The day that Jim Clendenen, owner of Au Bon Climat, took full ownership of Vita Nova is one that Doug Margerum admits may be steeped in hyperbole by now.
Vita Nova was the brand that the two men developed in 1986, along with Qupe’s Bob Lindquist, who still shares winemaking space with Clendenen in the middle of the Bien Nacido Vineyard. The red-and-white wine portfolio was a hot seller through Margerum’s Wine Cask retail shop and restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara, as well as under private-label bottlings for restaurants across the nation owned by Emeril Lagasse, Roy Yamaguchi and the Patina Group.
When Clendenen decided to buy his partners out in 1998, Margerum wanted to continue making wine on his own. As Clendenen shook Margerum’s hand to close the deal, the burly Au Bon Climat legend put on the extra squeeze, asking (or warning) Margerum, “You’re not going to make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, right?”
Whether that scenario was true or not, Margerum obliged for more than a decade. He started Margerum Wine Company in 2001, and focused mainly on Rhône varietal wines. He earned accolades and commercial success for blends like M5 and single-vineyard expressions of Syrah.
In 2012, Margerum moved from a facility behind the former Curtis Winery on Foxen Canyon Road to warehouse space on Industrial Way in Buellton, a short walk from the Santa Ynez River.
His second-story office window looked directly out to the west at the Sta. Rita Hills, the undulating, cooler-climate appellation that extends from Buellton to Lompoc and is world-renowned for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Burgundian varieties began calling.
“That was 17 or 18 years ago,” says Margerum of the infamous Clendenen handshake. “I figured it’s okay now to make Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.”
To do so, Margerum would launch a new brand. He decided to use his middle name, which he was christened with during his 40th birthday party years ago. (He didn’t get one at birth.) During that bash, Margerum’s friends (including Clendenen) offered up names like “Fir” (as in “Douglas Fir”) and “Omicron” (in which his initials would be DOM).
But they all agreed when his blind 89-year-old grandmother, Ruth Barden, suggested keeping her own last name alive. And the old English word, which means “one who lives near boar dens,” works well for the new venture: it’s a reminder of the wild pigs that roam the Sta. Rita Hills, so the minimal Barden labels feature a boar illustration.
Using fruit from the renowned Sanford & Benedict Vineyard (the Sta. Rita Hills’ original planting in 1971); the adjacent La Rinconada and La Encantada properties; and Hilliard Bruce, John Sebastiano, and Zotovich vineyards from the northern side of the appellation, Barden’s full slate was released in September. The lineup includes a Pinot Noir ($80, 93 points), Syrah ($50, 92 points), Chardonnay ($48, 93 points), and a white blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc called Fonte ($36, 92 points).
It’s no surprise that Margerum could deftly handle the red wines, but he’s most exuberant about the whites. The Fonte, which means “spring” or “fountain” in French, is a nod to a rare blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Aligote by Henri Gouges in Nuits-St.-George.
“That’s one of my favorite wines,” says Margerum. “It’s almost impossible to get.” He admits that Fonte is also a tribute to Clendenen, one of the few American winemakers to make a white Burgundian blend. Au Bon Climat’s Hildegard ($35, 92 points) is a blend of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, and Aligote.
Chardonnay, though, is what has Margerum most googly-eyed. Upon its release, he penned an explanatory “Prologue to Chardonnay” in which he laments leaving the grape so long ago and reports on the serendipitous finding of a “Dear Chardonnay” letter that he penned in August 2001. “I know the counselor said we shouldn’t contact each other during our ‘cooling off’ period, but I couldn’t wait anymore,” wrote Margerum back then. “The day you became $40 a bottle, I swore I’d never drink you again. But that was just the wounded little boy in me talking.”
Now apparently grown up, Margerum is making wine that was clearly worth the wait.
“I was afraid of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay because the standards are so high, especially for the wines I like,” says Margerum. “So I entered with trepidation. But I knew what I wanted to make, and it’s met that goal.”
As for his former Vita Nova partners Clendenen and Lindquist? “We’re all still friends, which is amazing,” says Margerum.