Interview: Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen

Sometimes what’s needed to sell a wine is a personality, or a character. I can think of a couple whom spring to mind; Etienne Hugel, Ernie Loosen, Laurenz Moser, Randall Grahm, Chester Osborne and Pete Barry to name a few, but one man working down south in California is certainly a character and a personality – and makes bloody good wines too (note how all the aforementioned gents do too – it seems that with big personality comes big capability). His name is Jim Clendenen and he is the owner of Au Bon Climate, based in Santa Barbara County.

Jim founded Au Bon Climat (which means “a well exposed vineyard”) in 1982 and produces world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Not a Burgundy drinker myself particularly (especially not the reds), these wines that Jim crafts are as good a representation of both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as you will find – and they’re a pleasure to drink as anyone who has tasted his Hildegard 2003 can attest to.

Jim Clendenen and Wine Times' Stephy Poon

Jim Clendenen and Wine Times’ Stephy Poon

I first had the pleasure (and it is a pleasure) to meet Jim earlier this year at a tasting he held with his importer Berry Bros and Rudd here in Hong Kong and I found him to be a most personable chap – always game for a laugh, doesn’t take himself too seriously and had me enthralled in the way he described wine; he makes it fun to learn about and fun to drink and not once did I hear him talk about alcohol levels, sunlight hours and rainfall – it was all about what was in the glass.

I couldn’t resist and had to ask Jim if he would be so kind as to grant me time for an interview while he was here. He gracefully said yes and so the following morning we met for coffee in the Mandarin Oriental hotel and, after a couple of hours of chatting and with 10 minutes to go before his next meeting, we finally got the interview started! Much of what Jim and I talked about was undocumented – for a reason! – but here is some of the thoughts of one of my now-favourite winemakers in the world, whose wines I will always have in my wine fridge at home as there is nothing (and I mean nothing) that comes from California that has come anywhere near to exciting me as much as his aforementioned Au Bon Climate Santa Maria Valley Hildegard 2003.

20140108_164447WTHK: How did the love affair with wine start?

JC: “In Bordeaux when I was 20 / 21. I left university, bought a Volkswagen van in Pairs and my girlfriend and I lived in Europe for twelve months. We visited 18 countries and wine was our staple! Spain was the best place to get wine then, much better than France because you did not need to have a cork – you could just walk in with an open 1.5 litre bottle, walk up to any Bodega and they’d fill it up for you! Our passion was dry Rosé back then but we got into the crisp whites and then I found out what the regional cuisine was all about, found ingredients and cooked them in the camper! It was a simple life, but at that time it was deluxe”!

20140108_162632WTHK: So when did the passion for Burgundy, or Burgundian grapes at least set in?

JC: “I graduated in pre-law after my European experience and my sister was in the Peace Corps in Africa and I had an ex-girlfriend who was working in costume design at University in Reims, Champagne. I went there and picked her up to go for a holiday in Burgundy. I ended up eating in a 3 star restaurant not far from there and spent all the money my grandfather had given me for the trip! I spent every nickel on one meal!! That’s kind of the way I work! I wasn’t exactly living the high life after that meal, but I can still tell you everything that I ate that day! But being in Burgundy I met humble farmers who have a tractor and a small basement for barrels – they have honesty, integrity and they work hard. The Burgundian model was something I could understand so after that year I went back and started working for wineries to build up experience. I worked three vintages in California and two vintages in Australia and a vintage in Burgundy and by that time my mind was made up about the decision about what type and style of wine I wanted to make – basic, rudimentary, traditional and now I make wine at a really big, internationally irrelevant winery that makes wine still in that same technique!”

20140108_170128WTHK: It wasn’t easy at the start for Au Bon Climate right?

JC: “They were really tough times. When I came out and released our first wine there was a great economic downturn in America – I’m talking 1980 / 1981. We launched the first wine in 1982 and things got better a little alter but as the economy got better the dollar became massively strong so in ’84 / ‘85 the dollar was worth 11 Francs so even I could drink top Burgundy for lunch – and did! But all of a sudden my wines became overpriced because theirs were artificially underpriced. But we never got ahead of ourselves, we always had a market for the wines that we made – even as we expanded and I think that was smart”.

WTHK: ABC – Anything But Chardonnay and Au Bon Climat! Any thoughts on the “Chardonnay nay-sayers”?

JC: “It’s good – if it will allow you to include Chenin Blanc – which is a phenomenal grape – into your repertoire. Riesling is really the king of white wine grapes – I love it and try to make it every year and am currently the ‘King of Riesling Failures”! When I get it right…I’ll be able to quit! So ABC is great as long as it opens up other grape varieties – Sauvignon Blanc is fantastic although I think sweet, artificially underripe garbage Sauvignon Blanc should be avoided at all costs. The ABC movement was good to open things up but unfortunately it’s a little but like asking who’d you vote for…Anyone But Obama…it’s kind of pathetic somehow. People just pick on Obama in the same way people just picked on Chardonnay – at times for no good reason”.

20140108_155627WTHK: We touched on wine adultery when we tasted the other day. Can we have a few thoughts on that for the record?

JC: “Yeah you know it is soul-less winemaking when you’re rectifying everything in the cellar – it doesn’t matter when you pick your grapes, it doesn’t matter where you plant your grapes. You are making a beverage, a product and that is not why I am in the wine business. From a personal point of view I don’t find that satisfying, I also don’t find it satisfying that people don’t reward people that do it honestly and do it intelligently – not chaptalising, not acidifying, not adding water or using an iron exchange column or an alcohol reduction convention to make their wine”.

It’s no doubt that Jim is passionate and is not afraid to speak his mind. If you ever get the chance to taste his wines, do so! They are available in Hong Kong so there really is no excuse for not giving them a try. Au Bon Climat wines are imported by Berry Bros and Rudd so for more information you can contact Phebe Wong at phebe.wong@bbr.com or go to their international website for more on the wines themselves – http://www.bbr.com/HK/