Welcome to Santa Barbara County
Buyer Sarah Knowles MW reflects on time spent at this legendary winery, home of the late, great and much missed wine maverick Jim Clendenen.
I have been lucky enough to visit Au Bon Climat in California’s Santa Maria Valley four times over the last eight years.
Located three hours north of Los Angeles (or just over four hours south of San Francisco) it always takes a little logistical planning to ensure a mid-morning meeting. The first time, this was a coincidence, I arrived a little late for my appointment, as ABC has no shiny sign indicating its whereabouts from the road. In fact, you turn off the back road on to a semi-paved dusty track that leads you through a part of the Bien Nacido vineyard, where you stumble upon the agricultural shed-like winery, that is more functional than futuristic. Having spent the earlier part of the week in Napa and Sonoma, home to some of the world’s most distinctively designed and attention-grabbing wineries ABC’s is quite a contrast.
Inside, the winery is functional with fermentation vats lined up, barrels piled high on metal racking and large winery equipment like pneumatic presses and pumps standing by. In the first high ceiling, barn-like room, where grapes are hand sorted at harvest, there is a large wooden dining table laden with bottles, many unlabelled, some with corks protruding, others sealed. This is where I was ushered to by one of the wine world’s most loved members Jim Clendenen to start our tasting.
Jim, sadly passed away in 2021, in his sleep, at 68. However, on this, my first visit in 2015 he was on electric form. Widely regarded as one of California’s most significant winemakers, taking inspiration from Burgundy, Italy and Australia, he has made exceptional quality wines with unrivalled consistency for many years. Along with his stellar range, his success was cemented by his charm and warm, open nature and the passion he exuded when presenting. Flying around the world to promote his wines and region, early on he gained the nickname ‘Wild Boy’ (renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson MW came up with it!). It suited him well, perfectly capturing his extrovert nature, radical thinking and his long locks and bright shirts.
Tasting the range
Back in 2015, taking my seat at the long, highly varnished table, Jim started by showing me his current range. We then moved on to wines from the range he knew were in too small quantities to ship, but that he thought (correctly) that I’d still love to taste. Older vintages followed, poured alongside very young tank samples (I was there in November), and year-old barrel wines each poured with a barrage of information about the specific plot of vines, the weather and winemaking that now might explain the nuances that I was tasting. After more than 25 wines, I thought the tasting part may be ending, but that’s when we began on some of the wines that had already been on the table – wines made by Jim’s neighbours and friends, some at this winery, where, I discovered, Au Bon Climat were happy to rent out space, welcoming other winemakers in to create a more inclusive and knowledge-sharing environment and peer group.
As the tasting progressed, I realised too that lunch was being stirred in a large saucepan in a makeshift kitchen within the winery hall. As we now had well over 30 bottles strewn across the table, I was delighted that people began taking the seats around us and starting to taste along with us. It turns out that at ABC a big communal lunch, is a daily affair, with everyone downing tools and tucking in, tasting and talking wine. I gratefully took my plate proffered by Jim, and hoped the slow-cooked beans and hunks of bread might soak up some of the wines that were too good to spit.
By mid afternoon I piled back into my hire car and headed for my next appointment buzzing from a truly special tasting, hosted by an enigmatic, delightfully nerdy and talented man, with an incredible range of wines and an open-house generosity that left me sated.
Needless to say, on my following three trips to visit ABC, tasting again with Jim Clendenen, and also with Jim Adelman and Katie O’Hara, I always aimed for a mid-morning arrival, and was always delighted to crash the excellent lunch before heading on.