Stylistically, California wines have developed a reputation of power over finesse. “High in alcohol,” “jammy” and “over-oaked” are descriptors that I often hear from clients who prefer a more restrained, old world style of wine. While there is a certain amount of validity to this complaint, my experience is that when you move beyond the “extreme value” price point, the majority of California winemakers work hard at producing a balanced product.
One such California winemaker, who has been crafting elegant, classically styled Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for over three decades, is Jim Clenenden of Au Bon Climat / Clenenden Family Vineyards. Jim acquired his winemaking skills at Zaca Mesa winery, as well as during a couple of stints working at vineyards in Burgundy and Australia. Au Bon Climat was founded in 1982 by Jim and fellow winemaker Adam Tolmach. While Tolmach left the partnership in 1990 to pursue other interests, Clenenden stayed the course, steadily improving and growing the brand.
Sourcing fruit from some of the most well regarded vineyards in California’s central coast, Au Bon Climat produces a broad variety of Burgundian styled Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. Having had the pleasure of tasting through a majority of these wines I have found that all of them exhibit delightful aromatics, balance and deliciousness, critical benchmarks that make a wine interesting in my book.
Au Bon Climat wines are crafted in three tiers: The Blue Series, created from the best cuvées and receiving the highest percentage of new oak treatment; the Historic Vineyard Collection, representing five iconic vineyards in California’s central coast and the very affordable Santa Barbara County Classic series.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Jim also has a number of other endeavors underway including: Clenenden Family Vineyards, a project in which Jim creates small lot, artisanal wines that include two incredibly complex Nebbiolos. And Barham Mendelsohn Pinot Noir, produced from grapes grown on the Lala Panzi Ranch in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. Over the course of his career Clenenden has demonstrated a creative restlessness, always looking for new opportunities and challenges.
Two other highly regarded winemakers call the Au Bon Climat winery in Santa Maria, California home. Bob Lindquist has been a close, personal friend and colleague of Clenenden for more than 35 years and focuses on world class Rhone style wines under the Qupé label. Bob’s wife, Louisa Sawyer-Lindquist, produces wines from primarily Spanish grape varietals sourced from organic and biodynamic vineyards. Louisa’s label, Verdad, creates lovely, complex wines.
Visitors to the area can sample and purchase wines from Au Bon Climat year round at their tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara. Qupé and Verdad have a combined tasting room open in Arroyo Grande, California. But the best experience by far is to attend the Au Bon Climat winery open house. Normally closed to the public, ABC opens their doors twice a year to club members and other interested wine lovers. For $20 guests will have the opportunity to taste through and purchase a broad selection of the three winemakers’ available products, enjoy a spectacular cookout style lunch and receive a commemorative glass. The open house dates are in April and October. Seating on site is understandably limited, so many attendees bring their own folding chairs so that they can relax and take in the beautiful vistas of the Bien Nacido vineyards, which surround the winery, while drinking some excellent wine. Additional details can be found at www.aubonclimat.com. If you are not up for a road trip, consumers can find the higher production bottles of Au Bon Climat and Qupé wines locally at Total Wine, as well as several other retail establishments in the Tucson area.
Au Bon Climat translated into English means “a well exposed vineyard.” I strongly encourage my fellow SaddleBrooke wine aficionados to “expose” themselves to these memorable wines when the opportunity presents itself.
Tom Oetinger holds an advanced certification in wine & spirits from the WSET in London, England and is available to answer your wine questions at firstname.lastname@example.org