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A Top-Level Pinot

Last week, while drinking with friends in Le Cirque’s Lounge and Bar in Manhattan, I discovered a terrific wine of the week lurking on the restaurant’s expensive list. The succulent 2007 Au Bon Climat La Bauge Au-Dessus Pinot Noir is silky-textured and delicate, with luscious cherry-berry flavors, notes of spice, leather and damp earth, an elegant structure and a long juicy finish. It’s more Burgundy than California in style, and, in this day of over-$50 single-vineyard California Pinots, it’s very reasonably priced for the quality — at least in retail shops.

Anyone who’s ever met Au Bon Climat’s long-haired winemaker Jim Clendenen knows how passionate he is about the finicky Pinot Noir grape. He has been ever since a visit to Burgundy while still in college inspired him to jettison plans to go to law school. The winery he founded in the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County 30 years ago with now ex-partner Adam Tolmach helped put this region influenced by the cool Pacific on the map. Back then there were only about a dozen wineries; now there are more than 100. The region and its Pinots began getting wider attention, definitely deserved, thanks to the film “Sideways.”

This 2007 is the 18th vintage of La Bauge Au-Dessus, whose name is tough to translate. The winery says it means roughly “the party upstairs.” The grapes come from two vineyards, the famous Bien Nacido and the winery’s own Le Bon Climat.

Clendenen is part of a group of winemakers who have been putting on tastings called “In Pursuit of Balance.” Their idea is to push back against the super-ripe, high-alcohol style that’s come to define California Pinots and remind people there are plenty of winemakers in the state whose wines are all about finesse and balance.

That was Clendenen’s vision three decades ago, and it hasn’t wavered. I’ve been a fan of his wines for a long time, and they continue to get better and better. This 2007 La Bauge Au-Dessus is a primo example.

  • Dennis Schaefer 6·15·12

    Elin, thank you. Everything you say here is true. I’ve have known J.C. since near the beginning and he has never wavered. Love those winemakers who know what they stand for and what they are about, regardless of the trends. Thanks.