Neither Jim Clendenen nor Dr. David Bruce chose the easiest path when they got into the merry-go-round we call winemaking.
I knew both of these skilled men for more than 40 years and was truly saddened by their passings in the last month, leaving the world of wine far poorer. But both achieved greatness despite opting to climb a greased pole by opting to make pinot Noir in California’s occasionally disparaged Central Coast wine region.
An easier path might have been to make Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc or Zinfandel or almost anything other than the traumatic life they chose, the PTSD-inducing Pinot Noir.
Both men explored their parallel passions with far less fame or recompense than was warranted by their achievements. Though their greatness was well understood by respectful peers, I often heard others say how unappreciated are those who chose to do what David and Jim chose to do.
Both dove into this thankless quest after experiencing monumental French red Burgundies while in their early 20s. For Bruce, it was a 1954 wine he tasted about 1958 – and in 1961 he acquired vineyard land in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Clendenen, a UC Santa Barbara graduate, put off grad school for a while in 1976 and took off for France to travel in Bordeaux and Burgundy. Intrigued by the latter’s more laid-back, spontaneous nature, as well as its passion for wine and food, he returned to France in 1977, abandoned grad school plans, and took a cellar position at Santa Barbara’s Zaca Mesa winery.
There he worked with brilliant winemaker Ken Brown and met Adam Tolmach, with whom he later founded Au Bon Climat, the winery that still carries his huge thumbprint.
If you spent only few minutes with each man, you’d think David and Jim were radically different.
Bruce was quiet, rarely expressing hyperbole or discussing his wines in pyrotechnic detail. He explored great vineyards in Santa Cruz as well as throughout northern Monterey County and was one of the first to see the huge potential for an area we now call Santa Lucia Highlands.
Clendenen was far more loquacious and openly passionate, prone to exclamations that exceeded those of a motion picture publicist. He was especially enervated when he discovered a new tactic or a new vineyard.
He was one of the early lovers of Pinot and Chardonnay growing in the Santa Maria Valley, and was an initial supporter of vineyard land later to be called Santa Rita Hills.
As similar as they were in their pursuit of Pinot Noir greatness, neither man harbored the idea that their work would ever be completed. That’s because their chosen field is one that causes even famed winemakers’ brows to furrow and is well known to change when least expected.
Neither man ever was content with some of their greatest achievements and both always sought ever greater pinnacles in the realm of Burgundian models.
Burgundy versus Bordeaux
Much has been written about the huge differences between the two great French wine districts of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Elegies include how different they are from one another, about their major contributions to the world of fine wine, down to even the completely different marketing strategies each employs.
The French may deny it, but the residents of one district really do dislike the residents of the other, even to the point where you’d be hard-pressed to find a bottle of Burgundy in Bordeaux and vice versa.
It’s dangerous to generalize, but in my experience, Bordeaux is marked by an aloof professionalism, a locally universal desire to remain the top dog in the wine world. It’s an area where estates are huge and often gaudy, mammon rules, and image is crucial.
In Burgundy, by contrast, passion rules and money isn’t mentioned. Properties are tiny (often counted in numbers of vines, not acreage); family names mean more there than outside the district, and the best wines are snapped up by wealthy insiders so fast that even the world’s top wine critics often have to say that the best wines are unavailable at any price.
You can see the regional dissimilarities in the people of each region.
Historically the top Bordelaise proprietors show a cool, practiced air, from their more formal dress, reserved manners, and their reluctance to say anything controversial. Burgundians seem more volatile, fun-loving, dress far more casually, and often display an engaging capriciousness.
Clendenen always appreciated Bordeaux, but when he returned from one of his numerous European fact-finding missions, the tales he told most often were from Burgundy.
In some ways, you can almost relate these life choices to the red grapes with which they must, by law, deal. Red Bordeaux must be from the Cabernet family, each variety of which is predictable. No surprises here.
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the easiest grapes to grow. As such it thrives in a huge number of places (South Africa, Napa, South America, even China), creating no stress on growers and winemakers. Certainly not like the stress imposed by the vexing Pinot Noir, Burgundy’s brat of a grape.
Where Cab is reliable, Pinot is anything but.
It is often truculent. It’s susceptible to more grapevine maladies than almost any other variety, can ripen oddly or not at all, is cantankerous if affected by even a little rain (Cabernet just laughs at a shower or two), and even if Pinot grapes come in without a hitch, much can ruin the wine before it gets to the bottle.
Critically, Pinot Noir is truly linked to the region in which it grows, so both Clendenen and Bruce were not only searching for holy grail vineyards, from which to obtain fruit, but spent hours walking in far-flung hilly vineyards to witness pruning in winter, spring canopy tending, summer spraying, or tasting grapes in July.
Though Pinot drove them, both also explored the other great Burgundian grape, Chardonnay, and both achieved much with it as well. Both strived to take the domestic version of the grape and bend it toward Lyon, France’s culinary capital.
Additionally, both men also had such varied tastes and interests that both explored other varieties. Bruce’s Petite Sirah and occasional Grenache were splendid. Clendenen also loved Italian red grapes, and made several under the Vita Nova brand.
Neither man gained much international recognition by consumers, but part of the reason was simply that their wines weren’t widely available. Both had scant production, making them hard to find, even in the Los Angeles and San Francisco markets, which had early notices about their greatness.
A second reason was simply that neither grape variety commanded much attention in the 1980s; they certainly weren’t as important as was Cabernet or even Zinfandel. Pinot Noir never reached cult status until about 15 years ago.
One more reason both men remained icons only to collectors was that their respective tasting rooms were semi-remote, thus not as easily visited as were those in places like Napa and Sonoma. And both were modest.
Au Bon Climat was always a working winery and had no chandeliers, caviar, or crystal. Bruce’s digs were hidden in the gorgeous Santa Cruz Mountains, a significant trek south of San Francisco to an area that had virtually no accommodations or grand food palaces.
Long ago Bruce hired winemakers to assist with crucial winery tasks, so the recent wines maintained the Bruce house style. And Clendenen never let a single lot be bottled unless it got his personal approval.
Neither man ever imagined retirement, and fortunately for Pinot and Chardonnay lovers, both improved the lot of those who followed by sharing their knowledge. Both left legacies of excellence and a desire to advance.
The wine industry is truly blessed to have had such passionate adventurers.
Wine of the Week
2020 Bieler Sabine Rosé, Aix-en-Province ($13): This absolutely splendid pink wine has gorgeous aromas of wild cherries, hints of citrus and tropical fruits, and an almost completely dry finish. It’s a blend of more than 40% Grenache with some Syrah for substance, but it’s the former grape that makes such a difference in how it delivers character. Almost the equal of wines twice the price – and better than many.
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