A colleague reflects on the legacy of Pinot Noir pioneer Josh Jensen

Jensen, founder of Calera Wine Company, died June 11.

June 17, Josh Jensen was buried in Oddfellows Cemetery in Hollister, a town he loved and put on the map with his groundbreaking company Calera Winery and vineyards on Mount Harlan in the Cienega Valley.

Jensen, 78, died June 11 at his home in San Francisco. He left behind a legacy of fine winemaking that has helped bring international fame to the Cienega Valley, as Calera regularly appears on lists of the world’s greatest wineries.

“People take for granted what he has meant to the wine industry,” said Calera winemaker Mike Waller. “But he’s a legend, leaving his mark as being at the forefront of pinot noir in California.”

Waller said Jensen did not change the nature of the Cienega Valley but rather found his own niche.

“Planting pinot noir around the limestone on Mount Harlan was something completely different from what anyone else was doing,” Waller said. “He bucked the trend with what he did here. At that time, Napa Valley was kind of “it” for prestige wines. And Josh changed that.

Jensen spent years looking for a place to plant his vines, focusing on areas with the right geology he found in 1974 in the limestone dome of Mount Harlan.

“Wherever a vine has to struggle, it produces more intense fruit,” Waller said in a previous BenitoLink. interview. “In calcareous soil you have more drainage, so not a lot of water availability. The roots have to go deeper into the ground and that contributes to the complexity of the grapes.

Jensen relied on vineyard manager Jim Ryan for much of Calera’s history and Waller credits the relationship between the two with creating Calera’s mystique.

“They were like brothers and they bickered like brothers,” Waller said. “But Jim knew his vines and I think he was integral to Calera’s success.”

Waller started working for Jensen in 2007 and discovered that what was expected of him was different from what he learned in school.

“I went to UC-Davis,” he said, “and they teach you how to make great wines in a very safe way. You’re going to use yeast, you’re going to destem and strain – all those things that Josh didn’t do. And for me, it was a very risky winemaking method that took me a few years to get used to. I had to trust Josh, but on the other hand, he had been doing this for 30 years already.

Waller said Jensen was somewhat skeptical about whether he was going to be a good rookie.

Jensen “had a lot of turnover in the assistant winemaker position,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of options to become head winemaker and I think Josh was used to people leaving. With me, I think he realized we had a similar vision and after two years he knew that I was not here to jump ship nor was I trying to replace him.

The first wines they made together were spectacular and received high marks from wine critic Robert Parker. The wines excelled in part because the vineyard had an exceptional growing season and in part because of Jensen’s expertise.

“When I called to tell him,” Waller said, “Josh said, ‘Well then, I’m going to have to congratulate myself.’ It was his way of telling me not to be too cocky.

Waller was appointed winemaker by Jensen in 2009 and has found him very demanding at times.

“That’s what great winemakers are,” he said. “There were times later in his career when he trusted me more, but he knew what he wanted from me and from the vineyard.

Jensen retired in 2017, selling his stake in the winery to Duckhorn Vineyards, but Waller stayed in contact with him until his death.

“I think after he retired he forgot his importance,” Waller said. “But as far as the people who worked for him, we were so grateful to him. He was so generous with us, like a member of the family.

Asked what he thought Jensen’s lasting legacy would be, Waller said Jensen started a trend in which many winemakers in the 80s and 90s switched to making pinot noirs after tasting the wines of Mt. Harlan.

“It’s not that they copied him, but rather that they were inspired by him,” Waller said. “I think he opened a lot of people’s eyes trying to find new regions and new sub-regions, knowing that we can take risks.”

As for the Calera Wine Company, Waller sees it continuing to enhance Jensen’s reputation.

“It’s Calera,” he said. “It’s Josh’s legacy. I’m just in the background following his visions. I won’t do anything to change this place and I’ve told him so many times. I just want to be sure these wines are made. I think my job is to keep the vineyards healthy and continue to produce the best wines possible. »

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Elisha A. Tilghman