Jim Clendenen refers to himself as "a spice guy, a seasoning guy," talking about his love for dill, Espelette peppers and thyme. His talent with spices and seasonings explains why he's such a spectacular home cook. His understanding of flavor also helps make it clear why he's such a famed winemaker: He founded Au Bon Climat outside Santa Barbara, in the Santa Maria Valley, in 1982, helping to prove the region's potential for great Pinot Noir.
As his Easter menu here reveals, Clendenen adores country-French food, which he first encountered when he was 21, traveling through Bordeaux in a Volkswagen camper. His culinary style has also been influenced by watching American chef friends like Alice Waters and Charlie Trotter in their restaurant kitchens.
The word about Clendenen's cooking started to spread during harvest several years ago, when his employees at Au Bon Climat jokingly aimed to prove their diligence by refusing to let their boss do any work. So he cooked lunch for them instead. Ever since he has prepared lunch almost every day for the winery staff—18 people during harvest—along with any guests who stop by. The menus change constantly: "I might be missing the Basque region, so then lunch will be full of almonds, watercress and chorizo," he says.
For Easter, Clendenen has created an early-springtime menu, beginning with a mâche salad inspired by the ones he discovered in France, dressed simply with a fennel-mustard vinaigrette. For the main course he serves a rich lamb stew with baby root vegetables, his version of the classic French dish navarin d'agneau. The apple pies are an homage to his grandmother's apple dumplings, which he embellishes with Orange Muscatsoaked raisins and a Muscat cream sauce.
Clendenen paired each course with a different bottling from Au Bon Climat. "These are wines to be consumed with food rather than wines to wow the critics," he says, adding, "If you love the food and you love the wine, you're on safe ground."
Lately, Clendenen has been making Pinot Noir from the Lala Panzi vineyard in Sonoma's Russian River Valley, an organic vineyard planted with input from local chefs and restaurateurs. Owners Richard Mendelsohn and Barbara Barham queried Alice Waters and other Bay Area cooking stars about the styles of Pinot Noir they prefer, and also about the California winemakers they admire most, with an eye to making the ultimate food-friendly wine. Enter Clendenen, who's now a partner in the project. "I liken Richard to a casting director for some bizarre Pinot Noir fantasy," he says. Exactly the sort of movie you might expect Clendenen to star in.