Clendenen Family Vineyards
Santa Barbara, California, USA
A legacy of freedom and passion
Whilst many wine enthusiasts know Jim Clendenen and the effect his wines have had on our appreciation of California’s (and particularly Santa Barbara’s) potential for wine, what we have had access to is just a portion of his wines. For Jim, wines under the Clendenen Family bottlings were not just another label. Instead, these were thought of as fine works of craftsmanship, born from passion and freedom.
Location: Santa Barbara, California, USA
Interesting fact: Did you know that “The Pip” wines were named after Jim Clendenen’s most loyal friend, his dog, Pip. Pip was at the winery most days and it was hard for visitors to pay attention to the wine tasting when Pip was chasing everyone to play ball! Jim said he could not have called just one wine after Pip, he wanted to provide a memorial of wines to idolise her with an entire line-up of wines. “The Pip” wines are early releases from Le Bon Climat or Bien Nacido plantings. Important attributes of all Pip wines are a shorter period in oak, less new wood and fruit with a higher percentage of younger vines.
Clendenen Family Wines
For decades, Jim Clendenen led the way in California’s wine scene with Au Bon Climat, crafting elegant Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. His Clendenen Family Vineyards labels, however, have focused more on out-of-the-ordinary varietals and styles, all made in small lot wines from great vineyards. Jim created these labels to be established as a true ‘legacy’, where the wines would be committed to the future; not just for Jim’s children Knox and Isabelle, but for their children’s children as well. These are wines that are nuanced, long-lived with significant ageability. Clendenen Family Wines have the luxury to be in barrel as long as the team feels it needs it (up to 5 years for the Nebbiolo!).
The range of Clendenen Family wines have names and references not used on the well-known bottlings. The Clendenen Family label focuses on four main classifications of fruit and bottlings:
Bien Nacido is, of course, directly linked with the fame of Santa Barbara, but this was not possible without Jim Clendenen. Bien Nacido Estate is still where the winery sits all these years later. History can be traced back to the year 1837, when a Spanish land grant of two square leagues was secured by Tomas Olivera from Juan Bautista Alvarado, then Governor of Alta California. In 1855, Thomas Olivera sold part of his land to his son-in-law, Don Juan Pacifico Ontiveros. Don Juan built a clay building (an ‘adobe’) in 1857 and moved there the following year. He and his wife raised horses, cattle, sheep, alongside several grain crops and grapes for the production of wine. The historic Ontiveros Adobe still stands today, surrounded by vines at Bien Nacido Vineyards. In 1969, the Millers, a fifth-generation California farming family, purchased a stretch of land in California’s then-nascent Santa Maria Valley wine country. First planted in 1973 to 900 acres of vines, it is located on elevated bench land, about 20 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean; to the east lie the foothills leading up to the Sierra Madre Mountains. In the late 70’s, Jim Clendenen was asked by the Millers if he would like to move into the property and make his wine there. Jim could not afford such a big move at a young age and so asked help from Bob Lindquist, who went on to start Qupé. Together they would start a ‘family atelier’ – a collection of like-minded winemakers all making their own wine under one roof.
Though the ocean can be viewed only from the hills surrounding the vineyards, the influence of the sea is felt in the cool temperatures of the Santa Maria Valley AVA. It is on the receiving end of the only east-west transverse mountain range in California, allowing maritime-influenced morning fog and cool afternoon breezes, warm days and cool nights. The soils are composed of gravel and calcareous clay. Effective, sustainable viticultural practices and vineyard management ensure the highest quality grapes year to year. Here, Bien Nacido vineyards achieves one of the longest growing seasons in the state and extended hang-time on the vines is possible to achieve optimal ripeness.
“Le Bon Climat” – A very special single vineyard owned by Jim himself, planted on the southern edge of the Santa Maria Valley. In 1998, Jim purchased 80 acres along the south side of the Sisquoc River in the Santa Maria Valley, and named it Le Bon Climat. The vineyard is about 5 miles south but directly across from Bien Nacido (and thus the same distance from the Pacific Ocean). This site is an exceptional vineyard producing wines of firm structure, restrained fruit, and regal viscous texture. Situated primarily on hill tops, the vineyards were planted with Pinot Noir and Viognier (which Jim then experimented to get the correct clone/rootstock combination). It also counts 7 acres of Chardonnay with small amounts of Gewurztraminer, Aligote, and Teroldego. Wine was made here until 2016, when undesired, non-organic practices by farming neighbours meant the organic ethos could not be kept and the vineyard needed help. It was then decided 2016 would be the last vintage and the vineyard was sold.
“Rancho La Cuna” – The vineyard planted at Jim’s home. Rancho La Cuna is Jim’s organically certified ranch near Los Alamos. A 100-acre property, planted with vines in the late 1990s. It now has a 20-acre vineyard that is organically farmed and planted to Syrah, Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Gris, Chenin Blanc, and Pinot Noir. The Los Alamos Valley is situated between the cooler Santa Maria Valley appellation and the warmer Santa Ynez Valley appellation. This region actually produces superb wines but has not yet received an AVA appellation (many argue down to the cost of doing so). For that reason, it cannot be listed as such on a wine label. The term “Santa Barbara County” is used instead. Westside of the Cradle is a tiny sub-portion of Rancho La Cuna, quite literally on the West side of the road. Jim found this specific pocket of the vineyard to have its own character and long ageability, which is why he decided to pick and vinify these grapes separately. The plantings sit on steep hillsides. It is a small vineyard (about 15 acres) but significant; the fruit is distinctive, producing contemplative Pinot that is dark and meaty. The wines from Los Alamos have the best of both worlds; the long, cool growing season of Santa Maria for structure, and the warmth of the Santa Ynez Valley to ensure complete ripeness and depth. With warm days and very cold nights, the fruit from this region achieves incredible concentration and balance. It benefits from well-draining soils and a wide range of microclimates allows for a diversity of varietals.