Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Morgan Clendenen, Queen of Viognier

Morgan Clendenen, Queen of Viognier

Morgan Clendenen thrives on chaos, although you wouldn't know it unless you saw her in action. Her new tasting room in Los Alamos was jam-packed on my first visit last Saturday, and still she took the time to take my card with a smile and show genuine interest in meeting with me later.

The way people praise her Viognier, you might forget you're in the smack-dab middle of Chardonnay country. She can barely keep stock around--while I was there, she had to raid her own library wines to fill demand. People like Steve Wynn can only get so much allocated to them. Some of her most beloved wines are under the label Domaine de Deux Mondes, a collaboration with Condrieu producer Yves Cuilleron. The two of them experiment together with the other's wines and styles as a side project to find different and better expressions of Viognier. They succeed.

When I called her the following Monday, she was so gracious, I felt like I'd known her for a long time. The chilly rain outside seemed to be keeping the business to a trickle, so we had some time to talk. Her knowledge of Viognier and its place in the Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys is exaustive. I could have listened to her talk for hours. As a matter of fact, I might have printed the entire interview were it not too long for a blog entry.

Interview with Morgan Clendenen, Cold Heaven Cellars

C&D: You're a busy, busy woman...you've got two kids...

Morgan: Yes. A boy and a girl. The girl will be eleven in a couple of weeks, and I've got a son who'll be seven in June.

Tell me a little bit about how you got started making wine.

When I got out of school--I was a psych major---I worked for a company that was very male-dominated: I sold brick for four years. I always loved wine, I went to every wine tasting I could possibly go to, and I befriended the local wine merchants so I was always kept up on what was going on. Eventually, that led to a job in wine sales.

Wholesale or retail?

Wholesale. I ended up working for a small boutique wine distributor in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. It was good because it's the highest number of PhD's in the nation, you've got the Universities there, and so there's people coming there from all over the country, and they all have a thirst for wine. So I chose a company where I got the most out of...learning about wine as I go. That was a quick education, it was intense. Every week there was somebody new coming to town, I had to study up...I tasted wines over and over again, so it really helped to develop my palate fast, without having to wade through (grocery store) gunk.

So soon after, I was hired by a winery in Napa, Robert Sinskey Vineyards, for sales, and that's how I met my husband (Jim Clendenen, Au Bon Climat)and ended up moving down here. Since Au Bon Climat didn't need me---it was sold out and allocated---I wanted to make my own wine. I didn't have any experience except being around cellars during harvest, doing punch-downs, I might have to take hydrometer readings...but it wasn't rocket science. I'd been around it enough. So I thought, I'd really like to start something, and I really love Pinot Noir but my husband is so well known for that, it just didn't make sense. Then the owner of the Sanford and Benedict Vineyard, Robert Atkins, offered Jim some Viognier. Nobody knew Viognier was planted up there, and the ones who did know it and used it were not commercially successful with it. I thought, here's a grape that no one's doing particularly well in California...and I saw a way to create a wine that I liked, that didn't necessarily have to fit the norms of what people thought it was. But when I started asking around, no one really knew what it was supposed to taste like. So I got the sense that I could pioneer this grape. I could do something different.

What style of Viognier did you want to go for?

I wanted to create something with more acidity. Every time I tasted a Viognier out of California, it had no acidity. It seemed so big and flabby, interesting to taste but nothing I wanted to drink a glass of. Acidity is like salt to food, you have to have enough of it there to bring out the other flavors.

While we're on the subject of style, what kind of wine--white wine--do you put on your own table?

It depends on what I'm doing. If it's the daytime, I'm having lunch, I'm not looking to be intellectual about wine, I want something a little crisper. I drink a lot of Gruener Veltliner. I like Albarino a lot. Something with a little grip in it. At night, I'm having a nice dinner, I'm going to reach for something like a Montrachet, a Mersault, or maybe an elegant Chablis. And then, I drink a lot of Condrieu now. I taste everything I can get my hands on.

What's your philosophy of oak treatment in Viognier?

Cold Heaven has always been neutral oak, five to ten-year old French barrels. I have done some trials with new oak, and I've never liked it, it's always served up the oak. Interestingly, I started Domaine De Deux Mondes last year with Yves Cuilleron, as a separate company, and he uses a lot of new oak. I'm always amazed that he gets...good integration with that oak (in the palate). We have arguments about manipulating wine. But...you have to surrender some of your philosopies and ideas to grow.

One last question, that I'm asking everyone: what does terroir mean to you?

Where you got your grapes, what the climate is, the whole enchilada, is a big deal, otherwise I could buy my grapes from anywhere and put my signature on the fruit. I've worked with a lot of vineyards...and they're all different, they're vinified the same way, practically, but they're so different. So terroir is a huge factor.

********

Next up: anyone for Mission grapes? I talk to Deborah Hall of Gypsy Canyon, who makes a $120 half bottle of it. Find out why.

Clinkies.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Taj -

I'm SO jealous! Out on the open road, Jack Kerouak, martinis, viogner, going solo - I love it!

Found your blog through the Redwinehaiku, which I also love.

Let's catch up when you get back to Austin. Riley

2:02 PM  
Anonymous wineguy said...

So where did you have the Posole?

6:17 PM  
Blogger taj said...

The posole was from Javy's cafe in Los Alamos, and it was goooood eatin'.

6:53 AM  
Anonymous hillcountrywino (Jon Gerber) said...

Taj: Glad to see you're making productive use of your time "on the road". Just don't go Thelma and Louise on us. I was fortunate enough to have some Cold Heaven 2 years ago when Jim Clendenen brought a bottle with him when he came to Texas. Great stuff! I recall a very pleaseng acidity. Anyway, back to work. Give a shout when you boogie back to Texas!

10:37 AM  

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