On June 17, Josh Jensen was laid to rest at the Oddfellows Cemetery in Hollister, a city he came to love and had put on the map with his groundbreaking Calera Winery company and its vineyards on Mt. 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 helped make the Cienega Valley internationally famous, as Calera regularly appears on lists of the greatest wineries in the world.
“People take for granted what he has meant to the wine business,” 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 that Jensen did not change the nature of Cienega Valley but rather found his own niche.
“Planting pinot noir around limestone on Mt. Harlan was something completely different than 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 vineyards, focusing on areas with the correct geology which, in 1974, he found in Mt. Harlan’s limestone dome.
“Any place a grapevine has to struggle, it produces more intense fruit,” Waller said in a previous BenitoLink interview. “In limestone soil, you have more drainage so not a lot of water availability. The roots have to go deeper into the soil and it helps with the complexity of the grapes.”
Jensen leaned on vineyard manager Jim Ryan during much of Calera’s history and Waller credits the relationship between the two for creating the Calera mystique.
“They were like brothers and they bickered like brothers,” Waller said. “But Jim knew his vines and I think he was integral in Calera’s success.”
Waller began working for Jensen in 2007 and found what was expected of him to be different from what he learned in school.
“I went to UC-Davis,” he said, “and they teach you to make big wines in a very safe way. You’re going to use yeast, you are going to de-stem and filter—all of these things Josh wasn’t doing. And for me, it was a really risky way of winemaking that took me a couple of years to get comfortable with. I had to trust Josh, but on the other hand, he had been doing it like this for 30 years already.”
Waller said that Jensen was somewhat skeptical about whether he was going to be a good hire.
Jensen “had a lot of turnover in the position of assistant winemaker,” he said. “There were not a lot of options there to become the head winemaker and I think Josh was accustomed to people moving on. With me, I think he realized that we had a similar vision and after two years he knew I was not there to jump ship and that I was also not trying to replace him.”
The first wines they made together were spectacular, receiving high ratings 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’ll have to pat myself on the back.’ It was his way of telling me not to get too cocky.”
Waller was named winemaker by Jensen in 2009 and found him to be very demanding at times.
“That’s what great winemakers are all about,” he said. “There were times later in his career that he trusted me more, but he knew what he wanted from me and from the vineyard.
Jensen retired in 2017, selling his interest in the winery to Duckhorn Vineyards, but Waller kept in touch with him up to his death.
“I think, after retiring, he forgot about his significance,” Waller said. “But as for the people who worked for him, we were just so grateful for him. He was so generous to us, like a part of the family.”
Asked what he thought Jensen’s lasting legacy would be, Waller said Jensen created a trend in which many winemakers of the ’80s and ’90s switched to making pinot noirs after tasting the Mt. Harlan wines.
“It isn’t that they copied him but rather that they were inspired by him,” Waller said. “I think he opened a lot of the eyes of people trying to find new regions and new subregions, knowing that we can take chances.”
As for Calera Wine Company, Waller sees it continuing to enhance Jensen’s reputation.
“This is Calera,” he said. “This is Josh’s legacy. I am just in the background, following his visions. I am not going to do anything to change this place and I told him that several times. I just want to be sure these wines are made. I think my job is to keep the vineyards healthy and keep making the best wines we can.”
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