The Limestone CowboyA Visit with Josh Jensen’s Calera
“You do know why they call it the Golden State, don’t you?” queried Alex Ryan, CEO and president of Duckhorn Wine Co. He was standing in the shade of the trees, high on Mount Harlan at the Calera winery, with majestic views of a 100-or-so-mile expanse at his back.
“It’s because of the color of these mountains,” he said with a wave of his hand toward the slopes that spread out before us, shining in the sun. “When the Spaniards saw that golden color of the mountains it was a natural description.”
Another reason, one that I chose not to mention to Alex, is that this is a place where stone — limestone in this case — can be turned into gold. That is to say that the soils of the very place where we were standing were capable of producing the alchemy that Josh Jensen employed when he transformed dusty hillsides into immense wealth. This year, Jensen sold his Calera winery, which he founded on limestone, to Alex’s company for, well, a fortune.
So it was, on a picture perfect fall morning, that my wife and I made the pilgrimage south from San Francisco to Cienega Road and the Calera winery for a visit and a tasting. Alex, who in his position at Duckhorn oversees seven brands and a multitude of vineyards, journeyed from his Napa Valley base to join us and make the introduction to Jensen. The visit also offered an opportunity for him to see the property and kick some dirt in the famed vineyards (including one named “Ryan”) that are the backbone of the estate that now nestles under Duckhorn’s wing.
As we stood in front of the Calera winery building, tucked beneath imposing hillsides, the towering figure of Josh Jensen strode across the driveway. Towering, in this case, is both figurative and literal, as this icon of pinot noir stands at well over 6 feet tall and carries himself in a regal, western manner.
“Thanks so much for coming,” he says with an outstretched hand. “What do you think of the place?” His demeanor and the graciousness were genuine as we briefly spoke of the sale, his health and the reasons he had spent the past four decades of his life in these rustic mountains. I had heard the story before, but coming from the man who had lived the dream, it took on new resonance.
In his 20s, Jensen, a Yale graduate, had gone to England to further his studies and row on the Oxford crew. He had a fledging understanding of wine, as a dentist friend of the family, George Selleck, had a cellar while he was growing up. He decided that he might like to try his hand at vineyard work and spent a couple of harvests working at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and Domaine Dujac in Burgundy. The wine bug bit him bad. He returned to California with a single mission: find a limestone-infused site to plant pinot noir.
Alex, Calera winemaker Mike Waller, my wife and I hopped into a sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle for a rollicking tour up and down the dusty roads that separated the vineyards. If you know the great single-vineyard wines of Calera, the names rang like bells as we crested each hill. Over there, tumbling down from the highest point on the hill was the Ryan Vineyard (named not for Alex, but for longtime Calera vineyard manager Jim Ryan). There was Selleck, named for the man who had provided the initial inspiration and, in another nearby hollow, the Reed vineyard.
What was most evident was just how rugged and labor intensive these vineyards were. Narrowly spaced with just enough room to harvest the vines, the vineyards stretched up and down the rocky hillsides, planted thoughtfully to take full advantage of varying aspects and sun angles.
In the heart of the property was a massive round hill. Heavily treed, it was a literal limestone mountain, which was the reason why Jensen first purchased this remote property to begin with. As we rolled on, Mike took us to the structure, the Calera, that gave this winery its name. Not only was this our first trip, but it was Alex Ryan’s first trip to the brick limekiln that had been used a century before to transform limestone not into gold, but into cement bricks. It was a bit like a visit to the Vatican.
We completed our stay back under the shade of the trees where we tasted recent vintages of a dozen Calera wines. Even taking into account the special nature of tasting a wine at its place of origin, these wines were sublime. Like Josh, they were gracious, graceful and endearing.
Too soon we were on our way. But we left with a forever memory and a golden glow. The kind that only great pinot noir can provide.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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