Q&A with a pinot pioneer: Calera’s Josh Jensen reflects on changes

World-class Pinot Noir from California seemed an improbable goal back in 1975, when Josh Jensen planted his first vineyards at Calera Wine Co. Jensen, a California native, had spent a couple of harvests in Burgundy in the early 1970s, and the place and its wines were a revelation to him.

So when he returned home with the intention of producing his own wines, he looked for something familiar to all Burgundians: limestone. Jensen found it in the hills outside Hollister, in San Benito County, and established Calera.

Over the years, Calera gained a reputation for the distinctive single-vineyard Pinots produced from the winery’s estate vineyards on Mt. Harlan, which became an American Viticultural Area in 1990. Jensen himself gained a reputation as a pioneer and a visionary.

Josh Jensen planted Calera’s first vineyards in 1975. (Photo courtesy of Calera Wine Co.)

So the announcement in August that Calera was being sold to Duckhorn Wine Co. came as a shock to many. But Jensen had been considering a sale for several years because, he says, his three kids weren’t interested in the business. He says he didn’t want any of “the giants” to buy it, and if the right buyer didn’t come along, he wouldn’t sell. “A legacy is very important to me,” he adds.

Jensen had been friends with Duckhorn’s founders, Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, and even though the company is now owned by private equity firm TSG Consumer Partners, he thinks “it’s a wonderful fit.” Jensen plans to stay on at the winery for four more years.

Wines & Vines: You famously studied geologic maps to find limestone soils in California for your vineyard. Do you still think that soils were the most important thing? What about the influence of climate?

Josh Jensen: I would have to say that planting downhill from a limestone deposit is the icing on the cake. It is a factor that can raise Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from good to great. But climate is the most important thing. If your growing conditions are too hot, or not warm enough, you can’t make great Pinot Noir. In the early years, people thought Hollister was too hot for Pinot Noir. I heard this so often that I actually purchased the University of California-Berkeley’s annual book that records the 30-year temperature records for every town in the entire state. Using these records and a pocket calculator, I made a chart and compared Hollister to four other towns —  St. Helena, Healdsburg, Napa and Sonoma. Using temperatures going back 20 years, I averaged each day for the growing season from April through October and ranked them by which was coolest in terms of nighttime temperatures. Hollister was the coolest. Hollister also had the lowest daytime maximum temperatures.

From where I sit in my office, I look out on the Diablo mountain range. This range, which goes from Mount Diablo deep into Southern California, separates the cool coastal air on the ocean side of the mountains from the hot air of the San Joaquin Valley. This climate is a key factor in lifting a Pinot Noir from the ordinary to the sublime.

W&V: How would you say that your wines have changed, stylistically or otherwise, over the years?

Jensen: I once asked a friend in the International Wine Academy, in which I am a member, what the difference is between shallow-rooted vines and older, deep-rooted vines. He said that the wines from shallow roots express the variety, while the wines from deep-rooted vines express the terroir. He said that the deepest vines that he had ever seen were approximately 25 meters in a vineyard in the Loire. I wondered how he could know that, since you can’t dig down that far to measure. It turns out it was a vineyard on a hill with a wine cave underneath, and the vines had grown down through the top of the cave. I would guess that our own deepest vine roots at Calera are 40 to 50 feet in depth. So stylistically, I would say the biggest change in our wines is a reflection of our ever-deeper vine depth, not anything we do in the winery. Our deep, old vines give our wines more intensity and complexity than they did when they were younger and more shallow.

Many years back, I was in France, and I had the opportunity to taste with Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac.  We tasted two wines blind from the 1971 or 1972 vintage. One was lighter and quite pleasant, but the other was darker, more intense and more concentrated. It was a gorgeous wine — a real knockout. I thought the first was a village wine and the other was a grand cru. It turned out that both were Bonnes Mares, but the lighter one was from young, baby vines, while the other was from old vines with deep roots. That has always stayed with me. Old vines are the real McCoy. Today, I’m sure those young vines have matured and are making superb wines.

On a related note, about a dozen years ago, we began doing longer irrigation sets. When you do frequent irrigations, the roots stay shallow. As a result, you get very similar flavors to what you get from younger vines. We went from doing one gallon per hour of drip irrigation, to doing eight-hour sets, then 12-hour sets, then 24-hour sets. Today, we apply 48-hour sets and sometimes do this just once a season. This forces the vines to go deeper and deeper in search of water, which in turn, exposes the vines and the tap roots to new and interesting geology, and yields more interesting flavors.

Another factor influencing our viticulture is climate change. Every grape grower knows that climate change is upon us. With hotter summers, the sugars go up faster than flavor development, whereas the two used to go up in tandem. Now with hotter days, the sugars shoot up fast, while the flavors take their sweet time. Because of this, we have to pick at higher sugars, which results in higher alcohols. If we don’t pick at higher sugars, the wines will be green, grassy and herbaceous.

About six or seven years ago, I was on a panel for In Pursuit of Balance, and I brought two samples from the same block in the same vintage. One I knew I had picked too early, and it was about 13 percent alcohol. The other was picked later and was about 14 percent alcohol. The 13 percent wine had a nice low alcohol, but to me, it didn’t have pleasant flavors. Most people wouldn’t have shown it to the audience, but I wanted people to see the differences. About 15 percent of the attendees preferred the 13 percent wine, but roughly 85 percent preferred the 14 percent wine — and this was an IPOB audience. The 14 percent wine was ripe, but certainly not overripe. Nowadays, you have to wait longer to get the flavors that will receive the right reception. Thirty years ago, we were picking at 23 to 23.5 degrees Brix. Today, we pick at 25 to 26 Brix just to get the same flavors.

The entire Q&A was published in the January issue of Wines & Vines magazine. To read the rest of the article, click here.