Au Bon Climat, California, USA – inside Jim Clendenen’s world

Aficionados of Californian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay will need little introduction to the Santa Maria winery of Au Bon Climat.Here, winemaker Jim Clendenen has carved out a reputation for his wines that are admired by wine-lovers around the world, and compared with the best from Burgundy.

xABC’s remote and unprepossessing winery is situated in the heart of the Bien Nacido vineyards, several miles from Santa Maria the nearest town, and amongst mixed farming land. The winery is around 70 miles north of Santa Barbara and sits in a transverse valley. This geographical quirk allows cool, sometimes foggy air to flow in from the coast, keeping temperatures moderate – essential for vines to produce Pinot Noir of real quality.

Jim Clendenen is by turns laid-back, funny and very quick-witted, though intense and passionate about his winemaking. His approach follows a very Burgundian model. There is careful selection of grapes, fermentation in open-topped tanks, minimal fining, no filtering. He uses the best quality French oak and adopts what might be best described as a “hands-off” approach. He is in total control of the vinification of grapes from each separate vineyard and of the final blending for each of his bottlings.

Jim is a natural raconteur with his philosophical outlook on life and colorful background – including a stint as a professional basketball player for the Bordeaux team! During his apprenticeship he worked vintages in places as diverse as Burgundy and Australia’s Hunter Valley, before setting up ABC in 1982. He owns no vineyards, but buys only the best fruit from an extended family of growers in prime Santa Barbara County sites, like the Bien Nacido, Sanford and Benedict and Talley vineyards.

The winery is shared between Jim and Bob Lindquist who makes world-class Syrah under the Qupé label. Around half a dozen other full-time staff have nominal job titles, but this is a fluid organisational structure and everyone has a hand in the winemaking.

There are a bewildering variety of wines made here. As well as ABC and Qupé, Italian varietals are made under the Il Podere dell’Olivos label, Oregon Pinot Noir appears as Ici Là-Bas and Bordeaux styles are bottled as Vita Nova. Several of the staff, like manager Jim Adelman and winemaker Gary Burk, also produce their own wines. It may seem like a co-operative at times, but don’t you believe it: there is no doubting who is boss here. Jim Clendenen’s style might be low-key, but he is firmly in control. He is the mind behind Au Bon Climat.

I visited the team at their warehouse/winery one baking-hot day in September 1999. The first of the Pinot was starting to arrive, tractor-load after tractor-load of small black berries. They tasted beautifully sweet and were in healthy condition, but were tiny; a result of an uncharacteristically cool summer. Jim thought the quality for the 1999 vintage looked promising, but quantity would be well down on 1998.

I was led through a barrel tasting by Gary Burk (whose own excellent Santa Barbara Pinot is bottled as Costa de Ora).I tasted through the full range of ABC’s 1998’s other than those that had just been racked into tank and would therefore not show well. Wines drawn straight from the barrel don’t give a precise picture of what will eventually appear in the bottle, but they do allow you to judge fruit ripeness and quality, acidity and how the wine is balanced. All wines were now in one or two year old wood. Having spent several months in new barrels, they are transferred to old wood to allow a more subtle maturation and avoid over-oaking.

xThe Chardonnays include their Le Bouge de Cote bottlings on up to their single-vineyard wines. I found these to be very nicely made wines across the range. The fruit was very good and they showed fine balance and refinement. The basic bottlings are sappy with pear and melon fruit and good citrussy qualities. At the reserve level there is delicious depth, concentration and a nicely “dirty” Burgundian profile: nuanced, savoury and with fine structure.

The Pinots were glorious. From the cherry-fruited, svelte and easy-drinking Santa Barbara County bottlings to the sumptuously rich, velvet-textured single vineyard “Isabelle” Grand Vin, where earth, smoke and spice add wonderful depth. I was also able to taste a couple of experimental barrels from a new Pinot clone, the vines planted only 4 years ago. These had amazing depth of flavour for such young vines and were deep, satisying and delicious.

xAs Gary and I clambered amongst the barrels to draw samples, Jim busied himself back and forth collecting bottles and muttering questions: “Hey Gary, where’s the ’91 Tally Chardonnay? I know we had some…”. It turned out that he was putting together a vertical tasting for us to share with him over lunch. And what a lunch: some of the best home-made Mexican food I’ve had, washed down with 1990-1997 vintages of the Talley Reserve Chardonnay and “Rosemary” Reserve Pinot Noir.

These older vintages of the wines showed just how good they really are. The 1990 Chardonnay was sublime: very complex and full of nuance, yet rich and spicy, finishing with a steely core of acidity. The ’90 Pinot was also gloriously developed, with a gorgeous palette of mineral, vegetal and gamy flavours integrated with the fruit.

Jim’s team at ABC is young and very enthusiastic. There’s agreat vibrancy about the place, and a lot of cross-cultural fertilisation: during my visit Jeff Sinott, the winemaker from Isabel Estate in New Zealand was working the harvest in reciprocation for Jim Clendenen’s stint down under a couple of years ago, and the son of a famous Burgundy Domaine in Nuits-Saint-Georges was being ribbed mercilessly over a little mishap involving a hammer and his left-hand thumb. There’s an infectous atmosphere of fun about the place, yet these people are dedicated and deadly serious about what they do.

A tremendously enjoyable day at one of the world’s great wine producers, for which I’d like to offer thanks to Jim and all the team. If you come across any of ABC’s wines my guess would be that they were well worth a try.