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AU BON CLIMAT

I'm sure the clich� "larger than life" has often been used to describe Jim Clendenen, the mind behind California's Au Bon Climat label. However, clich�s and Jim simply don't mix. His wines are anything but mundane, and owe nothing to the school of thought that occupies the bland middle ground of the market. Likewise, Jim's opinions are anything but mainstream and can be as full of character and as challenging as the wines he makes.

I recall a priceless Clendenen moment at the 2001 Pinot Noir Conference in Wellington, N.Z. His reply to a serious question from British writer Tim Atkin brought the house down.

T.A. "What role do low level occurrences of faults like volatility, brettanomyces and sulphides play in the complexity of pinot noir?"

J.C. "If you need to analyse what complexity is, you don't deserve to revel in it." There's a lot of Billy Connolly in that retort and, like Billy, Jim can inject sharp-witted observations and humour into a conversation at any time, like a comment about his early days.

" There's nothing worse than a youthful winemaker who is dogmatic. "

If there's any dogmatism left in Jim now, it would involve pushing the boundaries of winemaking, for push he does.

"This has nothing to do with California chardonnay," asserted Jim over a glass of his own shortly after I entered his domain through the welcoming door.

Home base for Jim is a cavernous shed at the end of a nondescript road near Santa Maria in the South Central Coast region of California. There he oversees the making of wines for several labels. Apart from Au Bon Climat he produces Bricco Bon Natale, Ici/La-Bas, Il Podere Dell' Olivos and Cold Heaven. The operation isn't big on signage, and the shed, which holds 4,000 barriques, constitutes a decidedly utilitarian work environment.

More and more I find myself drawn to winemakers who use flavour, texture and structure to express themselves rather than simply going through the process of making wine as an industrial exercise. Life's too short to drink wines that are as predictable and one-dimensional as Pepsi Cola or Budweiser. Jim's wines are products of considerable artistic energy and, if they were paintings, they would be impressionistic riots of colour.

The only problem I observe in Jim's life is that he can't resist the opportunities and challenges small blocks of high quality grapes, particularly pinot noir, present. As a result he produces a plethora of tiny batches of wine under individual labels. This approach has the makings of a logistical nightmare.

Jim is already grappling with the problem, acknowledging that "people can love me to death, but they buy the first thirty wines and leave the next thirty."

Darting from barrel to barrel with Gary Burk, one of the ABC team, enabled me to draw a picture of where they are right now with pinot noir.

First we focused on a tasting of different clones from the 800 acre Bien Nacido vineyard, of which Au Bon Climat controls about 100 acres. All the following wines are from the 2001 vintage.

For a first crop wine, Clone 667 is impressive, showing plenty of plummy/dark cherry fruit on the nose, and the palate had surprisingly good weight of fruit. Clone 777 is more herbal and slightly lighter. The Mount Eden Clone was fermented with 50% stems and shows it, although the palate is satisfyingly rich. Clone 103 smells of blackcurrant, and the tannins are quite solid, needing a bit of work later. We really started talking pinot with Clone 115, crammed with red fruits perfume and already decidedly silky on the palate.

A blend of Clone 667 and Clone 777 from the Sanford & Benedict vineyard in the nearby Santa Ynez Valley is first crop material showing a herbal touch but plenty of richness and tannin. The latest pinot noir picking of the 2001 vintage is from the very cool Mount Carmel site in the Santa Ynez Valley. It is particularly fragrant and tight - delicate but long. In direct contrast is the first-picked example, Talley Rosemary's Pinot from Arroyo Grande - dense, ripe and plummy with plenty of tannin.

We turned our attention to the 2000 vintage and tried two of Jim's favourite blends. Knox Alexander is the best of the new vineyard material. It shows classic pinot sappiness and cherry on the nose together with herbal notes. The palate is fine and long. Isabel is composed from "the best barrels in the house", and has a magnificent red fruits nose enhanced by top notch oak. The palate is deliciously silky and long.

Jim's efforts aren't confined to California. A little later we enjoyed the 1999 Ici/La Bas 'Les Revel�s' Oregon Pinot Noir. It's fragrant and complex, showing just a little forest floor on the bouquet. The palate is long and satisfying but quite delicate - the epitome of what the Burgundians refer to as 'feminine' pinot noir.

Jim first came to our attention through his chardonnay - the 1986 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Reserve in particular, and he couldn't resist opening a couple of old gems, including the aforementioned, before we departed. Jim pointed out that his wines "are long-lived and they go through an enormous amount of change." This pair demonstrate that with great aplomb.

The 1987 Au Bon Climat Santa Ynez Valley Chardonnay was "very lean, very Chablis-like when young," said Jim by way of introduction. It's developed well because it's been poised to do that. " Developed well it has. The colour is brilliant gold and the nose is complex, but neither dried out nor overblown. There are hints of cr�me brul�e in the bouquet which is still comparatively restrained and the long, dry palate is very satisfying.

Jim couldn't resist drawing the cork from a bottle of the 1986 Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Reserve to show we'd done the right thing in identifying it as an outstanding wine over a decade ago. It's now deliciously mature - all hazelnuts and cr�me brul�e - with perfect balance and the creaminess that great chardonnays possess.

I have no doubt that Jim Clendenen makes some of the U.S.A.'s finest chardonnays and pinot noirs. In fact I can't think of another U.S. producer who handles both varieties better. A great wine mind works overtime behind the extrovert Clendenen facade styling bold, individual reds and whites that stand the test of time. They're almost larger than life.

Lester Jesberg