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If it weren’t for California winemaker Josh Jensen, pinot noir could be just another grape variety. But inspired by his dogmatic pursuit of producing wines that rivalled the best of Burgundy, writers likened the ancient grape to be a guiding light towards something always out of reach.
Pinot noir became known as the Heartbreak Grape. Jensen’s quest was compared to the search for the Holy Grail.
Never mind that cabernet sauvignon played the leading role in the celebrated wines that cemented the reputations of Bordeaux’s first growths in the historic 1855 classification: Haut-Brion, Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Latour and Margaux. Pinot noir was in a league of its own.
Jensen, who died June 11 at the age of 78, is widely hailed as a visionary vintner who helped set the agenda for premium winemaking in the so-called New World of wine, which is to say pretty much any region outside of Europe and the Mediterranean basin.
After completing his education at Oxford (a master’s degree in social anthropology), Jensen took a job picking gapes at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti one year and Domaine Dujac the next. He returned home to California and started the hunt for a local vineyard that resembled the limestone hills of Burgundy. (Other than brief apprenticeships in France, Jensen didn’t possess any winemaking or business experience, but he knew what he wanted.)
Old geological maps of the state of California helped to identify potential limestone pockets and a two-year search ensued. In 1974, Jensen set his sights on Mount Harlan, in Hollister, a perch in the Gavilan Mountains, which divide Monterey and San Benito counties. The remote location lacked paved roads, electricity and running water, but it had the limestone-rich soils the founder believed necessary to bring out the best in pinot. He dubbed the estate Calera, after the Spanish word for “limekiln,” and planted three pinot noir vineyards in 1975, calling them Jensen, Selleck and Reed.
The first wines were released in 1978. That vintage was put into half bottles to stretch the meager production of 65 cases. But Jensen’s wines quickly captured people’s imaginations.
Shortly after they would inspire one of the best English language books written on wine, The Heartbreak Grape, by Marq de Villiers, a Canadian writer who tasted one of Calera’s pinot noirs in 1987 and determined to find out who was responsible this otherworldly wine.
Originally published in 1989, with a revised edition in 2006, The Heartbreak Grape was shortlisted for the James Beard Award for best book on wine and spirits and the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. Its real victory, however, would be the successful spell it cast on likeminded winemakers, including many in Canada who were tempted by the siren song of pinot noir and took up their own form of Jenson’s pursuit.
As a result, wine lovers have been rewarded with increasing volumes of compelling and complex pinot noirs made in vineyards around the world.
Jensen would reciprocate the honour by naming a 15-acre parcel the De Villiers Vineyard in 1997.
After 43 harvests, Jensen sold his family’s winery to the Duckhorn Wine Company in 2017. At the time, he explained the sale would ensure a future for Calera in the care of dedicated wine professionals who could carry on his quest to craft the perfect pinot noir.