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I realised a long-standing ambition earlier this year. I finally got to enjoy Jim Clendenen's cooking and visit his California winery.
Au Bon Climat is very, very different from the California norm. For a start, founded in 1982 when Clendenen was a burgundy-besotted 29 year old, it has a long history. The geography is different too. Far from any tourist route and until very recently far from any other winery, it's unsignposted and up a side valley off the vast Bien Nacido vineyard, the Miller family's pioneering early 1970s punt on what is now proven market demand for Central Coast grapes.
For more than three decades Clendenen and his team have been producing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the image of burgundy, ignoring California's late-20th-century love affair with alcohol, oak, sweetness and mass. For a while this cost them points and approbation, particularly from Robert Parker, who was pretty outspoken in his criticism of Au Bon Climat at one stage. But they have had the last laugh to judge from many younger California winemakers' current obsession with a lighter, fresher style of wine.
Santa Maria Valley is nothing like the manicured patchwork of Napa. In Santa Maria row after row of vines march into the distance over gently rolling hills, tended by agricultural workers who might tend strawberries or broccoli one season, vines the next. The 800-acre Bien Nacido vineyard stretches for a good two miles south of the turn off for Au Bon Climat, signaled merely by a small signpost to CLV, the letters standing for Jim Clendenen, Bob Lindquist and Vintners respectively.
Shockingly, this was my first visit to this vibrant corner of the wine world – or at least my first since it has been planted so extensively to vines. But I had long heard about Clendenen's famous winery lunches and, having spent time with this exuberant, long-haired, party boy in New Zealand, London, Oregon and all over the United States, I was keen to see him in situ. But so often does he travel – a veteran of the winemaker dinner and wine-festival circuit – that it had taken almost 30 years to fix a date. (I swear it was me who first called him Wild Boy, now the name of one of his characteristic triangular labels, complete with a drawing of the eponymous rabble-rouser himself. Later: Purple Pager and longstanding friend of and barrel supplier to Au Bon Climat Mel Knox confirms,)
Partly because of the isolation, partly because of the prevailing ethos, lunch is cooked and served at the winery every day and is regarded as a major perk for the workers there. On the many days when Clendenen is on the road, chef's duties fall to Enrique Rodriguez, cellarmaster and Clendenen's first employee. Rodriguez has been based at Au Bon Climat since he arrived from Mexico as a 16 year old. He is now 43.
Another vital ingredient in the ABC mix is another Jim, Jim Adelman, who was at school with Bob Lindquist. While Clendenen sets the ABC style, travels and talks the talk, Adelman is at the winery every day, overseeing winemaking and operations generally. 'Everyone tries to lure him away', observes one veteran visitor to Au Bon Climat, 'but he doesn't want to travel'.
We bounced along the road up the side valley and joined the motley assortment of trucks and old cars outside what is basically a large shed that could hardly be further from the architectural wonders more typical of California wineries today. Out of the winery wafted the strong and seductive aroma of baking fish.
Inside the dimly lit warehouse Clendenen was busy at the stove so I turned to Bob Lindquist, long responsible for the Qupé label devoted to Rhône varieties, a complement to Au Bon Climat's burgundy emphasis and highly suitable partner and co-lessee of the winery and carefully selected Bien Nacido parcels. I asked Lindquist to take me on a tour of the last of these and set off to climb the hillside above the winery, opening gates in the fences that keep local deer, and the cattle that graze some of the Millers' total 2,000 acres (810 ha), from nibbling the vines.
As we climbed we became increasingly aware of the Pacific just beyond the western horizon that is so vital in keeping the Santa Maria Valley cool and extending the growing season. We also saw white outcrops in the greensward. 'Dolomitic limestone', explained Bob, adding, referring to the wine region just to the north, 'the San Luis Obispo formation'. I took the picture of the winery below from our tour of the hillsides.
At first the Millers, who now have their own small Bien Nacido Estate winery in the same side valley as Au Bon Climat (see my enthusiastic tasting notes in Santa Barbara's grapes that didn't get away), planted the easy, flatter land with vines. But in 1992 they began to plant the hillsides too, areas of even more interest to the likes of Au Bon Climat, Sine Qua Non, Ojai and Jaffers as well as some of the bigger operators. Although the hillsides are hand-picked, they have been planted to allow for machine harvesting since a supply of labour is not a given here. A total of about 60 people work full time on Bien Nacido and they would like to have more in addition to the seasonal workers who arrive for the vintage. Chris Hammell is the vineyard manager and, as throughout California wine country, for him fluent Spanish is essential.
Bob sighed that this was their fourth year of drought. The previous harvest, 2014, had been their earliest ever, just as 2013 had been.
Back inside the shed/winery, Clendenen was more preoccupied with his vast trays of meat, fish and baked vegetables from his garden than with the vicissitudes of the weather. Nick and I were in the middle of a month-long tour of the Americas so travelled in permanent search of a washing machine. En route to the winery we had accordingly stopped at Rancho La Cuna, Jim's home nearby, and marvelled at his dining table with its room for 36 guests and dance floor for afterwards. There is little doubt that Clendenen, seen here with Nick, is one of Nature's hosts.
By the time we sat down for lunch in the winery there were at least 20 round the table, a mix of staff, customers, fellow wine producers and retailers from all over the world. But, sensibly, Clendenen made sure that the focus was on the wines rather than on his delicious food - all great ingredients and earthy flavours (pork tri-tip roast a speciality). Just the 16 bottles, of which the stars were a 2003 Chardonnay from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in what is now Sta. Rita Hills to the south and 1994 Isabelle Pinot Noir – each of them proof that Au Bon Climat can make wines that are still singing when many of their peers are long dead and buried.
Au Bon Climat lunches are notorious for their extended duration but ours lasted well under three hours. Clendenen had to get to a gig in Carmel.