Santa Ynez Valley Journal
May 8, 2008
When you meet a striking personality, you are inclined to think of other striking personalities. And while Jim Clendenen and Ernest Hemingway are probably not all that similar, they certainly have a few things in common.
Namely, an affinity for France; a direct, no-holds-barred conversational style; and a certain passion for wine.
“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing”, said Hemingway.
Hemingway’s point of view pretty much sums up my recent visit with Jim Clendenen, owner of Au Bon Climat, a winery in the northern end of Santa Barbara County and directly opposite the famed Bien Nacido vineyard. It is that zeal for bringing wine to its greatest perfection that drives Clendenen’s approach to winemaking.
When asked about his philosophy, simply put, he answered, “Balance, tradition, history.”
Clendenen is unequivocal about his style and resolute about defending traditional, historical ways of winemaking.
“The philosophy’s always the same. Wine is all about balance, elegance, finesse. The higher the quality of the wine, the more of those attributes it possesses,” he said.
Not one to mince words, Clendenen speaks right to the point when asked about the current paradigm of blacker fruit, lower acidity, higher alcohol, and sweeter appearance that many critically-popular wines follow. As I watched him prepare a full 7-course Indian lunch, grabbing a myriad of spices from a chaotic kitchen larder, he described the dilemma.
Nobody wants a wine that is so fruity and jammy, that it can’t possibly go with anything. You see, my cooking involves vinegar, lemon, salt, spice. All those things are the antipathy of something that can co-exist with high alcohol and low acidity. Those things just don’t go together at all,” explained Clendenen.
Being sometimes considered “out of fashion” from a critic’s point-of-view is not as important to Clendenen as being true to classical styles of winemaking. When asked if he ever felt a need to accommodate current popular points of view, his response was emphatic.
“Nope. Never. Goodness gracious, no. Everybody else changes. Not us. We’re leaders. And sometimes you lead by going backwards,” he said.
“When things became more a question of obviously big alcohol or small alcohol, we went the other way. We went even lower. Just to make sure we had a clearer gap. So, if people actually understood what was going on, then they could focus on us as an alternative,” he explained. “If you like the wines, more power to you. I certainly do. If you say they’re too high in acid, too green, well, that’s my choice.”
But clearly, there are plenty of avid followers that share his contrarian point-of-view.
From its beginnings in 1982 with 1600 cases of wine, Au Bon Climat has grown to over 100,000 cases annually and plenty of accolades from around the world. A most recent acknowledgment was his induction into the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America” in 2007.
It has been a long road since Clendenen first volunteered on the bottling line for Fred Brander to get his start in the wine industry in the late 1970’s, following a pre-law degree from UC Santa Barbara. By 1982, he was picking his own grapes and launched the business. Over the next eight years, he and his then-partner had no employees and only themselves to rely on. But by 1991, ABC’s growth and success meant building a team that could help Clendenen achieve his vision. He was fortunate to make some great choices early on. Choices like Jim Edelman, winemaker and Enrique Rodriguez, cellar master, both of whom he credits as key to the success of the business.
I hired Jim Edelman in 1991 and now he is every bit as good a winemaker as I am, probably a better winemaker. He just has different ideas of how to achieve things. I feel better about the wine Jim has supervised since ‘05 here than any period of time in the company,” he said.
2001, Clendenen’s vineyards started to bear the best fruit. It was a combination of devigorating rootstock, increasing density, establishing a vertical trellis system, and farming organically.
All of the sudden, we had balanced grapes with low pH and firm acidity, all the alcohol we wanted, and we didn’t have to do anything to it. All we had to do was to extract it properly,” explained Clendenen.
Now, Clendenen believes more of the work happens in the vineyard, not in the cellar.
“Starting in ‘01, I didn’t have to add acid, sugar, water or yeast to any cuvee of red wine that I fermented. That’s the goal: to get back there every time,” he said. “We didn’t have to do anything in ’05. In ‘06 and ‘07, there were very minor adjustments on any level. This is what separates great farming from poor farming.”
“One thing you can rest assured, the grapes as they come in from the field are exactly reflected in the flavors of the wine,” said Clendenen.
When Clendenen is not traveling, he spends a part of his day preparing lunch for all the employees and any occasional guests. It’s a daily ritual that Clendenen firmly believes in.
”It’s what they do in France. It’s just a civilized thing. We have a lifestyle in this business. I’m happy with my life and lifestyle, and I’m happy to share it.”
And share it, he did. We started off with a full panoply of flavors: lamb curry, potatoes and okra, red beans and lentils – just to name a few of the dishes he labored over. Spread along the long family-style table was a wide variety of wines, including two first-class Pinot Noirs affectionately named after his children, Isabelle and Knox Alexander. The proof of everything he espoused was brought to bear in that meal. The wines sweetened in the mouth and became caramelized by the contrasts in the highly-spiced flavors of the dishes. Everything we sampled at the table just expanded.
There may have been some mutual agreement that the 2006 Riesling from the Clendenen Family Vineyards label was the best match to the meal, but maybe that was just my opinion. One thing was certain, Jim Clendenen’s wines change completely and come into their own when paired with the right food. And that’s what wine has traditionally, and historically, been meant to do.