A County Uncorked
It’s Jim Clendenen on the fast break.
The winemaking Wunderkind and basketball buff slam-dunks two baguettes into the no-frills oven in his no-frills winery and checks his watch.
“We have 22 minutes,” he announces, as out the door and into the truck we go.
Plenty of time to check out the site of Clendenen’s own vineyard--in beautiful downtown Sisquoc, six miles away--then scamper back to rescue the baguettes and have a leisurely lunch. Sidekick Bob Lindquist slaps a cassette into the tape deck and tromps on the gas.
It’s typical Clendenen: He’s moving fast and talking nonstop. Everyone around him is hanging on for dear life.
Jim Clendenen may or may not be Santa Barbara County’s most brilliant winemaker, but he is indisputably its most passionate spokesman. A solid six-footer with rock ‘n’ roll hair and intense blue eyes, he speaks in a tumble of italics and exclamation points. (“I think he breathes through his ears,” longtime friend Chris Whitcraft told the Wine Spectator.) His zeal for wine, his goofball sense of humor and his freewheeling cuvee of business and pleasure have given the fast-blossoming Central Coast wine scene a reputation as the rowdy little brother of buttoned-down Napa.
Clendenen, whose labels identify him as the “mind behind” the popular and critically esteemed Au Bon Climat wines, and Lindquist, maker of the equally respected Qupe line, became pals years ago. “We discovered we were born in the same year, 1953--the same vintage, as it were, which happened to be a great vintage,” says Bob. They are 45 now, past the whiz-kid status, the financial baby steps, the first rush of success. They are big boys now--most of the time.
Clendenen is putting down roots in more ways than one. Planting his own vineyard is a milestone for a man who has done very well making wine out of grapes cultivated by others, as many vintners do. While his zeal, energy and unfiltered barrage of opinions roll on unabated, he is reluctantly exchanging young-rebel status for something else.
Clendenen spends about 200 days a year on the road with his wines, hitting tastings, seminars, gala dinners. He has twice been named to critic Robert M. Parker Jr.'s list of 10 Most Interesting Winemakers in the World, and in June he was declared Winemaker of the Year by the Central Coast Winegrowers Assn. He has an astounding memory for all things pertaining to wine--and for personal slights, real or imagined.
He organizes an annual expedition to the Wooden Classic basketball tournament in Anaheim with stops for champagne-and-caviar tasting on the way and an after-the-game 10-course white-truffle dinner at Valentino. And a few years back he played the Mick Jagger role in an all-wine-guys rock band called H2S, after hydrogen sulfide, a foul-smelling byproduct of winemaking gone awry (“H2S--We Stink” was the motto).
As Au Bon Climat has grown from 1,600 cases in 1982 to 26,000 in 1997, so Santa Barbara County has grown from a dozen to nearly 50 wineries. In 1997, the county crushed 43,000 tons of grapes, worth more than $51 million. (While those numbers increase each year, they still lag far behind Napa County’s 144,000-ton harvest in ’97.) Add the value of the finished product--the wine--and Santa Barbara County brings in more than $100 million in industry revenue per year.
“Santa Barbara County is a relatively new wine-producing area, but its potential is unlimited,” says James Laube, columnist and senior editor of Wine Spectator magazine. “The quality is high, and there’s a distinctive character to the wine. You have a lot of creative winemakers willing to take a risk.”
Vineyards, which covered just 171 acres of the county in 1970, now spread across 15,000 acres, with another 5,000 going in and expected to produce within five years. So eagerly are vineyards being planted that nature-lovers last year sent up a howl after Kendall-Jackson bulldozed and burned nearly 900 mature oaks. (An initiative on Tuesday’s local ballot would severely curtail the number of oak trees that can be cut down.)
The wineries range from the eponymous boutique labels of Chris Whitcraft, Lane Tanner and Andrew Murray and mid-size outfits such as Firestone and Zaca Mesa to southern outposts for Northern California empires Beringer, Mondavi and Kendall-Jackson. Most are clustered along a wiggly axis that runs from Santa Ynez north to Santa Maria, mainly along the twisting, potholed, barely two-lane Foxen Canyon Road.
Exactly the kind of drive one dreams of taking at high speed with two guys whose arteries pump pinot noir and syrah.
It glows in the glass, red as pure passion, golden as the California dream, purple as the prose of any fool trying to capture its magic in mere words.
Such a tiny glass, containing so much.
Grape juice, yes, fermented with yeast and nurtured with time and care and French oak barrels until it can be called wine.
But each living drop holds the essence of the soil, climate and fanatical attention to detail that nourished these particular grapes. The balance of sunshine, rain, fog, breeze, heat and frost that marked this particular year. The vision, labor, fear, determination, joy and despair of the people who transformed already miraculous life into something immortal.
“I was just fascinated by the fact that you could take this stick, put it in the ground, and in about four or five years you could drink a bottle of wine from that stick,” says Bill Wathen, co-owner of Foxen Vineyard north of Los Olivos. “And that bottle of wine can tell you all about that particular year: ‘So-and-so was born that year, so-and-so died.’ It’s all in the bottle.”
In some ways, the history of winemaking here parallels the tales of Napa and Sonoma, a few generations behind. But in other ways, Santa Barbara County winemaking could only have evolved along this back road. Its maverick spirit seems embodied in a once-close circle of wine-geek friends who didn’t realize, back in the early ‘80s, that you couldn’t make great wine here in cattle country. So they did. Although theirs are not the oldest, newest, largest or smallest of the area’s wineries, their stories define the region. Mainly because of Clendenen, Santa Barbara County has become known around the world both for its top-quality wines and for its wacky winemakers.
“Jim can be the nicest person, the strongest personality you ever met, and he can be the most obnoxious,” says Lane Tanner, a charter member of that circle. “Growing up with him, I’ve seen both sides.”
Says Andrew Murray, who at age 26 represents the next generation of Santa Barbara County winemakers, “I once heard this PR person say, ‘If you don’t get out in the streets and tell your own story, Jim will tell it for you'--for better or for worse.”
Like wine in a glass, this insular community contains all the elements of its past. Youthful passion turned to middle-age success. Fierce ambition. Hard work. Hard play. Partnerships formed and crushed. Rivalries and jealousies, some mellowing with time, others still bitter as tannin.
In the wet California winter, Foxen Canyon Road rises and falls through rolling terrain, green as an Irishman’s dreams. Gnarly ancient oaks and sycamores float on misty hillsides and overhang creeks and pastures. Bemused cattle watch you pass. Off to the east loom the snowy peaks of the Sierra Madre.
In winter, the dormant vines lie in endless tangles of naked brown, looking forlorn against the vigorous green of the hills. But with the spring, bright leaves burst forth like flames exploding across a field of tinder. As the summer turns the hills and pastures to blond, irrigation keeps the vineyards lush, and the color scheme is soon reversed.
Spanish friars planted the first vineyards here when they built the missions along El Camino Real in the 18th century, scattering wild mustard seeds as they went to mark the trail with yellow flowers.
Prohibition all but ended any winemaking, and for decades ranchers left the land to cattle. Then in 1964, UC Davis student Uriel Nielson compared the climate and terrain to that of France’s Burgundy and Rhone regions and planted 120 acres of chardonnay to test his theory. Today that vineyard is one patch in a vast quilt of trellised vines that covers much of the consecutive valleys of Santa Maria, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez.
“These valleys run east-west,” says Ken Brown, the area’s first major winemaker while he was at at Zaca Mesa and now proprietor of his own Byron Vineyard & Winery. “That brings in the ocean breezes and fog. It makes it warmer than Bordeaux, cooler than Burgundy. But there are so many microclimates here that just about any variety of grape can be grown here--and is.”
Because land here was (and remains) cheaper than in Napa, it attracted big growers eager to turn out massive tonnage. But it also spawned a generation of maverick wine lovers, lured as much by the romance of the winemaking life as by commercial potential. Their eagerness for better fruit to work with, and their willingness to share the glory by designating the vineyard on the labels of their best wines, led to a quality-improvement campaign literally from the ground up.
“All my friends spent a disproportionate amount of their income on fine wines,” Clendenen recalls. “I had spent some time in France. I read wine books, drove all over, drank rose by the liter that came right out of the spigot in the barrel. That’s when I not only fell in love with wine but found out that you can actually plan a career in the wine business.”
Rolling toward the future--the 45 acres he has planted with pinot noir, chardonnay and viognier grapes at a cost he estimates at $35,000 an acre--Clendenen talks about the past.
He was born in the Akron suburb of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, where his father was a chemical engineer for Firestone Tire Co. Both of his grandfathers were coal miners.
“My family never drank wine,” he says. “My grandfather was a big drinker, but the only time he would drink wine was when he would go visit these Italians in the Monongahela Valley in Pennsylvania. He’d go to their houses and drink just the most god-awful stuff that you can ever imagine. He let me taste it occasionally. That wasn’t ever going to make me want to be a winemaker. It was pretty bad.”
When Jim was 14, the family moved to Whittier. He attended Cypress College for a year, then switched to pre-law at UC Santa Barbara. But the turning point was that trip to France in 1974. “All my friends from college were going to school over there, and I just went over and bought an old Volkswagen van and drove around.”
He returned to Santa Barbara, graduated, joined a wine-tasting group and continued to study wine while selling tires to earn money for another trip to France in 1977.
The truck pulls to a stop at Clendenen’s vineyard site. As we pile out and squish around the El Nino-saturated hillside, he lectures about rootstocks, clones, trellising, orientation (“If the rows run north-south, each cluster gets sun both in the morning and afternoon . . . .”), irrigation, drainage. The mind boggles. But the baguettes are calling and so back up Foxen Canyon we race.
If there was a big bang, it happened at Zaca Mesa. Here, in the late ‘70s, Brown collected a crew of characters who would go on, in different ways, to warp the world of wine.
He hired Clendenen, who had been a volunteer on the bottling line at nearby Brander Vineyard, as assistant winemaker.
The enologist, or wine chemist, was Adam Tolmach, who would later team with Clendenen to start Au Bon Climat and still later, after a bitter split, concentrate on his own Ojai Vineyard.
Lindquist was the first tour guide, a job Clendenen helped him land after Bob was fired from running a small wine and gift shop for going AWOL to attend a Kinks concert.
“So we were the first employees there and now we all have our own wineries,” says Lindquist. “Whether that’s coincidence or fate, who knows? But we were all wine geeks with a lot of passion and creative inclinations and we all wanted to start our own businesses.”
By 1980, all were moving on. Brown started his own Byron Vineyard & Winery; Clendenen worked the fall harvests in Australia and Burgundy.
Recalls Tolmach: “Zaca Mesa was growing large, and neither of us was too thrilled about that. Jim and I both quit on the same day; it was just time to go. We picked grapes together in Burgundy. When we got back, he wanted to start a wine business.”
Old snapshots preserve the adventure of those days: Long-haired young romantics picking their way down endless rows of vines. Dumping buckets of grapes into primitive crushers. “Punching down” the fermenting juice with giant paddles to keep the buoyant grape skins submerged until just the right moment. Singing French harvest songs in the living room of the house Clendenen and Sarah Chamberlin bought in Los Olivos--and shared with Tolmach to save money.
“At that time, Jim really wanted a partner,” says Chamberlin, a talented ceramic artist and Clendenen’s wife from 1986 to 1997. “Two people could work very hard, physically, with very little equipment, and start something.”
While Lindquist took on investors to start Qupe, Clendenen and Tolmach borrowed about $50,000 from family and friends for their first vintage, pressed in a second-hand basket press they bought for $500. Grapes that year cost $750 a ton picked, $675 still on the vine. So the new partners became pickers.
“The first year was really pretty exciting,” Chamberlin says. “We invited all of our friends and family members to come pick. Kind of went through them in a hurry. They’d show up for one weekend; we’d do massive amounts of cooking and they’d camp all over the house and the lawn. That was pretty fun but a lot of work.
“We’d pick all day, pick with a picking-partner on opposite sides of the row so you talk and become best buddies, then they’d go to the winery and be pressing until midnight, and we’d cook and we’d sing Burgundian songs.”
Clendenen & Lindquist Vintners--housing Au Bon Climat, Qupe and assorted joint ventures and side projects--occupies two beige metal prefab buildings surrounded by Bien Nacido Vineyards just east of Santa Maria. A basketball hoop looms over the crush pad. A human-size scarecrow in a Butt-head mask guards the door. Old rock posters and good-times snapshots adorn the walls.
Clendenen is at the stove, toasting fennel seeds for the salad. A visit from a curious reporter is excuse enough for a casual lunch on the long wooden tables that stretch from the open door into the winery, where a helper on a forklift busily rearranges stacks of barrels and “racks” wine by pumping it from one container to another.
“This is my favorite part,” Clendenen says, bouncing the seeds with a practiced flick of the wrist. “During harvest I cook a big lunch for everybody every day.” Working on a much larger scale has only increased the frantic pace of the September-October “crush” season.
All around us, French oak barrels are piled to the ceiling on steel racks. Last year’s harvest was huge, so every available vessel has been enlisted to turn as much fruit as possible into wine--and profit.
“From 1995 to ’96 we kicked out the jams,” he says. They had to split the company to avoid going over the 40,000-case limit where the small-winery tax break ends.
“Over there, that’s Clendenen & Lindquist Vintners,” says Clendenen, pointing to one stack. “That produces everything in the company besides Qupe wines and Au Bon Climat wines. This room is now Au Bon Climat Winery, and the back room is Qupe. And theoretically, if you look at the barrels, most of them agree with that.”
Throbbing soul music from a boom-box echoes through the winery. The visitor wonders whether it affects the wine, like those experiments that show that the music of Mozart makes for happy pea plants.
“Music has always been a really important part of Au Bon Climat. Every year we invite a guest winemaker to come work with us. In ’91 we had the son of a friend of mine who’s a chef in Oakland come over. He’s half black, half Jewish. And he brought in the world’s raunchiest rap music and played it as he punched down every morning. So when you talk about wine being nurtured by music, this wine was being extorted, held up, criticized, put under stress--I mean, it was just some mean urban stuff--and the wine turned out to be quite elegant.”
The afternoon stretches out over a lunch of salami, wine, cheese, wine, baby-greens salad, wine, dill pickles--and the perfectly browned baguettes. Talk drifts easily . . . .
--To the pros and cons of filtering wine: “What you end up with are these sort of emasculated, stripped, overprocessed products . . . . The only filtration we have is a piece of pantyhose to trap any fruit flies or big things like that. Everything else goes in the bottle.”
--To the quest for better fruit: “Like all intelligent self-trained winemakers, when we made wines that were inferior, we tried to solve the problems in the cellar. And then it became clear that, gosh, every once in a while we got a bunch of great grapes that tasted really good and we made genius wine out of them, and that was really easy.”
--To the influence of critics: “We have many comedies, little vignettes we play out. One classic is: ‘I hate this wine. This wine tastes like vomit! You say Robert Parker just gave it 96 points? Hmm . . . I’ll buy a case.’ ”
--To the unrealized potential of dead rock stars: “I can tell you for a fact that every day John Lennon would have lived would have been a boon for mankind.”
Then something reminds Clendenen of a story in The Times five years ago, shortly after Clendenen was named 1992 Winemaker of the Year by Times’ wine columnist Dan Berger. The article announcing that honor mentioned that Clendenen’s former partner had started a winery in Ojai, so an editor assigned a follow-up story on the Ventura County angle.
“This story was the biggest piece of s- - -; it was all about Adam Tolmach, and it went on and on about how he had been ‘languishing in the shadow of his flamboyant former partner . . . .’ The story mentioned me several more times, each time worse than the one before. I called Adam and read him the definition of “languishing”: ‘Wasting away, that’s exactly what you were doing,’ I told him.”
In fact, exhumed from The Times morgue, that story did include the “languishing in the shadow” line--its one and only reference to Jim Clendenen.
For all his success, Clendenen has left some sour memories behind.
The Au Bon Climat partnership ended so nastily that the quiet, philosophical Tolmach still flinches at the mention.
“It worked out pretty well for a number of years,” Tolmach says. “And then, like many partnerships, you sort of get tired of the other person. They have whole ideas that you don’t embrace, so a relationship is a really tough thing to have.”
Among various conflicting versions, Tolmach was spending more time at his own vineyard on his family ranch in Ojai while Clendenen was traveling a lot; each accused the other of slacking off. Clendenen bought Tolmach out in 1991.
And the partnership with Chamberlin ended after Clendenen fell in love with wine seller Morgan Toral. Chamberlin, daughter of an old ranching family in the area, had helped finance the start-up of Au Bon Climat and designed labels for a line called Il Podere Dell’Olivos.
“It means ‘working ranch of Los Olivos,’ ” says Clendenen. “This was a dream of my ex-wife and myself, to plant Italian varieties on her family ranch.”
He remains annoyed that his in-laws didn’t share, or permit, his vision of Italian grapes sprouting on their pastures. “I think growing up surrounded by . . . not having to work gives you funny ideas about what money is worth. One thing I can tell you, having grown up middle class in middle America, is money is beautiful. Now that I have a daughter, I want to make sure she’s taken care of when I die. But if I didn’t have a daughter, I’m not sure that money would have been anything to me.”
Married in June, Jim and Morgan Clendenen live with 3-year-old Isabelle on 20 acres in Buellton. Morgan has decided that she, too, will be a winemaker, making her debut with a ’96 viognier called Cold Heaven.
“She’s definitely motivated in that direction,” Jim says. “I don’t want to say ‘will stop at nothing,’ but I can’t conceive of what could stop her, except maybe a bullet or a visitation from an angel.”
Now that the combined efforts of Clendenen & Lindquist Vintners, Au Bon Climat and Qupe have leaped to 70,000 cases a year, the game has changed.
“I used to really revel in the level of satisfaction you got from making a great wine. Something I used to often do in Los Olivos was go out in the garden, pick produce that I had grown, cook it, open a bottle of wine that I had made, sit down and have it by myself in an afternoon. Sometimes I’d have someone else there, and that was real positive, too. A half-bottle of my pinot noir with something I prepared from something that I grew--I thought that’s what life was all about.”
But now, with a family, reputation and grown-up cash flow to maintain, life rarely distills to such simple pleasures. And as his wines age in their carefully stacked oak barrels, his new grapevines work their roots into the fertile soil of the Santa Maria Valley and his close-knit crew puts the cork in another crush season, Jim Clendenen is adjusting to life as a grown-up, even the unwelcome parts.
“When you’re exploding out of your size-38 pants, it’s a bit frustrating, and there are health issues when you get into your late 40s.
“One of the problems that I had all along was that I always had to be the last person up, I had to be drinking more and having more fun. When you get to a certain point, maybe you should leave that to somebody who’s 30. But it’s hard to stop, it really is.”