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COVER STORY

A County Uncorked

In Santa Barbara, Jim Clendenen and His Pals Are Challenging the Big boys of Napa. It's the Learn-As-You-Go School of Winemaking.

November 01, 1998|DOUG ADRIANSON | Doug Adrianson is the editorial page editor for the The Times' Ventura County edition. His last article for the magazine was about HMOs

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.

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