet says he recently discovered he's dyslexic and can't finish books anymore. He rides his bicycle in the mountains. Eats salads for dinner. And says, "I love the silence."

Meanwhile, the treehouse is almost finished.

Related stories:

The New California Wine

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Write Comment

  • Comments

    Peter Morrell wrote:
    08-May-2014 at 00:20:37 (GMT)

    I've been fortunate to know Josh, taste buy and sell and enjoy his consistently delicious Chards and Pinots since his very first releases. Everything he's achieved at Calera puts smiles on the lips of all who consume his wines. Happy 70th Josh!

  • Christopher Sawyer wrote:
    07-May-2014 at 03:34:07 (GMT)

    Great article, Blake. Josh is one of the finest people in the wine industry and the Calera wines showcase that on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, the treehouse concept seems right up his alley too!

  • Rob Gough wrote:
    07-May-2014 at 01:09:27 (GMT)

    Circa 1993: Fond memories of Josh frequentling Stars bar in SF for what he described as "the best $20 lunch in town"- a Stars hot dog, served with a glass of Pichon Longueville 1988. Ahh, the good old days... a sensible man for sure. Long live Calera.

  • Ambroise de Montigny wrote:
    03-May-2014 at 09:29:29 (GMT)

    a friend of mine, burgundy lover, talked to me about a great pinot noir 88 he had the luck to come across at the rockefeller center's skating ring restaurant many years ago. he described it as the best new world pinot he ever tasted, I wish these wines made it to Europe it would sure be an interesting experience to pair jensen's wines with a few burgundy wines, not for a competition but to find out what all these great winemakers with such different styles and terroirs have in common.

  • Aaron Bader wrote:
    02-May-2014 at 16:56:53 (GMT)

    Great piece on a CAL Pinot pioneer. Thank you.

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