The wines of Au Bon Climat/Clenenden Family Vineyards
Visiting Jim Clenenden and tasting his Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay from California's Central Coast


jm clenenden
Jim Clenenden standing outside his Santa Maria Valley winery

One of the most recognizable faces in the California wine scene is that of Jim Clenenden. His Au Bon Climat winery has been focusing on making elegant expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for 35 years, pre-empting the current move for balance in Californian wine by a few decades. We visited the winery on a gorgeous day in March, when the grass growing in the dormant vine rows was adding a green tinge to the good-looking Santa Maria Valley vineyards in California's central coast.

Jim's love for wine goes back to 1974. Then, as a student aged 21 (he's now a relatively young-looking 64) he spent time in Burgundy and Champagne on a study year abroad. He graduated in law at UC Santa Barbara in 1976, and then went back to Burgundy in 1977, and then worked from 1977-1980 at Zaca Mesa winery.

In 1980 he went to Sydney and worked in the Hunter Valley. 'I went to Murray Tyrrell. I had a bunch of hair then so he wouldn't hire me,' recalls Jim. 'So I worked for McGuigan, and then drove a truck with a rotary filter on the back. Then I went down to the Goulbourn Valley - there were some interesting vines there.' After his Australian experience, he went back to Burgundy in 1981 and worked in Chassagne Montrachet and Volnay. 'I discovered that you don't need a pump,' he says, adding: 'In America I learned how to use a pump; in Australia I learned how to make a pump.'

Then he came back to Santa Barbara and began Au Bon Climat in 1982, in collaboration with Adam Tolmach (their partnership eventually broke down, and Adam left to form Ojai in 1990). The first winery was a barn on the Los Alamos vineyard property in Santa Barbara County, and the model was to buy grapes from good vineyards, such as the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley (first planted in 1973) and the Sanford and Benedict vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills (first planted in 1971). They stayed at the Los Alamos barn until 1989, and now the Au Bon Climat winery is located in the Santa Maria Valley next to the Bien Nacido vineyard.

'We wanted to apply what we learned,' says Jim. 'We started off 100% whole cluster, but we just didn't have good enough vineyards for this in the early 1980s.'

Jim Clenenden has had an uneasy relationship with Robert Parker, for a long time the USA's most influential wine critic. For a while, Parker was a huge champion of the wines that Jim and Adam were turning out. 'He invented me,' says Jim. 'If he hadn’t put us into the top 10 then my career would have been different.' He's referring to the fact that in 1989 and Parker included Au Bon Climat in his list of best wineries in the world. But then seven years later, something changed: Parker began criticizing Au Bon Climat for making lean wines (even though the wines were the very same ones that a few years earlier had garnered high scores), and then stopped reviewing them altogether.

These days Au Bon Climat makes some 50 000 cases of wine. The focus is on the Central Coast, which benefits from the cooling breezes and fogs from the Pacific, which are allowed free access inland by the three east-west facing valleys that form the heart of this wine region. The main source is the Bien Nacido Vineyard, but there's also Sanford and Benedict, Talley (San Luis Obispo), Los Alamos (Santa Barbara County) and Jim's own Le Bon Climat (Santa Maria Valley).

With his Chardonnays, 'I believe in fining,' he says. 'I chill down, fine, cold stabilize. Then I go back to barrel again. It's the rest period that everyone was talking about in France before 1981. Those people don't have prem-ox problems.' He adds, 'If it was natural in some other place, some American is going to try to do it by science.'

Surprisingly, Jim wasn't part of the In Pursuit of Balance (IPOB) organization. 'I've been IPOB since 1982,' he says. 'Raj [Parr] and I were on a panel with a pro-alcohol group and an anti-alcohol group,’ says Jim. ‘They took it into a codified organization, which bothers me a bit. I won’t join any club that will have me.’


Clenenden Family Vineyards Aligote 2013 Santa Maria Valley, California
Jim Clenenden started making this from other vineyard sources in 2001, then planted his own vines in 2006. It’s textured, nutty and stony in a nice tight mineral style. It has richness but also freshness, with an amazing stony quality. Lovely stuff with just a touch of mineral reduction. 93/100

Clenenden Family Vineyards Viognier 'Second Coming' 2012 Santa Maria Valley, California
This was planted for Jim's ex-wife Morgan. 'I had to take the Viognier back when she filed,' he says. Jim has 3 acres planted, which was originally for Morgan's Viognier-led brand Cold Heaven. He first made this in 2011 when he took the fruit back. 'She became the queen of Viognier,' he says. 'All we need now is a movie about Viognier and I won't have enough.' He says his favourite Viogniers are made by Yves Cuilleron in the northern Rhône. Lively, textural and fresh with some cedary, savoury, nutty oak notes. Bright finish. Lovely balance here and it could age. 92/100

Au Bon Climat Chardonnay Sandford & Benedict Vineyard 2014 Santa Ynez Valley, California
Jim has been working with fruit from this vineyard since 1985, and gets some of the original plantings. It delivers his longest-lived Chardonnay, and he uses 25% new oak each year. Powerful, a bit spicy, lemony and mealy with some freshness. Nice focused white pear and peach fruit with some spice, good texture and a savoury edge. 94/100

Clenenden Family Vineyards 'The Pip' Chardonnay 2013 Santa Maria Valley, California
From young vines from Le Bon Climat vineyard, no new wood. Textural and quite mineral with lovely spiciness. Powerful stuff with some ripe apple in the mix and good freshness. 92/100

Clenenden Family Vineyards Chardonnay Le Bon Climat Vineyard 2010 Santa Maria Valley, California
Powerful and nutty with an aromatic nose of pear and white peach. The palate has lovely texture: it's powerful but balanced with broad yet crystalline fruit and some mineral spicy notes. Fine and precise. 94/100

Au Bon Climat Hildegard 2013 Santa Maria Valley, California
This is 50% Pinot Gris, 40% Pinot Blanc and 10% Aligote. Fresh, lively and distinctive with a savoury mineral edge. Textured with good acidity and some savoury notes and a bit of lemon on the finish. Restrained. 92/100

Au Bon Climat 'Nuits Blanches au Bouge' Chardonnay 2013 Santa Maria Valley, California
Powerful, spicy, lemony and nutty with real depth and keen acidity. Has a nutty, mineral finish. So taut and expressive, showing lovely finiesse. 94/100

Clenenden Family Vineyards 'The Pip' Pinot Noir 2014 Santa Maria Valley, California
With sweet cherries and plums on the ripe nose, this is berryish and delicious. The palate shows cherries and herbs with some plums and spice. Bright. 92/100

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Bien Nacido Vineyard 2012 Santa Maria Valley, California
Fine and expressive with a slightly peppery nose as well as sweet plums and cherries. Has lovely fine, spicy, fresh cherry fruit on the palate with a savoury, spicy edge. Finesse the main theme here. 50% whole cluster at least for this wine. 95/100

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict Vineyard 2014 Santa Ynez Valley, California (cask sample)
Supple, fine and expressive with lovely finesse. Pure with silky texture and nice freshness. Admirable purity. 93-95/100

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir La Bauge Au-Dessus 2012 Santa Maria Valley, California
Vines planted in 1994. Very stylish and focused with fresh cherries and plums, with a nice savoury edge. Lovely finesse here with some subtle herb notes alongside the red cherries, with a bright personality. 95/100

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 'Isabelle' 2012 California
This is a blend of the best barrels blended around the vintage. It is so fine and expressive with great concentration. Structured with taut raspberry fruit and some red cherries. Good weight and density, as well as finesse. 95/100

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Knox Alexander 2012 Santa Maria Valley, California
Very fine and expressive with fresh cherries and spice. Nice herbs and cherries. Fresh and linear with a savoury spiciness and great concentration. Has a juicy brightness. 94/100

Clenenden Family Vineyards Nebbiolo Bricco Buon Natale 2009 Santa Maria Valley
Finely expressive. Lovely taut, dense, vivid raspberry and cherry fruit, with real freshness. Lively stuff with juicy acidity and real finesse and purity. This spent five years in barrel. 95/100

Clenenden Family Vineyards Nebbiolo Punta Exclamitiva 2008 Santa Maria Valley
Savoury, spicy and earthy with nice complexity. Quite savoury and grippy with some earthy notes. Taut and with real finesse. Smoky, savoury and meaty with a bit of grip and nice minerals. 93/100

Wines tasted 03/16


Older notes (September 2009):

Au Bon Climat Wild Boy Chardonnay 2007
Smooth, refined and yet really intense with some nuttiness. Broad, mealy fruit here. A big wine. 90/100

Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay 2007
Dense and nutty but with real citrus freshness on the finish. Bold but beautiful. 91/100

Au Bon Climat Santa Maria Pinot Noir 2008
Very pale in colour. Beautiful sweet cherry aromatics. Bright and fresh. Light, elegant palate shows bright, fresh cherry fruit. 90/100

Au Bon Climat Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay 2006
Aromatic and focused. Fresh but rich at the same time, with citrussy fruit and a nice minerality. Complex and balanced. 92/100

Au Bon Climat Hildegard 2004 Santa Maria Valley
Mainly Pinot Gris. Lovely matchstick reduction on the nose: mineral, intense, toasty, rich. The palate is bold textured and complex with mineral notes, toast and some richness. 92/100

Au Bon Climat La Bauge Pinot Noir 2006
Pale cherry colour. Hint of spice to the smooth, elegant cherry fruit. Some warm pluminnes and spiciness. Elegant style. 90/100

Au Bon Climat Isabelle Morgan Pinot Noir 2006
Fresh, focused, bright cherry fruit nose with spicy complexity. The palate has lovely fruit and some oak currently showing. 91/100

Au Bon Climat Knox Alexander Pinot Noir 2005
Herby and spicy with bright fruit on the nose. Warm, smooth balanced palate with some earthy notes. Nice wine. 91/100

From a tasting at the IPNC in July 2008:

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir 1996 Santa Barbara County
Evolved and quite earthy but there's some freshness to the fruit here: this is still alive and drinking very well. A ripe expression of Pinot but interesting with it. 88/100

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict 1999
This is brilliant. Earthy, spicy nose leads to an expressive palate that's quite pure with lovely focus and depth. Quite profound, and drinking perfectly now. 94/100

Notes from an earlier tasting (in 2001):

Wild Boy Chardonnay 1999
Starts off with a nice, restrained nose, but the palate is like a caricature of Californian Chardonnay, with bags of new oak and concentrated tropical fruit flavours. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Jim Clenenden made this wine as a tongue-in-cheek jibe at the Californian style, which would explain why this is so at odds with the rest of the range. Very good, but odd

Santa Barbara County Chardonnay 1999, Santa Barbara County
Nice rich nutty nose shows complex toasty and fruity notes. The palate is classy, nutty and intense. It's a very savoury style with some rich but high-quality oaking. Very good+ (£14)

Chardonnay Reserve Le Bouge D'à Côte, Bien Nacido Vineyard 1998, Santa Maria Valley
There's a smoky, almost vegetal edge to the nose. This is a powerful style, with a savoury, nutty palate. Quite an austere style, with a very distinct savoury oaky character. It's still quite tight. Very good+ (£18)

Chardonnay Alban Vineyard 1998, Edna Valley
Very intense, smoky nose shows spicy, nutty notes and some toast and figgy fruit. The intense, savoury palate displays smoky, toasty, caramel and coffee notes, and there's good acidity. A very bold wine, quite oaky, but still classy. Very good/excellent (£27)

Chardonnay Sanford and Benedict Vineyard 1998, Santa Ynez Valley
Ripe elegant nose, with a rounded, toasty, nutty character and rich caramel and toffee notes. Full and quite rounded on the palate. This is a classy Chardonnay in a ripe style, and it's well balanced despite the oak. Very good/excellent (£27)

Chardonnay Talley Vineyard 1998, Arroyo Grande Valley
The attractively open, nutty and toasty nose shows ripe fruit. The palate is nicely textured, with buttery fruit and nutty, toasty oak, together with some toffee notes. This is riper and fuller than some of the other Chardonnays here. Very good+ (£18)

Pinot Mondeuse 1999, Santa Maria Valley
50% Pinot Noir, 50% Mondeuse. Lovely intense nose with rich, herby, pungent fruit. Relatively firm tannic palate with some green olive notes. Good concentration; and interesting wine. Very good+ (£14)

Pinot Noir Sanford & Benedict 1998, Santa Ynez Valley
Pale colour. Sweet spicy nose with some savoury cherry notes. Very savoury and spicy on the palate; quite rich in character, this is impressive. Very good/excellent. (£27)

Pinot Noir Laetitia & Rincon 1998, Arroyo Grande Valley
Quite pale in colour. Lovely pungent cherry and herb nose is profound and complex. The palate is rich and powerful with some lovely medicinal notes and cherryish fruit. Real interest here. Complex. Excellent (£27)

La Bauge Au Dessus Pinot Noir 1999
Lovely pungent herby/cherry nose with some smoky notes. The palate shows attractive, rich, savoury dark-cherry fruit and smoky, toasty notes. With good concentration, this is a rich wine. A touch of undergrowth adds complexity. Lovely stuff. Excellent

Pinot Noir Knox Alexander 1998, Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley
In a huge bottle, and with a different label than the others. A premium wine from the top of the Bien Nacido vineyard, this is one of two top cuvées from Au Bon Climat. Lovely, complex herby, spicy, medicinal nose, this is lovely stuff that is varietally true. Quite a splendid palate: savoury, rich, complex and still balanced, with ripe berry elements and great power. Excellent (£33)

Ici La-bas Les Révelées 1998 Pinot Noir, Mendocino
Jim Clenenden's own label. This is a restrained Pinot Noir, with a nice savoury palate with some leafy, savoury fruit. Quite understated with a toasty edge. Very good+ (£27)

Cold Heaven Viognier 1998, Sandford and Benedict Vineyard, Santa Barbara County
Launched with Clenenden's second wife, this is a weird wine. It's very concentrated and there is a pronounced herbal character to the nose. The palate is slightly bizarre with a herbal tinge to the fat spicy fruit. There's a hot finish. Poor. (£20)

Find these wines with

Back to top