We were very privileged to be invited to lunch at Au Bon Climat, one of the true pioneers of the Santa Barbara County wine scene. We drove up to the winery with high expectations but ended up in an experience that well exceeded what we thought we may encounter.
Au Bon Climat is the winery founded in 1982 by Jim Clendenen and his then partner Adam Tolmach. In 1990 Tolmach split off to create his own winery, The Ojai Vineyard, to pursue winemaking in his own way. Clendenen started Au Bon Climat after he got back from Bordeaux where he had taken a year off from doing pre-law in university. There his palate was opened to the gastronomic delight that is French wine and cooking. It was the wines of Burgundy that really captured his attention, and this led him to working a harvest in Burgundy’s famous sub-region Chassagne-Montrachet. Winery stints followed in Australia and then back home in California with Zaca Mesa. These experiences convinced him to leave the path to law school and commit full time to making wine.
The first winery was in a barn on the Los Alamos Vineyard property and Jim set out to buy fruit from the best vineyards in the area. That resulted in his fateful relationship with the Miller family, owners of the storied Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria. Bien Nacido was planted in 1973 and has now expanded to 800 contiguous acres. Jim has been buying fruit from Bien Nacido from the beginning and in 1990 moved his winery operation into a building at the edge of their property. Bien Nacido is still the biggest source of fruit for Au Bon Climat.
We arrived at the winery just before noon. Being early is something that just comes naturally to us and good thing it does as Jim is a stickler about timeliness when it comes to his lunches.
As we drove up the old road leading to the base of some beautiful mountains, we saw the sign we were told to look for, “CLV” and an arrow. It stands for Clendenen and Lindquist Vintners, as Bob Lindquist, formerly of Qupé, also makes his wines in the same facility.
If it weren’t for the stack of barrels outside, we might have driven past the winery. No signage, just a tall rectangular building, where inside co-habitate a group of some of the best winemakers in Santa Barbara County. In addition to Jim and Bob Lindquist, Frank Ostini makes his Hitching Post wines at this facility. Frank also owns the Hitching Post II restaurant in nearby Buellton, a spot for locals to gather until 2004 when the runaway success indie movie “Sideways” filmed numerous scenes in that restaurant. The locals still have to jostle through all of the tourists to get a table there.
After doing a bit of a tour and seeing the fermenters and the barrel room, we sat down at a long table set up in the middle of the winery, amongst the stacks of barrels. Jim Clendenen was chef for a gang of 16 that included fellow winemakers Bob Lindquist, Frank Ostini and Mark Piro. Also with us were families members, staff, and two retailers who it tuned out were also from Canada. This lunch is served to the staff each working day, and when Jim is in town, he does the cooking. It is a wonderfully casual affair where you help yourselves and fill your plate with a delicious selection of salads, pasta, meatballs, grilled vegetables and other treats, all made with great skill by one of the regions top winemakers.
The table is filled with bottles of wine either from Au Bon Climat or one of Jim’s other projects, such as his Clendenen Family Wines or from Bob Lindquist’s new venture after selling Qupé called Lindquist Family Wines. The wines are passed family style from person to person, and for the most part we are all drinking the same wine at the same time and offering up our opinions. We got the sense that this was of great value to these winemakers, to hear directly what their staff and their guests thought of the wines.
Jim Clendenen’s personality matches his appearance to a tee. He wears his curly grey locks long and free-flowing, and his shirts are bright and colourful. There is an unmistakeable twinkle in his eye, and he loves to kid around. Physically, and in terms of personality, he reminded us of a Northern Hemisphere version of Chester Osborn, one of Australia’s most accomplished winemakers. Plain-speaking, intelligent, witty, iconoclastic and maybe a bit irreverent too, but unmistakably charming. To say he commands a room might make us guilty of understatement.
A window into Jim’s personality comes from our conversation quite early in the lunch regarding the meaning of his and other winery names. Au Bon Climat is French for a well-exposed vineyard site, exactly the sort of places that he looks to buy fruit from.
Jim then launches into a priceless monologue on what people tell you their winery and vineyard names mean.
“Like Bien Nacido. People think it means good place, but it doesn’t. It means well bred. If you listen to what other people say their winery name means, they all tell you the same thing. If you’re name is ‘Mt. Veeder’ they’ll tell you it means ‘beautiful, tranquil, peaceful place’ but it doesn’t! At Zaca Mesa where I worked many moons ago, someone was telling people that it meant ‘peaceful, tranquil, place’ and I looked it up and it translates to mining bucket. So when people said they had heard that it means peaceful, tranquil, place, I would say no it means fucking little mining bucket.”
Jim is a big success as a winemaker. His production is probably close to 50,000 cases annually, still artisanal, but big artisanal. He is much feted in the community and his wines have received scores and praise from the wine press around the world. But none of that seems to have gone to his head. He travels a lot these days selling his wines worldwide. But he loves to come back home and get into his little make-shift kitchen among the barrels and cook lunch for all of his staff (all of them, not just the higher-ups) and let the food, the wine and the conversation flow.
Jim told us about his experience in Europe and here in California with drinking some of the world’s great wines.
“I got bitten by the wine bug when I turned 21 living in Bordeaux. I try not to admit that…I was traveling with my girlfriend and we took a year off. I visited 18 countries in just over 12 months, and had some of the most memorable times. In Bordeaux I discovered everything about wine and when I returned to California, I joined the Santa Barbara wine club which was made up of a bunch of wealthy guys with great cellars but they didn’t know anything about wine. I would show up and I would have prepared a discussion on the ’61 Bordeaux and I would give it to them for an hour and they learned more about wine than they ever knew before and they would give me a bottle of wine to add to the case I had. I remember paying $29.95 for a ’61 Margaux! The guy that made it available to me, I had dinner with him not that long ago and he said ‘well Jim, none of us really saw the potential in you, but you were a lot of fun back then too’.”
As mentioned earlier, Jim’s good friends Bob Lindquist and Frank Ostini both make their wines in the same facility. Bob must be Jim’s alter-ego. Quiet and measured, not the spontaneous eruption of quips and stories that is Jim, but a delightful conversationalist in his own way. And a terrific winemaker as well. Over the years we have enjoyed many a Qupé Syrah, the winery he built and then sold a few years ago. His current project, Lindquist Family wines, based on what we tasted at lunch, are every bit as good. Where Au Bon Climat makes just Burgundian varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), Lindquist focuses on the Rhone varieties of Syrah and Grenache.
Somewhere between those two winemakers, in terms of personality, is Frank Ostini of Hitching Post. Not as flamboyant as Jim nor as reserved as Bob, he is a character in his own right. We caught up with Frank that evening when we stopped at the bar at the Hitching Post II for dinner. Frank keeps a bunch of back vintages and we decided to order one. We have had great Pinot from the Fiddlestix Vineyard and he had both a 2006 and a 2002. We thought we should play it safe and order the ’06 because we weren’t sure about a New World Pinot showing much life in its 18th year.
Frank told us not to worry and order the ‘02. Of course we took his advice and found the 2002 to be complex, remarkably fresh, dark in colour, and just plain delicious! We got to chatting with the others at the bar (that is pretty much standard operating procedure at the Hitching Post) and shared some of our wine with Frank and with the wonderful couple sitting next to us, Walter and Mari. They in turn shared with us a 2007 Hitching Post Rio Vista Pinot Noir and a 2000 Hitching Post Sanford and Benedict Pinot Noir. All the wines were in great shape and brilliantly illustrated how long-lived Santa Barbara Pinot Noir can be from the right vineyards and in the hands of the right winemaker.
As the following tasting notes will show, the wines of Jim Clendenen and his friends are excellent pretty much across the board. (Sorry no tasting notes kept at the Hitching Post, a little over-served for proper note taking!). This lunch, which lasted 2 ½ hours was a real treat. A great afternoon of food, wine and conversation with some of Santa Barbara County’s, and California’s for that matter, best winemakers.
2018 Clendenen Family Vineyards Mondeuse Rosé
We started our nearly 3 hour lunch with this very refreshing rosé made from this little known grape which is generally associated with the region of Savoie in Eastern France. Minimal skin contact provides a lovely pink/crimson colour and avoids extracting some of the bold tannins this grape will produce with longer macerations. The result is crisp acidity backing up strawberry and cranberry notes with a mineral streak that punctuates the finish. Very refreshing. Very Good+
2018 Verdad Albariño
Verdad is Louisa Sawyer Lindquist’s (Bob’s wife) winery project where they produce this great Albariño on their estate vineyard in the Edna Valley. We are BIG fans of the wines of Rias Baixas, the Spanish home of the Albariño grape, and maybe we get a little snooty when we see foreigners trying to copy one of our favourites. But this was truly excellent Albariño. Full and textured with crisp acidity it showed the same great mouthfeel qualities of a top O Rosal. Citrus notes gain added complexity from earthy tones and hints of mandarin orange.
2015 Au Bon Climat Bien Nacido Chardonnay
Leading up to this wine were two incredible values: Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Chardonnay and Clendenen Family Chardonnay, two wines punching way above their weight class. But in another league is this Bien Nacido Chardonnay. Gorgeous texture, almost opulent, but kept nicely bounded by steely acidity, this wine showed incredible balance and great intensity. Pear and stone fruit flavours finish off with wet stones.
2016 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir La Bauge Au-dessus
A blend of fruit from Bien Nacido and Le Bon Climat vineyards, this was the wine we felt fit into the new “Somm Style” that stresses elegance and freshness over power and presence. Light body and very floral, this is a pretty wine showing red fruits together with earth and minerals. There is enough intensity to go with many foods but we found it paired best with Jim’s delicious pasta!
2016 Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Bien Nacido
Moving to the other end of the spectrum is the powerful, dark-fruited, almost exotic panoply of flavours that is the Bien Nacido. This wine has great intensity that almost bursts out of the glass! But don’t go thinking this is some overdone California fruit-bomb. This is anything but. It is a terrifically balanced, suave wine that delivers vibrant dark cherry with plenty of nuance from baking spice, earth and mineral notes. The ABV is a very civilized 13.5%, a number that caught us quite by surprise. The texture of the wine is gorgeous: full, bright and not too tannic. This could develop for another two decades.
2018 Lindquist Family Syrah
This is Bob’s new project since selling Qupé and is every bit as good as anything he did at that Rhone speciality house (where he made an incredible string of wines over 37 years). Blending 5% Grenache and 5% Mouvedre this wine is full bodied with gorgeous texture and has a certain brawniness that often is characteristic of young California Syrah. The balance here is precise. After tasting through a big line up of Pinot, switching to that first glass of Syrah can sometimes be a shock to the palate. Not here as the power of the wine is equally matched by its elegance. Another wine sure to have a long life in the cellar.