“Tomorrow you may bring about the destruction of your world. Tomorrow you may sing in Paradise above the smoking ruins of your world-cities. But tonight I would like to think of one man, a lone individual, a man without name or country, a man whom I respect because he has absolutely nothing in common with you – MYSELF. Tonight I shall meditate upon that which I am.” ~ Henry Miller’s Black Spring
On a beautiful cherry blossomed Tuesday, that strangely reminded me of postcards I have seen of Jamaica, I traveled to Hollister to meet with Calera winemaker Josh Jensen. I had lived in Jamaica for a year and had never seen cherry blossoms, but this is how I imagined them, both in Jamaica and what I think they might be like in Japan in the spring…It was March 25th and I was due to arrive at 11am. I was early as usual, so I decided to slowly make my way to the main building, taking pictures along the way of Josh’s Mondrian-inspired house, a trampoline, and an almost completed treehouse that one came to before parking ( (“the tree will tell you what the treehouse should be,” said Josh later). I met with Josh’s assistant when I entered the office and we talked about what I had just seen and she echoed what I had been thinking “if he builds it, they will come,” referring to his grandchildren, and I thought, exactly.
He arrived and was just like I remembered him “dress-wise,” when he came to wine dinner #11, over a year and a half ago. I had seen images of him a couple weeks earlier ~ wearing Versace at Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch’s In Pursuit of Balance wine tasting and gathering in San Francisco, which I sadly missed this year. It’s such an amazing collection of California winemakers all with a particular vision.. In Josh’s words ~ “I like the fact that it puts the spotlight on wines that are elegant, balanced, lower alcohol because that’s the international standard. These big flame throwers that were so popular but now declining in popularity, are just not attractive to me. The emphasis is on balance and elegance.“ Elegance and balance…And so we began, first at a desk in the main office, then lunch outside, to the tasting room in the other part of the building, and finally a few days later, we continued our conversation at a Gala dinner for the San Francisco Girls’s Choir at Temple Emanu-El, to hear his daughter (alumna and mezzo-soprano) Silvie Jensen sing. My daughter Royal and I were his guests.
Josh Jensen, Interview #18
Tuesday March 25th, 11am, Calera Winery, Hollister, CA
On his BACKGROUND ~ “I grew up in a little town 6 or 7 miles east of your studio.. in Orinda. My parents bought our house in 1946 when I was two, so that is what I knew until I went off to college ~ to Yale, for history. I’ve gotten much more interested now, in the past ten years, in history ~ how nations rise and fall, dictators, crazy emperors, democracies, the bad and the good, conquests, development of new thoughts.”
On OXFORD ~ “In college I spent all of my time rowing, on crew. I really loved that and wanted to keep doing it. The Oxford/Cambridge University boat race was the oldest in the world, which started in 1842. It’s a cultural phenomenon. At Oxford, I raced in the race, which took place on the Thames, and it was a big deal. It was one of those peak life experiences; and last year i went to Africa and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
But WHY ANTHROPOLOGY? ~ “I wanted to see, well you could look at it as an extension backwards of recorded history; to homosapiens pulsing out of Africa.”
On coming to WINE ~ “I was going to go on to do a B.Phil. but I had been there for three years and wanted to head to the continent and learn about wine. The further along I went into education, the further away I was from making a decision and figuring out what I wanted to do. I had been making a list since college, of what i didn’t want to do ~ lawyer, stockbroker, doctor, dentist (my father was one), horse trainer, anything to do with business. At one point when i was living in England (I was there for three years) I thought maybe I was approaching this the wrong way. I should be asking ~ what are the things that turn me on, that I get fired up about, and so I left for France ~ Burgundy ~ to work my first harvest…It was 1970, 1971 and I thought, “this is the life”.. it was such a beautiful combination of tradition, science, luxury goods marketing, and farming, and every day a different set of challenges. I was 24…
But how did you come to WINE? ~ “Growing up, from 12 years old on, I spent a lot of time in San Francisco with my dads’ friends, in particular George and Helen Selleck. He would do these dinner parties of 5 courses, 5 different wines ~ Lafite, Mouton, Haute Brion, mostly French, and he was a smart collector of 30s and 40s Inglenook and Beaulieu. So by the time I was 21 I had tasted all the top big wines of France and thought wow, there’s this world out there, and as the years went on I found I was particularly excited by white burgundy, and that passion of mine is as strong today as it ever was.
Left: a bottle of Josh’s Calera Selleck pinot noir. Right: my view from the tasting room ~ poster from Willi’s Wine Bar, where I had my first Meursault.
On his RETURN ~ “After the second harvest I came back to the US and they said “kid, you have to find limestone, that’s the key.” And when I returned there was a friend in enology at UC Davis.. Maynard Amerine (from tennessee). It took 2 1/4 years to find it….. It seems that grapes grown in limestone terroir have more flavors and more subtleties and complexity….there was a book written at the turn of the century (I’m not sure when) called the Treatise of Burgundian Winemaking (by the top official appellation controlled in France) INAL, and right at the start of that book it says “pinot noir grapes grown on granite soils will make a dull coarse beverage versus on granite, a complex potentially superb wine” and I observed this in Burgundy.. that all the great vineyards were planted on the flanks of a limestone ridge.
It was like a bush league litmus test.. people would say it was impossible to make a great world class american pinto noir. California is too hot; only burgundy can make them. We were all trying to chase this holy grail back then in the 1970s.. we’d ask each other what do you think, and we’d say “well, it’s not burgundian” but for me, it didn’t mean we were trying to copy a Montrachet or duplicate a Chambertin or a Nuit St George, but we were trying to make a really complex international wine from pinot and chardonnay. That was the goal. What I and some others brought back from our experience in France was very different from what they were doing at UC Davis. We were using Burgundian techniques. We’d pick grape clusters and put them in the fermentation tanks attached to stems. All our yeast is native yeast fermentation; we never filter our pinots.
On WHY WINE, really ~ “George Selleck would say.. wine is a living thing and not an object; in a sense both versions are true.. when wine writers interview they always ask the question, what other wines, pinots are you drinking and i say, “i only like ours.” Why would I promote other people!? But what i’m drinking is Domaine Dujac DRC, Lafon Meursault, Montrachet; and when I have one of the Dujac wines, I feel like I’m visiting a friend and I called Jacques this morning about a bike ride we’re doing… that’s how I visit them. I connect through the delicious wines they make. It sounds tangental but its a real connection. It’s harder to do with food, spend a whole day making a Thomas Keller recipe.
So for me there were two things, in particular that led me to first meeting Josh and then getting in touch with him again. The first time you come to seek someone out might be just a fluke, like the FB post from a wine friend of mine that said Josh Jensen of Calera, the “God” is in the house.. I recall reading it and thinking what does that mean? Of course Josh is very well known for his wines in the wine world, particularly in the Bay area and California; but Josh is also tall and statuesque, particularly because of his choice of clothing. To me when he first entered my studio a year a half ago, I would think of Captain Cook’s arrival in Hawaii in the 1700’s when they thought he was the God Lono. How could one not? So I did inquire about his relationship to the Pitt Rivers Museum when he was at Oxford, one of my favorite getaways when I was studying in England. He hadn’t been, but I liked the idea that he was somehow reincarnated as a wine god. It sure seemed it from the way he held himself, and especially, to me, presented himself in public.
Above: Salon dinner #11. Guests: Bill Mayer, Andrew Browne, Sue Kauer, Raj Parr, Alice Waters, Bill Haney, me, Josh Jensen, Emily Schindler, Jamie Kutch, Lloyd Bernberg, Stephan Schindler, Kristen Green, Mark Danner, Michelle Sipe, Chad Arnold, with Roshni Shukla taking the picture.
Left: Menu for Salon Dinner #11, August 4th 2012. Right: the “dead soldiers” from the evening.
On STYLE ~ “It was just easy for about 6-8 years but then unfortunately it ended 6 years ago. I like color and the Gilroy Outlet Mall off Highway 101 had a Versace outlet store. This shirt is a Versace that I’ve had for 15 years. i just had to hammer a button in, when one had fallen off. I would often stop in and look and I would say I’m looking for a black sports coat and then one day, it was a disaster. It was gone! So now i’m just wearing the old Versaces. They’re like iron. I just mix and match. I’ve been searching to find Versace, but now it’s just nothing anyways. When Gianni was murdered, there went the genius… It was just very cutting edge; and I have this fire engine red leather jacket and it just makes a hit. I’ll wear it for a black tie event on saturday, for the SF Girls’ Choir. My daughter Sylvie will be singing.”
Above: an image of David Hirsch and Josh, taken at Jasmine Hirsch and Raj Parr’s IN PURSUIT OF BALANCE, SF (from FB)
On LITERATURE ~ “The works of Henry Miller were very revolutionary for me. I read them my last year at Yale and during my years in England. He knocked me off my establishment tracks that my parents put me on. His bohemian-ness.. ah.. Sexus, Nexus, Plexus.. Tropic of Capricorn was the more happy reminiscencee.. and Tropic of Cancer was a blood soaked document. It was his first ever published even though it was his 8th book written. I always felt his works had a bit of autobiography and he had no trouble embellishing. He was a free spirit, and wrote his own rules about how to interact with the world and that was awesome!”
On MUSIC and SINGING ~ RITE OF SPRING, by Stravinsky ~ “We don’t actually make a wine like that” The 100th anniversary of that piece of music just happened. Originally, people rioted in the streets of Paris and you have to wonder what kind of music can cause that reaction. It was so far ahead of the norm in 1913 that people couldn’t tolerate it. Their hearing mechanism was violated. It broke the rules. but by the following year both the human mind and cognitive apparatus had adapted… I sang as well as all three kids. I went to Thacher School in Ojai for 3 years and I was in the men’s choir at Yale.
Above: Royal and I as guests of Josh at the San Francisco Girls Choir Gala Dinner. Right: Royal, hair done at Keter, 4th Street, Berkeley.
EAT: peking duck
DRINK: Jensen vineyard pinot noir 1996
WATCH: Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite
WATCH: Chanel, bought in London 2008 (watches are my hobby)
BE: in the moment
WHERE: rio de janeiro
A last thought on Rowing ~ “The great football coach at the University of Georgia said this when he was losing many of his players to rowing ~
“it’s the only sport in the world where you sit on your ass, go backwards and still win.”
“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
~ Soren Kierkegaard