Even after 27 years in the business, Diana and Rob Jensen of Testarossa Winery act like a couple of excited college kids when they talk about their adventures in winedom. They’ve had many honors bestowed upon them over the years, but being recently selected as Winery of the Year by the venerable “Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine,” a publication the couple used as their North Star to guide wine-buying decisions in the early days, is, according to Rob, “our greatest honor to date.” This is the second time in 15 years Testarossa has been honored as Winery of the Year by a respected wine publication, the first being in 2004 by “Restaurant Wine. “
“When Diana and I first started seriously enjoying wines 30 years ago, ‘Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wines’ reviews were always the gold standard for what we bought. If the editors loved a wine, we knew we would love it, too,” Jensen explains. “This honor gives us even more pride that our favorite publication would bestow such an amazing honor on our family-owned and -operated winery based here in Los Gatos.”
The honor is in no small part due to the steadfast hand of their longtime winemaker, Bill Brosseau, who started at Testarossa right after he graduated from UC Davis. “My only regret is that I didn’t take a vacation before I started,” admits Brosseau, who has been there 20 years now, with very few vacations. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”
Asked how it came to pass that the Jensens met Brosseau, Bill recalls he was working in the lab at Chalone, not far from the vineyard his parents own: the one he learned to farm while growing up. Suddenly, a tall redheaded guy strode into the winery. Brosseau says he wasn’t used to seeing people at such a remote spot, so he assumed Rob if he was lost. Au contraire, Jensen was purchasing some juice from Chalone, and began pumping wine into a barrel in the back of his Ford Expedition. “He sure seemed like he had a lot of confidence,” says Brosseau.
Chalone’s head winemaker at the time, Michael Michaud, told Jensen that if he really wanted to up his winemaking game, he should absolutely hire Brosseau. It wasn’t long after that Jensen parted company with Ed Kurtzman, his first winemaker, who also happened to be a Chalone alumnus.
Testarossa’s story begins further back, when Rob and Diana struck up a friendship with George Troquato of Cinnabar at a wine club event at the estate vineyard back in the early 1990s. A few months later, Troquato called the couple—Diana happened to answer—and said he’d found a vineyard in Zayante that could use some help. Diana later told Rob what a crazy idea it was. Rob on the other hand, thought it was the best idea ever, and all of a sudden, they were in the vineyard management business, selling futures on wines that it turns out, would not be forthcoming from that particular plot of land. Rob easily oversold the vineyard to friends, based on an optimistic calculation of yield. But the birds had other ideas for the fruit, and so it was that Rob showed up at Chalone to buy juice and met Bill.
While divine intervention seems to bless every aspect of their story, the Novitiate wasn’t always Testarossa’s home. Early on, they shared space at Cinnabar, but in 1996, both brands were enjoying booming success, and Cinnabar’s owner, Tom Mudd, said, “One of us has to go, and it’s going to be you!” Thus, the Jensens, both Santa Clara University grads, found themselves leasing space in the Novitiate, one of the Catholic church’s oldest continuing operating wineries.
Initially, Testarossa shared space with the Mirassou winery, but family friction led to the latter’s eventual demise, upon which they sold the brand to Gallo. This gave the Jensens the room they needed to expand.
One of the first things Brosseau determined upon joining the Testarossa operation was that the Sonoma vineyard sources the Jensens were tapping were a far piece to drive for the money the grapes commanded. Given his backyard knowledge of Monterey vineyards, he was able to gain access to Hahn, Franscioni and Pisoni fruit. Think Doctor’s, Tondre, Lone Oak, Rosella’s and Garys’: Some were barely known at the time, but all are now the backbone of Testarossa’s enviable quiver of home runs, year after year. Jensen recalls that Pisoni was selling to 12 wineries when they started; now they are only selling to four or five.
As for winemaking, Brosseau likens pinot noir to an instrument his daughter recently started playing. “Pinot is the violin of the wine world,” he says. “You have to practice relentlessly, and it’s not always pretty. You can have perfect bow technique, but the fingers have to be just right; otherwise it’s dreadful.”
Testarossa’s wines have a track record of being anything but dreadful. In addition to Winery of the Year honors, “Connoisseurs’ Guide” editor Stephen Eliot also selected Testarossa’s 2017 Niclaire Pinot Noir as one of his top 10 wines of the year, and co-editor Charles Olken included Testarossa’s 2017 Diana’s Chardonnay as one of his top 10 wines of 2019. Also in the top 10 were wines from other California legends like Joseph Phelps Insignia, Paul Hobbs Nathan Coombs Cabernet Franc, Kistler Laguna Vineyard Chardonnay and Diamond Creek’s Red Rock Terrace Cabernet Sauvignon.
Testarossa currently has more than 175 acres of grapes under contract, the majority of which come from Monterey, Santa Barbara and the Santa Cruz Mountains. The winery’s expansive portfolio receives outstanding scores from the most prestigious wine critics with more than 1,250 scores of more than 90 points.
Jensen and Brosseau are quick to praise the relationships they’ve developed with the growers over the decades as the key to their outstanding performance. “Our success is their success,” says Jensen. “This is a big honor for the whole (Santa Lucia Highlands), and for the Central Coast.”
Rob tells a story of how the growers kept them afloat during the country’s darkest hours in recent memory. “On Monday, Sept. 10, 2001, we were celebrating the fact that our entire production was effectively sold out across the country,” recalls Jensen. “We were in 29 states and in London, Hong Kong—ecstatic. Then came Sept. 11. And one by one, the phone rang, and the cancellations started pouring in. Everything just came to a halt.”
He was forced to go, in the midst of harvest, to tell the growers that his orders had disappeared, and that he consequently had no money to pay them. It was a do or die moment. They agreed to adjust pricing so both parties could remain solvent.
Jensen and Brosseau both point to the relationship of Testarossa to Los Gatos. “This is a mosaic that keeps growing in Los Gatos,” says Jensen. “We make so many people happy. It evolves and builds, and so does our wine.”
The relationship between the two men has also evolved over the years, and both freely admit it was a bit of a battle for a while.
Brosseau notes with some deft understatement, “We have worked with 20 different vineyards over 20 years, and Rob is never satisfied.”
Rob reflects, “Diana and I pinch ourselves every time we arrive at the Novitiate for work realizing that if this place wasn’t our home, we certainly would not have achieved this award and may not even still be in business. Oh, and we’re just getting started.”