Meet Josh Jensen, the Pinot pioneer who
put Hollister on the world wine map
By Deborah Luhrman
Photography by Jim Wimberg
“I never get tired of this view,” says Calera Wine’s Josh Jensen as we sit down at a picnic table in front of the winery to talk about his solitary life and his single-minded focus on crafting world-class Pinot Noir in a most unexpected place.
Stretching out in front of us is an unblemished panorama of rolling hills as far as the eye can see. They are studded with oaks and chaparral in the parched Gavilan range along Cienega Road, about 10 miles south of Hollister and right on top of the San Andreas Fault.
The view from Jensen’s office in the winery is just the same and so is the view from his home up the hill, where he lives with four working cats. “I talk to them, but they don’t talk back much. Maybe that’s why I like them,” he says, only half in jest. With your back to the winery, no evidence of human represence is visible, save for some high-tension power lines in the far distance.
“I love the sounds at night of the coyotes or the cattle on the ranch across the hill from us. I love the birds chirping, and I have a wild beehive right outside my kitchen window,” he adds.
The view hasn’t changed at all since Jensen founded Calera in 1975 after scouring California for limestone soils similar to the ones that produce the great Burgundy wines of France.
But the wine landscape is decidedly different. At that time, Almaden—one of the biggest winemakers in America—had two behemoth wineries in San Benito County. A small startup winery called Enz was at the end of Cienega Road, and Calera came along two years later.
“The county consisted of an 800-pound gorilla, which was Almaden, and two little ants,” he recalls. “From being one of those two little ants, now we’re considered the senior winery in the county.”
Josh Jensen grew up in the East Bay suburb of Orinda, but went to the East Coast for college and then on to Oxford for grad school. After living in England he bummed around Europe, fortuitously scoring a job picking grapes at the most famous winery in Burgundy, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and the following fall at another Burgundy estate.
Already in love with Pinot Noir and white Burgundies, Jensen became convinced that the unique limestone ridges of the Côte d’Or were what made the French wines so great. On returning to California, he searched out and found limestone soils atop Mount Harlan in the desolate Gavilan Range that closely resembled those he’d seen in Burgundy.
And that’s how Calera winery began. It’s a story that’s been told many times over in the adoring wine trade press and in between sips of wine in the tasting room. There’s even a book written about Jensen’s struggles to get his vineyards going on the steep, arid slopes, called The Heartbreak Grape by South African writer, Marq De Villiers.
“I’m absolutely still in love with Pinot,” says Jensen, now 71 and celebrating Calera’s 40th anniversary. “What I love about Pinot Noir is that the greatest examples are elegant, subtle and incredibly complex, with three or four different levels of aroma and of flavor.
The most complex wines are the greatest.” Calera, which means limekiln in Spanish, produces Pinots, Chardonnay and Viognier in a winery fashioned from a former rock crushing plant that’s something to see. It’s a unique seven-level, gravity-flow system that allows for minimal handling and maximum efficiency. Jensen’s winemaking techniques are also minimalist, giving the limestone minerality a chance to sing.
“Grapevine roots can go down 80 feet, interpreting if they find granite down there or schist or igneous rock and sending that input back to the grapes,” he explains, adding that other environmental factors like temperature, elevation, native grasses and chaparral plants also play a role.
“We have chemise brush, manzanita, scrub oak and ceanothus, which is wild lilac, and one of my favorite aromas that exists,” says Jensen, who tends 83.6 acres of grapes on Mount Harlan and buys from neighboring Central Coast growers.
Despite a rock star reputation in the wine world, Jensen and Calera remain relatively obscure here at home. “We sell tiny amounts of wine in our backyard,” he admits. “Our wines are not rip-off high priced, but they are higher priced than anybody else is making in this county.” Pinots retail for $28–85 online and Chardonnays for $20–36.
“I never wanted to just sell our wines in Hollister and San Benito County or Monterey County. Right from day one I started selling in 10 other states,” he says. “I had gone to grad school in England and lived in France, so I thought it shouldn’t just be people in California who get to drink Calera; it should be people all across the country and in wine markets in different parts of the world.”
Surprisingly, Japan has turned out to be Calera’s biggest market, accounting for 37% of sales. “Twenty years ago we had this serendipitous bit of good luck,” he explains. “One of the main wine columns gave us a massive compliment and the next morning there was a line around the block outside the one wine shop in Tokyo that carried our wines.”
It was a popular Japanese manga or cartoon strip column that people read on the subway on the way to work and it compared Calera to the wines of Jensen’s mentors at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Sales skyrocketed and Jensen began making annual trips to Japan to meet his fans. This spring, a nineday tour took him up and down the country speaking at sold-out seminars and tastings in Tokyo, Hokkaido, Nagoya and Osaka.
Back here in California, Calera is one of the founding wineries of the San Franciscobased group, In Pursuit of Balance, formed to promote more nuanced, subtle wines than are common in California. “The idea was that there are too many Pinot Noirs being made that are overdone, over-ripe, over-heavy,” he says. “We don’t want any flame throwers.”
Daughter Silvie—one of Jensen’s three children and an aspiring singer with the San Francisco Opera—has begun helping out with the twice-yearly IPoB tastings. “The idea is to get back to wines that are meant to accompany meals, and it’s been a very good thing,” he says.
Here, Josh Jensen is dressed
casually for a day at the
vineyard, but he’s known as
one of the best-dressed men
in the wine business. His
closet is filled with flashy
vintage jackets, belts, ties
and shirts, picked up over
the years at the now-defunct
Versace boutique at
the Gilroy outlet mall.
“There will never be another
Gianni Versace,” he
says with a sigh.
Jensen is a deep thinker and a committed environmentalist. He joined in the campaign against fracking in San Benito County and is still jubilant about the ban approved by voters last fall—one of the state’s first. Calera vineyards have been cultivated organically for decades and were certified organic in 2008.
“The land I bought had never in the history of the world been planted on. It was in a pure, pure untrammeled state,” he explains of his decision to go organic. “I thought how bad it would be if I ruined the land and filled it up with salts and toxic chemicals so that at some point you couldn’t do any farming here.”
“I wanted to do just the opposite. I wanted it to be sustainable and to increase the fertility and health of the soil,” he adds. Like most farmers, Jensen’s biggest environmental concern right now is the drought.
“It’s a disaster. We only got 4 inches of rain last winter. Nobody who’s alive can remember it being this dry,” he says, clearly alarmed by a book he’s been reading called The West Without Water by two University of California, Berkeley climate scientists.
As he did last year, Jensen trucks in five 3,000-gallon tanks of water a day from a neighbor’s artesian well. Five days a week from mid-March to mid-October the water is transported and stored in steel tanks to irrigate the grapes through drip lines.
“I hope we can make it to October, but we may get cut off at any time,” he says. “I can’t believe we would go out of business, but there are no guarantees. This is a new ballgame, and we don’t really know how to play it yet.” But after all the obstacles that Jensen has overcome on the road to Calera’s current success, it’s likely he’ll find a way to survive the drought, too. And while many of his contemporaries are retiring or selling their wineries, he has no such intentions.
“I still enjoy coming to work every morning,” he says. “I told my kids I’m not going to sell this winery. If they decide to sell it after I kick the bucket, that’s their problem, but I’m not going to sell Calera while I have anything to say about it.”
Brand new at Calera is San Benito County’s first wine cave—1,050 feet of underground tunnels bored into the cliffs alongside the winery in a grid pattern.
“I always thought tunnels were baloney. I thought people who have caves had more money than sense, but I got backed into it,” says Jensen.
He originally planned to expand the winery into the parking lot, but the county wanted him to build a water treatment plant and sprinkler system, so he went underground where the permitting process was relatively easy. “I absolutely did not want to own and operate a water treatment plant!” he adds.
The caves have an impressive Calistoga stone entry and tall, 6-inch thick mahogany doors. Resting inside are 1,838 neatly stacked French oak barrels filled with the 2014 harvest. At the end of each passageway is a raw rock wall—a striking visual reminder of where the minerality comes from in Calera wine. The caves also contain a library vault and a cone-shaped concrete fermentation tank filled with 300 gallons of Viognier. A hospitality room at the center has yet to be finished, but will someday be used for tastings and special events.
While the caves aren’t open to the public yet, there’s a friendly tasting room inside the winery open daily from 11am–4:30pm and picnic tables outside. Jensen welcomes visitors. Bring a picnic lunch and you, too, can enjoy his spectacular view.
Deborah Luhrman is deputy editor of Edible Monterey Bay and editor of our weekly newsletter. A lifelong journalist, she has reported from around the globe, but now prefers covering our flourishing local food scene and growing her own vegetables in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
JENSEN’S VIEW: For a glimpse of Jensen’s view from Calera Wine, see photograph on p. 2. Or better yet, visit the winery in person: You’ll find our guide to all San Benito County wineries that are open to the public under the “LOCAL FOOD GUIDES” tab at www.ediblemontereybay.com.
EXPLORE: See related stories, p. 48-51 about San Benito County’s Wine Trail and new dining opportunities along it.