Is Jim Clendenen one of California's most avid experimenters or one of its most steadfast conservatives? The answer is both: At Au Bon Climat, he makes wines that emphasize balance over power—a food-friendly style that's traditional in Europe but far from fashionable in the United States. Clendenen founded Au Bon Climat in the boondocks of Santa Barbara County back in 1982 with a partner, Adam Tolmach (now at Ojai Vineyard). He dedicated the winery to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the grapes he'd grown to love during an apprenticeship in Burgundy. Since then, he's explored styles from around the world, including Italy (with his Il Podere dell' Olivos label) and Bordeaux (Vita Nova). In the process, he earned an F&W American Wine Award as 2001's Winemaker of the Year. Next summer, he'll launch a line of small-batch, single-vineyard wines, Clendenen Family Vintners.

There's a growing audience for Clendenen's wines; recently, actresses Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh tasted his 2000 Hildegard while filming a movie near the winery. Says Clendenen, "This wine is my attempt to re-create the composition of Burgundy's Corton-Charlemagne vineyard, the way Charlemagne's wife Hildegarde planted it in the ninth century. Pinot Gris gives the wine body, Pinot Blanc provides roundness and richness. But neither has much acidity, which is why I add some Aligoté." The resulting blend pairs beautifully with Clendenen's loin of veal flavored with a mustard cream and sage leaves.

—Richard Nalley