A last winery story in the U.S. (3rd week of july)
If Jim Clendened hadn't become the now-famous winemaker/owner of Au Bon Climat, he'd be a cook for sure, and certainly as successful. Here is a man who in spite of the charge to run a winery and make wines, prepares lunch for his staff almost every day, from what I understood, and Jim Clendenen's lunch is indeed something you must have gone through at least once, because it's at the same time a daily routine and a prized epicurian ritual for the visitors, be they other winemakers or journalists, in the sober setting of a winery facility and barrel cellar.
Before founding Au Bon Climat in 1982 with associate Adam Tolmach (who now runs Ojai), Jim Clendenen worked a few years at Zaca Mesa where Adam was a fellow employee.
Born in Ohio in a family that was not familiar with wine, he eventually moved to Santa Barbara, attending the University there. Getting to visit Bordeaux in a junior year, he discovered the wine world and came back in France in 1977, this time in Burgundy where winegrowers are closer to their land than in Bordeaux, and working on smaller surfaces. Back in California he worked at Zaca Mesa, then did the harvest in Australia and Burgundy, helped by Becky Wasserman for whom he realized the interviews of 40 prominent winemakers of the region (beginning with Henri Jayer), as he was fluent in French. He and Adam had a great time in Burgundy and it helped forge the winemaking culture that they'd put to work later in California.
Having tasted and loved the pinot noir of Au Bon Climat during a wine tasting event organized at the U.S. Embassy a few years ago, I wanted to see him here in California.
This is the area were Jim and Adam set up their winery facility back in 1982, first in a dairy barn, then in this large warehouse where shey shared the space with Qupé Vineyard. There were about only 12 wineries in the area then, compared to maybe 150 today. This area was considered sort of déclassé compared to other established appellations and Robert Mondavi used to come down here and buy most of the grapes. Santa Maria was the first place where vines were planted and there was a 10-year or more hiatus before vineyards were planted in Santa Ynez and in the Santa Rita Hills. The region had the advantage of benefiting from this cool air flowing from the ocean through several east-west oriented valleys. They sourced their grapes from vineyards around there, and his chardonnay and pinot noir were soon praised by the critics, including Robert Parker who listed him as among the best in 1990. On the wine-critic front, when the trend became rich and powerful wines, Au Bon Climat wines were shunned by Parker who considered them as lean, when in fact nothing had changed in the winemaking and data of the wine.
In 1998 Jim Clendened bought 25 hectares in the Santa Maria valley, where he planted pinot noir, chardonnay and viognier. He still purchased grapes to other growers, including Bien Nacido Vineyard (his early purveyor), Sanford and Benedict Vineyard, Los Alamos Vineyard and Talley vineyard.
Kathy first explains about the different appellations and areas of the region, five of them, about the east-west oriented valley funelling cool air from the ocean and each mile deeper inland translating almost in a degree (F) warmer, with for example 70 ° F on the western-most part of the valley and 80 °F on the eastern side.
The two friends and wineries sharing this facility, Bob of Qupé and Jim of Au Bon Climat are not competing on the same style of wines, Bob is doing Rhone varietals while Jim is mostly into Burgundy wines.
__ Au Bon Climat chardonnay 2011 (from the barrel) Los Alamos Vineyard. It hasn't its own appellation but it has very distinctive character, nice acid and also a nice viscosity in the mouth. The malolactic is completed, they don't need to stop it because the acidity is high enough becausse of the moderate temperature and cool nights.
__ Le Bon Climat vineyard, Chardonnay 2011 Santa Maria Valley (from François Frères barrel). Le Bon Climat is separate from Au Bon Climat, it's not a second wine, it's a separate label, the grapes being sourced from the family vineyards (not purchased to other growers). It's small production, the biggest cuvée there being something like 400 cases. They use a mix of older barrels and newer ones. The chard here is more oaky, I feel.
__ Le Bon Climat vineyard Tokaj 2011, a portion of the blend, some of it being in 500-liter Hungarian barrels.
__ Au Bon Climat Chardonnay 2011 Sanford & Benedict Vineyard (will be part of the Historical Collection series). From a pretty recent barrel. Kathy says that the fruit is particularly expressive in these vineyards.
Kathy ponders to figure out where the desired barrel is located and she says that Enrique whom you can see on the picture above on his forklift knows excactly where every single barrel is located, he's the head cellar rat.
__ Qupé Vineyard Reserve Chardonnay 2012 (from a barrel), Bien Nacido vineyard block 11, biodynamicly farmed.
__ Qupé Vineyard Marsanne 2012, Ibarra-Young vineyard. Nice gliding feel in the mouth, nice palate touch here. A bit of almond too with the wood.
__ Qupé Vineyard Syrah 2012, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard (Bob Lindquist being the owner of Qupé). biodynamicly farmed Syrah. Aromas of small black fruits. Nose like ripe dark-red cherries, very fruity. Gourmand in the mouth. Seems relatively low in alcohol, Kathy says it's about 13 % but Bob always prints 13,5 % on the labels. The élevage is usually a couple of years.
__ Qupé Vineyard Grenache SLV 2012, Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard (from a barrel too). Nose with earth, dust notes. Interesting tannins ans bright, energetic mouth.
__ Qupé Syrah 2011 Alisos Vineyard, Los Alamos. Quite dark wine. Notes of black pepper on the nose, inky aromas. Nice wine.
__ Qupé Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Sonnies Syrah 2011, Edna Valley. Sonnies is the nickname of Bob's mom, this is kind of Bob's top cuvée. The nose is more complex, very enjoyable aromas. More intense and pleasurable wine.
At this point we have a quick look at the wall of bottles on the far right of the building (pic on right), this is the wine library of Jim and Bob, and like in an old-fashioned library I guess they have a ladder on wheels to safely access to these bottles on the top. I suddenly feel like reading one of these dusty books...
__ Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 2011 Bien Nacido Bloc 12, new barrel. Very meaty wine, I love that, very alive.
__ Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 2011 Los Alamos, from a cask dating from 2009. More concentrated feel, like if more extracted, but I guess it's the vineyard conditions that dictate it.
__ Le Bon Climat (family vineyards) Pinot Noir 2012. A bit sweet in the mouth. 10-year old vines, here, Kathy says.
__ Le Bon Climat Petit Verdot 2012 We walk by a pallet of kegs, they're intended for several wine bars of the region and the wines there are higher quality wines, the keg system allowing the bars to keep the wines protected, with I guess less logistics issues than when handling bottles.
Looking a all these barrels I asked later Jim about the surface from which he sources his grapes, be it owned or contracted vineyard, and he told me that he owned 67 acres of vineyards (27 hectares) and bought the fruits from an additional 100 acres (40 hectares), then he buys also grapes on the stock market for the cheap wines, none of them being among the wines wer're having on the table.
I look at Jim giving the last handto the dishes, it's almost like looking at a chef busy briskly managing the different elements of his dishes before speeding them to the tables. He says that sometimes it's better, sometimes worse, but today it should be pretty good... Pork meat, vegetables, among them turnips from the garden that they just picked (Jims grows a vegetable garden in Los Alamos near one of his vineyards is), polanta with zucchini which have been puréed and turned into a cream, and also cream beans from the garden, simply with salt & pepper, basil, anchovy, lemon zest, vinaigrette and lettuce from the garden.
they have visitors versed into gastronomy here, and Jim says that recently someone from Paris was sitting exactlty at my place, it was chef Shinishi Sato of Passage 53 near other quality tables like the Maceo, Willi's wine bar and Le Grand Colbert. Speaking of Willis', this Paris wine bar publishes a poster every year by a different artist (see here the posters page of the wine bar) and I spotted on a corner of the facility one of these posters (pic on right), it's made by Cathy Millet for 1986. Paris seems eerily close suddenly.
Jims grabs a dozen bottles of wine and lines them in the middle of the table, encouraging us to sample whatever we liked with the food, pointing to a spit bucket if we want to do it safely for our later driving. This is really way above our usual lunch during this trip and although I love hamburgers in local cofee shops, this stands out.
Asked if he goes to the Loire sometimes, Jim says that in 1987, he had the visit of Didier Dagueneau here in Santa Maria, having a tasting with Dagueneau's family and Charlotte, and Dagueneau came back here visiting him several times actually. Before his first visit here, Jim had never met the man and he was brought along by Burgundy friends of his, Jacky Rigaud (writer and friend of Henri Jayer), and Philippe Angel. So, following Dagueneau's visit, Jim took a wine trip in 1988 with his partner Bob (Lindquist), Frank Ostini of the Hitching Post (a restaurant featured in Sideways) and Doug Margerum of the Wine Cask, and they settled off for the Loire, they spent 3 days there, unforgettable, says Jim, speaking from time to time in a perfect French, then reverting to English. They had a crazy time with Dagueneau and his friend Alphonse Mellot, and also visting Henri Bourgeois. Dagueneau came here with his uncle Serge and Jean-Michel Masson-Blondelet, a bigger producer and the mayor of Pouilly-sur-Loire, a man who was more simple, less flamboyant than Didier. When Didier Dagueneau visited California, it was not for his usual bouts of adventure sports (that eventually killed him), at the time he was more into riding racing motorbikes in France, and later it was to be sled dogs expeditions, which he had in Canada. But when he travelled to California, it was exclusively for wine tasting, visiting wine people there, and selling his wine. He made his first wine in 1983 and his first cuvée Silex in 1986, and he visited Jim right after that in 1987. As I'm remarquing that in 1986 he was probably unknown in France, Jim says that he was unknown everywhere, but learning fast how to make wine, and not unknown for a long time.
__ Clendenen Family Vineyards Viognier 2011, Santa Maria valley, nice viscosity on the palate, with almond notes.
__ Au Bon Climat Hildegard 2010, Santa Maria Valley White. Pinot Gris 50 %, Pinot Blanc 30 %, Aligoté 20 %. 6000-bottle cuvée. Very classy wine, nice structure. Jim says that one day he was waiting for a train in the Dijon station and being early he bought the magazine Bourgogne Aujourd'hui and there was a long article about Corton Charlemagne, which ultimately caught his mind and had him end up making this wine... This blend is the original planting blend of Corton Charlemagne, and the original vineyard in Burgundy was planted on the orders of Charlemagne's wife Hildegard. Jim adds that for 1000 years there hasn't been any Chardonnay in Burgundy, something which few wine amateurs know or remember. It with the phylloxera devastation that growers were encouraged by the government to replant exclusively in Chardonnay in the Grands Crus, but historically the varieties were Aligoté, Pinot Beurot and Pinot Blanc and the wines were very successful. Jim says that you come across Corton Charlemagne which is green, acidic and not very right, but when you make the wine from these grapes, they ripe two weeks earlier and the wine is great on this terroir. Jim says that this wine has been discovered quite late by his clients, he has been making this blend since 1998 but sommeliers in restaurants couldn't find takers although they loved the idea. It's only starting in 2006 that the wine found its momentum and selled very well
Jim says that he planted Pinot Beurot after tasting the Aloxe Corton white from Philippe Senard.
Asked if he use lab yeast or indigenous, Jim says that they tried year after year to work with indigenous yeast but nothing ever worked well, but he is not worried by the quality of the yeast they now use. He points to a particular cuvée, saying that in 2001 it worked well with indigenous yeast, 2002 was very difficult, 2003 and 2004 worked, while in 2005 half the barrels wouldn't finish fermenting and they had to reinoculate them to get to the end, yielding wines that were more oxidized than intended. After that they inoculated, he says that in his mind the type of yeast used for the fermentation plays a 1/1000th part in the final wine. What really counts, he says, is for example not to have the pinot noir speed its fermentation the first day with high juice temperature. He says if you pick in the morning and keep the grapes cool, delay the addition of yeast to make sure that for 4 or 5 days you have a cold maceration, you will be fine, considering you have the fermentation done in 10 days through the yeast addition.
I'm telling Jim that I loved his pinot noir when I first tasted it at a U.S. Embassy wine tasting a few years ago (march 2010), it was La Bauge au Dessus 2007 and this wine was terrific. Au Bon Climat wines were presented by a young man named Gavin Chanin, and I learn that he became very famous recently with his own line of wines and he left Au Bon Climat last year to launch his own winery (Chanin Wine) with an associate. I happen to have shot a short video interview of Gavin who was then Jim's assistant winemaker, here it is on the left. He's been named by Forbes among the 30-under30 rising stars of food and wine, and he basically was known through wines that were made here at Au Bon Climat using the same work patterns. Jim jokes that I may have been the first through WineTerroirs to have made an interview of him, and having an appointment now could prove more difficult...
I'm pouring myself a glass of this very cuvée, Au Bon Climat La Bauge au-Dessus 2009, Santa Maria Valley. I tell Jim that this wine that I tasted back at the Embassy had an expression of truth, a gentle appeal that made it so easy and pleasurable to drink, that's why I presumed it was vinified with wild yeast and made in an uninterventionist way. He says that it's non-interventionist in the real sense, meaning he says, not adding water and not adding acidity. But just letting things go and not intervening at all produces natural wine and when he holds a glass of such wines, with the color, the oxidation and other defaults, he thinks that a winemaker's role is control the spoilage of healthy fruity grapes nto a style of wine. This is all the issue with the need he had to use yeast to finish his fermentation. He says that if he took over La Tâche tomorrow and added yeast to vinify, you would still recognize La Tâche. Same for irrigation because 9 out of 10 years you wouldn't use the irrigation, you'd use it only on extreme conditions and drought. Of course if you're interested in high yields and irrigation, you'll have mediocre wines, and this, wherever your vines will be planted.
I ask him his modus operandi for the winemaking, he says he has his grapes hand-picked early in the morning to get them cool at the winery, For all the white wine it's whole-clustered pressed, not crushed nor put in any kind of machine before reaching the press. They do destem the pinot noir, in most cases 100 % destemmed, in other cases they don't destem at all depending of the quality of the stems, then it goes into 5-ton open-top fermenters (4535 kg), these are the round stainless-steel vats that you can see stored outside (one of the pictures above-right). They add some CO2 at the beginning, and they only pump over with some pigeage, it's very much like in Burgundy, he says. He likes the temperature inside to be high, like 37 or 38 ° C, just leaving it go up by its own, he says this way he gets wine that are less green and herbacious. They never heat the juice but if it gets too hot they cool it. But in a 4000-liter fermenting vessel they usually build up to something like 37 ° C and they can then stabilize the temperature through pigeage. They add the yeast when the juice begins to ferment by its own, usually after 4 or 5 days.
__ Au Bon Climat Knox Alexander 2010, Estate Bottled Pinot Noir, Santa Maria Valley (very high elevation). Very delicate wine, beautiful balance, delicious. Named from his son who was just born , he made the first vintage in 1998, it had a very light color, and it's funny, he says, because Americans hated this wine, they looked at it and couldn't understand it on any level, and then people like restaurateur Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin or pastry chef François Paillard all said the wine was fantastic, like La Tâche, and they made this cuvée very famous and appreciated in America. This 2010 vintage just reached the market recently.
__ Au Bon Climat Isabelle 2010, California Pinot Noir. Named from Jim's daughter. The idea here is to select the best vineyard sites, be they in Sonoma, Mendocino County, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara (that's why the label says only california), take the best fruit in all these best parcels, choose the best barrels made from thse best fruits, and you get the cuvée Isabelle. Not bad, and pretty demanding requirements, this man loves his daughter... He says this is the easiest wine he makes, the only thing is to pick the best of the best of each year. Very nice nose, you feel you're up to something great. as I'm still enjoying the nose, Jim tells me that it's their most popular wine in Japan, and they sell at least half of the cuvée over there, shipping a bit more than 1000 cases there. They have 3 exporters for Japan, Vinorum, then Nakagawa Wine Co. and recently by Japan Airlines for their luxury-goods store. Then after the JAL worked with him he was approached by Yamaya but he hasn't answered yet.
The wine is very beautiful indeed, another wine that I won't spit (unlike France, the police here doesn't seem to make any random breath checks anyway).
__ Clendenen Family Vineyards Nebbiolo 2005 Santa Maria Valley, Bricco Buon Natale. He made his first Nebbiolo in 1986, but not from his own vines, he says it's more difficult to make a good Nebbiolo of the quality of a Barolo or Barbaresco than it is to make a Grand Cru Pinot Noir. With the 3 contracted vineyards he worked with between 1986 and 1994 he was very unhappy because the growers didn't understand the need to grow correctly the grapes in order to have a great wine at the end, they never accepted to make the sacrifices to make it good, believing what was good was big clusters so that they could sell lots of grapes and that the winemaker could still make good wine from them. They used lots of irrigation, they didn't drop crop and they had the wrong clones, so Jim decided to do it all by himself and plant the Nebbiolo here on his family land. Here he uses the drip irrigation only when the vine needs it, and he adds that the most important thing here in California is the rootstock, and these growers didn't understand that, they all picked such types like AXR #1 that give very big crops. So the one he uses himself is Riparia Gloire, along the advice of a viticulture expert from the Dijon University who travelled here. It's still complicated because the vines are very weak, even 15 years later they can't reach the 3rd wire, but on the other hand he hasn't to add acidity or water when he makes the wine, which is very important because you feel it in the wine, and the Nebbiolo he gets is how Nebbiolo should be here if made from the right fruit.
Irrigation is still important, he says, because here in Santa Barbara it's too dry, it takes between 51 and 56 inches of rain to grow a vine through the growing season and they get only 11 to 17. The important thing is modulate carefully the dripping to give only what is necessary. The people who are making huge crops are pruning too large, they have bigger rootstocks, they aren't looking for the wine he's looking for, like in Napa where the vineyards are hugely productive, they let the fruit hang until 17 % alcohol and then add water to bring it down. They also have to correct the acidity afterwards because it's way too low.
I haven't notes on the Nebbiolo, but it was very good, as far as my poor knowledge of this variety can judge (I'm irremissibly French...).
I have learned again here that wine is made primarily in the vineyard and sometimes the only way to get things done correctly is do all the thing yourself from the start, the rootstock selection, the planting, the soil, everything....
Wall Steet Journal profile of Jim Clendenen (2012)
New York Times' Eric Asimov on the new, lighter California Pinot Noirs (2009)