Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen, Colorful Santa Barbara Pioneer, Dies at 68
From his Santa Maria Valley winery, Clendenen helped raise the quality of California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir
By Kim Marcus
from Wine Spectator
May 17, 2021
Jim Clendenen, who brought a love of Burgundy to his groundbreaking Santa Barbara winery Au Bon Climat and helped put the region on the world winemaking stage, died in his sleep the night of May 15 at his home in the Los Alamos district near the town of Buellton, Calif. He was 68.
Clendenen was a tireless proponent and guiding light for Santa Barbara wines from his base in the cool-climate Santa Maria Valley in the northern reaches of the county. His Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from a variety of vineyard sources helped set the quality bar high for the region’s wines. He was also a frequent traveler to restaurants and wineries throughout the world, spreading the gospel of Santa Barbara wines and Burgundian varietals in California.
In this guise, he was an iconoclast in his early career, and a force of nature in his joie de vivre. Clendenen was a legendary cook and often greeted visitors with large lunches and overflowing wine at his utilitarian winery on a corner of the famed Bien Nacido Vineyard, which he helped champion.
“There’s no way to overemphasize his importance to the Santa Barbara County wine industry. A pioneer in every possible definition of the word. He was fearless, flamboyant and a never-tiring voice for Santa Barbara wine and California wine in general,” said fellow Santa Barbara vintner Brian Loring of Loring Wine Company.
“He broke down barriers and shined a light around the world for Santa Barbara,” said Greg Brewer of Brewer-Clifton winery. “So many projects down here are variations of what he wanted to do. He transformed Santa Barbara from a source of anonymous fruit for others to a main player on the world stage. For the better part of four decades he was a champion in that regard and we’ve been riding in his wake.”
With a flowing mane of blond hair and a beard to match, as well as sartorial preferences for colorful T-shirts or short-sleeve prints, Clendenen cut a distinctive figure in the mostly buttoned-down world of Santa Barbara winemaking. A self-taught winemaker, he was resolute in applying what he considered the best European techniques to his wines and, while many were acclaimed, some were not, as he found his way through trial and error. His wines were more delicate in style than many of the standard-bearers of California wine, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. “I’m a liaison between the old style and the new,” Clendenen told Wine Spectator in 1997.
Born Jan. 11, 1953, and a native of Akron, Ohio, Clendenen was studying at U.C. Santa Barbara in 1974 when he took a trip to France and visited Bordeaux, where the wine bug first bit. After a second trip to France and a stay in Burgundy he soon decided against becoming a lawyer and instead to pursue a life in wine. In 1978, back in Santa Barbara, he was hired to be winemaker Ken Brown’s assistant at Zaca Mesa winery.
Clendenen left Zaca Mesa in 1980 and worked the 1981 harvest in Burgundy, taking time to visit dozens of cellars during a three-month stay. He was surprised to find many winemakers there worked with basic techniques and equipment. “Even an impoverished American could duplicate that,” he quipped.
Back in Santa Barbara in 1982, he founded Au Bon Climat on a shoestring budget with Adam Tolmach, who today owns Ojai Vineyard. “All we had at first was the ability to communicate,” Clendenen explained in 1997. “We bought used equipment. It was so pathetic; it would have embarrassed a home winemaker.”
Tolmach and Clendenen parted ways in 1991, with Clendenen buying out his partner. In 1989, the Miller family, who own Bien Nacido, built a no-frills structure for Au Bon Climat, as well as to house Qupé winery, then owned by Bob Lindquist, who continues to make wine at the site, now under the Lindquist Family Wines label.
Clendenen was Lindquist’s mentor at Zaca Mesa and they worked side by side at the Bien Nacido facility. “He was a total force of nature,” Lindquist said “He knew everybody and everybody knew him—in Burgundy and the Rhône and Italy, and everywhere in the wine world. An amazing guy who up until Friday was making lunch for everyone at the winery, opening up his wines and sharing them.”
Au Bon Climat makes an estimated 30,000-plus cases of wine per year and also includes wines bottled under the Clendenen Family Wines label. Clendenen is survived by his two children, Isabelle, 26, and Knox, 21, and former wife Morgan.