18 June 2022
By Göran R Buckhorn
Winemaker Josh Jensen, “Mr. Pinot”, who became the first producer of dependably excellent American pinot noir, died on 11 June at age 78. In his younger days, Jensen rowed for Yale and later for Oxford, writes plonk-drinker Göran Buckhorn.
Jonathan “Josh” Eddy Jensen was born on 11 February 1944 in Seattle, Washington. His parents, Dr. Stephen Jensen, a dentist, and Jasmine (Eddy) Jensen, a homemaker, moved to Orinda, California, where young Josh grew up. He later changed his name to Josh Edison Jensen, taking his middle name from the American inventor and businessman Thomas Edison, as they shared the same birth date in February.
Jensen went to study at Yale, where he majored in history and, as The New York Time’s wine critic Eric Asimov writes in an obituary, using an Americanism, “rowed crew”. Jensen then continued his studies at New College, Oxford, where he received an MA in anthropology. He carried on rowing at Oxford and rowed in the 1967 winning Dark Blue boat in the Boat Race. Rowing in the four seat, the 6’4” Jensen, with his 15 stone 4 pounds (97.8 kg), was the heaviest oarsman in the crew. The lightest rower in the Oxford crew that year was the famous-coach-to-be Dan Topolski, who weighed in at 11 stone 13 pounds (70,7 kg). This came to be the last winning Oxford crew coached by legendary Jumbo Edwards, Chris Dodd writes in The Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race (1983).
After the Boat Race, Oxford went to the 1967 Henley Royal to compete in the Grand Challenge Cup with a slightly different crew than their Blue boat, now with Jensen at the six seat, rowing behind Topolski. In their first heat, they easily beat some of Jensen’s countrymen in the University of Wisconsin crew. But in their next heat, Oxford were overpowered by SC Wissenschaft DHfK, Leipzig. The Germans won the cup by beating a crew from Tideway Scullers.
Jensen also competed in a coxed four in the Prince Philip Challenge Cup in 1967. However, the Oxford crew was overtaken by the Tideway Scullers, and so ended Jensen’s Henley adventure.
The wine writer Jancis Robinson writes in a piece about Jensen that “He would have rowed in the 1968 Mexico Olympics had his rowing partner been fit enough,” but I have not found any information about this.
After not going to the Olympics, Jensen started to pursue other interests. He went to work at the wine harvest at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, a Burgundy estate in Vosne-Romanée in France in 1970. Jensen went back to France on several occasions to work and to learn the trade.
In the beginning of the 1970s, a good pinot noir was a rare thing in the Unites States. Jensen decided to produce his own pinot noirs and chardonnays in California. He had seen pinot noir’s affinity for limestone in Burgundy, so he was sure if he could find limestone in California, he would succeed in his quest to produce first class American wines. After a two-year search, in 1974, Jensen found the ideal spot to grow the pinot grape in the remote Mountain Harlan, south of San Francisco. Here he set up his firm, the Calera Wine Company in 1975; “Calera” took its name from the Spanish word for limekiln.
Three years later, the first small crop arrived. In 1979, Jensen bought additional land, where he built a winery. In the mid-1980s, Jensen’s pinot noirs received notice.
“Over time, Mr. Jensen added three more vineyards, Mills, Ryan and de Villiers, to the original 24 acres, planted with pinot noir, chardonnay, aligoté and viognier. The Calera vineyards eventually totaled 85 acres,” Eric Asimov writes.
With his success, Josh Jensen became a mentor to younger pinot noir producers. Through the 1990s, the Calera pinot noirs were regarded as America’s best. “Mr Pinot”, Jensen’s license plate read on his car, was a nickname he had been given already in Burgundy, where he often returned to bicycle together with his friends.
Jensen sold his vineyard Calera on Mount Harlan to The Duckhorn Portfolio in 2007 as his children had no interest to continue his work.
Jensen died peacefully in his home in San Francisco. His daughter Silvie Jensen said in a statement that the cause was multiple health issues. Wine critic Janicis Robinson writes on her website that Jensen “died after a prolonged period of ill health. Pneumonia contracted after climbing Mount Kilimanjaro was exacerbated by a particularly serious case of COVID-19.”
Josh Edison Jensen, born 11 February 1944, died 11 June 2022. He is survived by his son Duggan and daughter Silvie; another daughter Chloe Jensen; a stepdaughter, Melissa Jensen; two sisters, Thea Engesser and Stephenie Ward; and five grandchildren.