Au Bon Climat

By Sunny Brown on February 1, 2008

Category: Winery of the Month

Jim Clendenen is a funny dude. He is also responsible for some of the most balanced and delicious wines this side of Burgundy. He mixes a quick wit with winemaking talent and adds in a liberal dossage of loud shirts, and the result has been twenty-five years of great wines from just about every grape variety under the sun.

In true oenologist-ADHD fashion he has worked with Italian varietals under the labels Bricco Buon Natale and Clendenen Family Vineyards. His Vita Nova label is reserved for Bordeaux grapes. He has made wines in Oregon under the Ici La Bas brand, and crafted Pinot Noir in Carneros with the handle Barham Mendelsohn. But through it all he has had one winery that has been his baby, one winery that has risen above the rest and garnered fame, fortune and fans everywhere. This is Au Bon Climat.

In just under three decades Jim has taken Au Bon Climat winery from a tiny outpost of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Santa Maria Valley area of Santa Barbara County to one of the most respected and beloved labels around. He was voted the Winemaker of the Year by Food and Wine Magazine as well as one of the "Fifty Most Influential Winemakers" by Wine and Spirits. Au Bon Climat has been on Robert Parker's list of best wineries of the world and Jim was recently inducted into the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who in Food and Wine." He even has his own Wikipedia page.

But the true genius of Jim and his many projects is that all of the wines taste good. They are closer to Burgundy in style than Napa. He crafts Pinots and Chardonnays that are refined, balanced and complex. Never will one find a syrupy, syrahy, slobbish excuse for a Pinot in this line up. Very apropos since Jim's inspiration for a foray into the world of wine began with a trip to the birthplace of wines that are refined, balanced and complex- Burgundy.

It all started on a trip to France his junior year in college. A couple of bottles of great Burgundy, a little Champagne, and a passion was born. Though he graduated with a degree from UC Santa Barbara in pre-law, Jim went into the world of wine as an assistant winemaker at Zaca Mesa. Short stints in Australia and France followed and in 1981 Au Bon Climat winery was born.

From the beginning Jim knew that the cooler climate and proximity to the Pacific Ocean set Santa Barbara apart from its more heralded neighbors to the north. Even the name of the winery which means "a well-exposed vineyard" in French is a testament to the long growing season and temperate climate of the Santa Maria Valley.

The philosophy at Au Bon Climat has always been to emphasize the wonderful fruit and terroir of Santa Barbara. Extensive research is done in the vineyards in regards to planting, clonal selection and canopy management. The grapes are given the utmost care both out in the fields and on the sorting table. Only the best French Oak is used. Minimal fining and filtration is the norm. Fermentation often takes place in smaller open-topped tanks, just as many once did in Burgundy.

The grapes have come from some of the best vineyards south of San Francisco Bay: Talley, Sanford & Benedict, and of course the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard in which the winery sits. In 1998 Jim purchased 100 acres of land across the Santa Maria Valley from Bien Nacido and named the vineyard Le Bon Climat. It has been certified organic since 2003.

While I could blather on for days about this award and that recognition that Jim and Au Bon Climat have received over the years, I would prefer to just make with the funny so what follows is a little Q & A with some kid from Akron, Ohio who turned into one of the world's best winemakers. How did growing up in Akron prepare you for a life in wine?

Jim Clendenen: Mostly it gave me an extraordinary education, but the long winter nights taught me to imitate well and to bullshit.

WG: Making wine has been compared to making music. Do you think your wines come off as being like a concerto or closer to hair metal? (I would say concerto since some times hair metal is all glitz and no substance!)

JC: My wines are laconic 60's and 70's message music (Kinks, CSN, David Bowie) and never out-of-style to the cognoscenti, open to multiple listenings and interpretations, far more complex than at first look, and just a little bent.

WG: Drew Neiman of Neiman Cellars likes to call you "the bad boy of CA wine." Is pioneer of Santa Barbara more accurate?

JC: In 60's culture bad is good. Back then I was bad and good. In the 80's and 90's, I might have been only bad. Now I'm a fully responsible adult in every way.

WG: How has the county changed since you first arrived in Santa Barbara? How's the traffic since "Sideways"?

JC: Lots of new wineries making overripe wine. Traffic's busy. Alexander Payne rules!

WG: You have so many wines and projects going on, how do you keep track of them all?

JC: I have a great group working with me, an uncanny memory, and the ability to forget completely if I screw up.

WG: Your wines have always been favorably called "Burgundian" in style. Do you credit this to the climate, or your winemaking style, or to a little of both?

JC: It is definitely both. A long cool dry growing season, and the common sense to harvest grapes in balance.

WG: You work with so many varietals from Italian to Bordeaux and of course Burgundian, which ones give you the most satisfaction?

JC: The Burgundian ones. I try to dance the most with the girl who brung me.

WG: Was there one particular bottle of Burgundy that propelled you into the wine industry? Or was the entire trip an "aha" moment?

JC: My entire trip to Burgundy in 1977, and specifically a 1972 Beaune Vigne de L'Enfant Jesus from Bouchard of all people at La Pyramide in Vienne.

WG: Do you have any new projects in the works?

JC: The Clendenen Family Vineyard project with three-year barrel-aged Petit Verdot, four-year aged Nebbiolo in neutral barrel, and other wacky wine styles. Also, dry (I mean bone dry) Gewurtz which cannot be sold, and thus is my pious statement for a belief in afterlife.

JC: Twenty five years of great wines is a long time. To what do you attest your longevity when so many others have closed up, sold out or just moved on?

JC: We never changed our style, kept our prices in line, built our customer base, and I couldn't find anything I liked to do better.

To include notes for all of the wines from Jim Clendenen would require a marathon session from both author and reader, so instead I offer a sampling from Jim's extensive line-up. However, I wholeheartedly recommend trying anything from Jim that you can get your hands on so please do not limit yourself to the wines you see here!

One of the best values in California Chardonnay from one year to the next is the 2006 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay. Juicy, crisp, clean and refreshing, adjectives not normally associated with CA Chard! Notes of citrus, ripe pear and lemon cream shine through on both the nose and the palate. The wine is fermented and aged sur-lie in neutral barrels to add a creamy note of complexity.

The 2005 Pinot Blanc / Pinot Gris Santa Barbara County is a fresh and fruity wine with citrus, apple and spice notes along with hints of white flowers and marzipan. Crisp acidity on the finish says this wine belongs on the dinner table.

From an estate vineyard planted in 1994 comes the 2003 Hildegard Santa Maria Valley. A blend of Pinot Gris developed from old Burgundian clones mixed in with Pinot Blanc and a little Aligote, the Hildegard is a intensely-flavored, complex and thought-provoking white. Supple and rich, the nose is awash with spices, floral undertones, baked apples and even a hint of anise. The palate follows through with weight and richness but also a superb balance of acidity on the finish that keeps this full-bodied wine from feeling flabby or fat.

The 2005 Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley La Bauge au-dessus hails from a block of vines that Jim Clendenen planted in '94. This is consistently one of my favorite wines and a testament to what true Pinot should taste like: Balanced, finessed, complex and with more acidity than you will ever find in a 15.5% ABV monster "Pinot" from Napa. Violet perfume and bright fruit aromas lead to a palate that is silky and easy to like with notes of black cherries, blueberries and a touch of mocha. Delicious. If Nuits St.-Georges had an American cousin, the La Bauge would be it.

Among the many Pinot Noir bottlings from Au Bon Climat are two named for Jim and Morgan Clendenen's two children: The Isabelle Morgan and the Knox Alexander. The 2004 Knox Alexander Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley is from some of the best fruit in the Bien Nacido Vineyard. Big, broad and more tannic and structured than the other Pinots in this line-up, the Knox Alexander is one to wait for. Black cherries, subtle spice notes, cherry-cola and roasted herb nuances waft from the glass in an endless stream of aromas. Flavors of blackberries, dried cherries and a touch of earthy forest floor notes are tied to fresh acidity and ample tannins. Give this bottling a little quiet time in the cellar.

As for the 2005 Isabelle Morgan Pinot Noir Santa Maria Valley it is crafted from the best barrels of the single vineyard Pinot Noirs from Au Bon Climat. Ripe, round, complex and big, with a broad swath of cherry and black-berry fruit, but also a hauntingly expressive nose of fruit, perfume, spice, earthiness, elegance....the list goes on and on. Another full-bodied Pinot that could use a little time in the cellar, but this comes as no surprise since Jim is known for trying to produce wines that are "better now than when they were made."

Winemaking is a family affair in the Clendenen household as Morgan Clendenen has become known for her Viogniers under her Cold Heaven label as well as a joint project with Condrieu producer Yves Cuilleron.

With all of these great wines, it is lucky for us that Jim "couldn't find anything that he liked better."