Producer Profile: Au Bon Climat

Au Bon Climat translates as ‘well-exposed vineyard’. It is a winery found in California which broke trends and barriers for American – and particularly Californian – wine. The late Jim Clendenen is the estate’s founder who found his passion in his gap year, when he visited Burgundy and Champagne and experienced the wine culture and wine making. Before these travels Clendenen didn’t have much interest in wine. He went to California University taking a degree in ‘Pre-law’ before his year out. For Clendenen this trip opened a massive world of wine that he wasn’t previously aware of. After this moment of revelation, he decided to leave university and instead started work with Zaca Mesa winery in California from 1978, where he stayed for three harvests. Following this he attempted three harvests in one year, travelling from Australia to France and gaining as much experience as he could. Jim finally opened his own winery in 1982 with Adam Tohmach. He was inspired by the classic wines and wine making which he experienced in France, and found a site with a cool, Burgundian climate to match. The wine he and Adam produced was restrained and delicate – in comparison to the big blockbuster wines that were in vogue in California at the time. The grapes they used were as classic as their style – primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Now the winery produces around 50,000 cases annually and is widely considered to be of world-class quality.

Au Bon Climat

ABC’s vineyards are found in the Central Coast, particularly in the Santa Maria Valley. Jim Clendenen was one of the first people to consider growing grape vines in Santa Maria, a long running valley 20 miles away from the ocean. Due to being in such proximity to the ocean, the valley benefits from cool winds and fog. It’s one of the only valleys that is transverse to the ocean, so the cooling aspects have very easy access, making it one of the coolest grape growing sites in California. At the time Clendenen was starting up his winery, the temperature in Santa Maria was considered too low to grow the super ripe grapes required for the rich style of the moment. Santa Maria provides a very long growing season, with a large diurnal range. This is when there is significant difference in temperature between day and night, with very warm days and cool nights. The warm days give the grape opportunity to ripen and develop aromatics, essential for quality pinot noir. The cool nights help the berries retain acidity and prevent them from overripening and gaining too much sugar. The soil is made up of gravel and calciferous clay. The calciferous clay provides water retention and due to its dense structure, it stays cool, keeping the vines cool in turn. This terroir is essential for the style that Au Bon Climat want to create as it provides delicacy and freshness in the wine.

While their reputation is built on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, ABC also grow Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Aligoté and Gewurztraminer. They have expanded their selection and vineyards, yet retained the artisan, hand crafted approach. Au Bon Climat make their wines with passion and care, aiming for wines that could be approachable, food friendly and well balanced, while also long-lived and able to tell a story of the vineyard. The wines do echo a Burgundian style with their elegance and restraint, but marry this with a concentration of fruit that speaks of their California home.

Au Bon Climat began as an innovative, ‘new wave’ winey when they first started in 1982. The style that they were producing was very much against the grain of most production in California at the time. However, in 1989 they made it on to Robert Parker’s shortlist of the ‘Best Wineries in the World’. Over time the winery has gained a good following and understanding of the style they’re trying to produce. The Los Angles Time newspaper named the winery ‘Los Angles Wine Maker of the Year’ in 1992. Their success didn’t stop and in 2001 ‘Food and Wine’ magazine, which is well known in America, named Jim Clendenen ‘Wine Maker of the Year’. Au Bon Climat continue to be recognized as a top-quality winery. They now aren’t considered as ‘new-wave’ as more wines like theirs are popping up, however Jim Clendenen continues to be recognized for his contribution to the Burgundian style being explored in California.