Winemaker Jim Clendenen Dies

Au Bon Climat Cofounder and Owner Dies in Sleep at 68 Years Old

Jim Clendenen (left) and Bob Lindquist. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Jim Clendenen — one of the most important vintners in Santa Barbara County history, an influential force on the international wine scene, and a legendary bon vivant known for crafting both world-class wines and long, epic lunches — died in his sleep over the weekend. He was 68 years old. 

Inspired by trips to Burgundy in France, Clendenen cofounded Au Bon Climat in 1982 with Adam Tolmach, and became the sole owner seven years later. “In Bordeaux, you have to own a castle and possess a title to make wine — you have to come from empowered roots,” Clendenen told me for my book Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County in 2020. “But when you spend time in Burgundy, you realize that it doesn’t matter if you’re making a few barrels in a garage or are in one of the estates,” he said, proud to be the grandson of Pennsylvania coal miners. “If you work hard at what you do, you can become the king of the village, the most important winemaker in the world.”

Focused primarily on grapes grown in the Santa Maria Valley — particularly from Bien Nacido Vineyards, where he shared a winery facility with his friend Bob Lindquist for more than 30 years — Clendenen made leaner wines than California’s typical sunshine-powered style, picking at lower sugars, using less new oak, and emphasizing acid and structure over ripeness. 

“He left quite a legacy, obviously,” said Lindquist, who toasted Clendenen at lunch on Monday by raiding his cellar, where even the 1986 pinot noir was beautiful. “He made balanced, structured wines that we both knew would outlive both of us.” 

Clendenen refused to budge from that “Burgundian” strategy even as critical and some consumer tastes changed, and recent years have seen a powerful rise in appreciation for Au Bon Climat–styled wines. That may not have happened without Clendenen’s constant, sometimes confrontational, drum-banging. 

“Jim carried this entire county on his shoulders,” said Nicholas Miller, whose family planted Bien Nacido in 1973 and built a brand-new facility for Au Bon Climat in 1989. He credited Clendenen for the success of his family’s businesses and believes he did more for preaching about the glories of Santa Barbara County wine than anyone else. “I think the gift for all of us who got to spend time with Jim was to recognize his greatness in his presence, not just through reflection afterwards,” said Miller. 

Clendenen hit the pavement with a fearless sales and marketing schedule, building loyal followings for his wine in cities such as London and Tokyo while revealing to the world that California wines could be elegant rather than just powerful. That inspired a slew of acolytes, from already-established, globe-trotting sommeliers, such as Rajat Parr, Joshua Klapper, and Paul Lato, to younger faces, including Gavin Chanin and his own niece, Marisa Clendenen Matela. 

“Jim was like my Big Brother,” said Parr, who believes Clendenen mentored more people than any other winemaker. “He showed me the way in life.” 

In recent years, Clendenen’s daughter, Isabelle, started working as a brand ambassador for Au Bon Climat while his son, Knox Alexander, has been attending college in Japan. Both of their names adorn bottles of Au Bon Climat pinot noir each vintage. Jim’s now ex-wife, Morgan Clendenen, also founded her own winery called Cold Heaven in 1996 and remains a wine educator and proponent of Santa Barbara County wine.  

“He was an icon to many, but most importantly, he was a very caring father,” said Isabelle on Monday. “He made sure my brother and I wanted for nothing.”

Though Clendenen was widely known for excess and hard-living ways — and had openly complained about health issues over the past few years — the wine world is expressing shock over his death, from journalists such as Ray Isle and Jancis Robinson to winemakers from Santa Barbara to Beaune, France. 

“We were great friends, business partners, and he was the godfather of my son Evan,” said winemaker and former Wine Cask owner Doug Margerum. “I’m devastated as are the rest of the Santa Barbara wine community and the wine world.” 

Frank Ostini, who owns the Hitching Post II restaurant in Buellton and also co-owns his own wine label, was also shocked. “We lost a great dear friend of nearly 40 years,” he said. “It’s hard to put into words how important Jim was to me, our wines, our region, and the world of wine. I’ve known and expressed for years how profound his influence was. Any words are a mere understatement.” 

When we spoke in 2020, Clendenen wasn’t afraid to recognize his unique accomplishments. “[E]very dollar I’ve earned in my life I earned in the wine business — not many people can say that,” he told me. “It’s amazing how few people who started off when I did were able to make their small companies work and grow and be self-sustaining. It’s been a great trip.”

A memorial is being planned. 

The following is excerpted from the book Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County, published by Matt Kettmann and Macduff Everton in November 2020. 

The Game-Changing Legacy of Jim Clendenen

Jim Clendenen is the godfather of Santa Barbara County wine.

Although a handful of critical pioneers came before his rise and new generations of winemakers —  including many he mentored — are further elevating the region’s reputation, no one has done more than this always long-haired, occasionally loud-mouthed “Mind Behind” to establish a classical style, maintain consistent quality, and bang the drum for the splendors of Santa Barbara wine, from San Francisco, Chicago, and New York, to London, Paris, and Tokyo.

“I have a good lifestyle, and I’ve been able to buy real estate, but every dollar I’ve earned in my life I earned in the wine business — not many people can say that,” says Clendenen, who co-founded Au Bon Climat in 1982. “It’s amazing how few people who started off when I did were able to make their small companies work and grow and be self-sustaining. It’s been a great trip.”

That trip begins at birth in Akron, Ohio, but redirects when Clendenen’s dad, who worked as a chemical engineer for Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, moved the family to “the endless suburbs of Southern California.” Clendenen learned a lot about California culture at Lowell High School in Whittier, and then went to UCSB in 1971 to study pre-law, where the scene in Isla Vista was “unbelievable.”. 

“We threw Halloween parties in the early ‘70s that were the most awe-inspiring, and terminally scary,” he recalls, laughing at today’s more puritanical sensitivities. “I come from a generation where, over a six-year period, there wasn’t a bra in the community.” During his junior year, he traveled for 13 months through 18 countries in Europe and beyond, trying nasty things like Turkish and Moroccan wines, but coming to love the food & drink culture of Italy, France, Spain, and elsewhere. 

Upon returning to California in 1974, he joined the Santa Barbara Food & Wine Society, whose older, wealthier members appreciated the young man’s research skills. “I had as much wine knowledge as anyone, and I had just turned 21,” explains Clendenen. “If they invited me and paid for a bottle of wine on my behalf, I gave them all the info that they could take.”

After graduating, he was supposed to go to law school, but worked for a Firestone store at 506 Chapala Street in downtown Santa Barbara. “I made enough money to stay alive and buy $7 bottles of wine,” he says. 

In 1977, Clendenen spent another six months in Europe. “At that point, i just decided that my life was too good to think about going back to school,” he says. “I decided I wanted to be a winemaker.” 

His first stab at production was helping Fred Brander bottle his 1976 gewurztraminer, and then, in 1978, Clendenen took a job at the new Zaca Mesa Winery, where Ken Brown became his mentor. “He knew much more about wine than I knew and was nice enough to share it with me,” he says. They became close friends for a couple years, but wound up butting heads. “I’m the kind of person who, once I’m done learning from someone, I move along,” admits Clendenen, who quit after the 1980 harvest. “It’s not quite the best way to keep long-term friends.” 

Zaca Mesa was also where he met Adam Tolmach (co-founder of Au Bon Climat and founder of The Ojai Vineyard), and Bob Lindquist, who founded Qupé and Lindquist Family Wines, and still works alongside Clendenen today. “Adam was the single most significant person for me,” says Clendenen. “He was an entrepreneur. His father was a doctor and his mother was the mayor of Oxnard. But Adam wanted to be a wine guy, and said we could do it. And we did.”

In 1981, Clendenen worked harvests in Australia and Burgundy, where renowned exporter Becky Wasserman “was my muse,” he explains. “She set up everything for me.” To him, Burgundy offered a much more egalitarian wine culture than Bordeaux. 

“In Bordeaux, you have to own a castle and possess a title to make wine — you have to come from empowered roots,” explains Clendenen, proud to be the grandson of Pennsylvania coal miners. “But when you spend time in Burgundy, you realize that it doesn’t matter if you’re making a few barrels in a garage or are in one of the estates: If you work hard at what you do, you can become the king of the village, the most important winemaker in the world.”

Together with Tolmach, Clendenen launched Au Bon Climat in a small dairy barn outside of Los Alamos in 1982, and brought the gentle winemaking techniques that they’d both learned in Burgundy to Santa Barbara County grapes. “We had no money to hire any labor,” says Clendenen of the early days. “We did all the picking, we did sales, delivery, everything. We did it with sweat equity and nothing else.”

Within a couple years, Au Bon Climat was winning praise across the world. “The quality of wines we made in 1986 hadn’t been made yet in California,” says Clendenen, whose chardonnay came in seventh out of nearly 500 during a massive global tasting in Switzerland. “I’ve always believed that if you chased acidity and captured crunchiness, texture, and balance in wine, then you did something in the New World that nobody else could do. Most of our colleagues kept looking for size and darkness, which aren’t typical in pinot noir.”

The critic Robert Parker escalated Au Bon Climat’s domestic reputation with glowing reviews, naming the winery one of the top 10 in the world in 1989 and 1990. 

In 1989, the Miller family, which owns Bien Nacido Vineyard, approached Lindquist from Qupé about being the first tenant in a winery they planned to build on their property. Lindquist, in turn, asked his friends Clendenen and Tolmach to join him. Au Bon Climat and Lindquist Family Wines remain there today, but all was not well with the original partnership, as Tolmach left the winery that same year to focus on The Ojai Vineyard. 

“Adam and I together were probably the ugliest couple of guys who ever started a winemaking business in history, but we had a lot of fun,” says Clendenen, who admits to being a “hard-charging driver” in their partnership, which did not end amicably. “We weren’t friends for a long time, but we’re really good friends now. He’s where he wants to be, and I’m more or less where I want to be.”

In 1991, Clendenen was able to expand his staff, so hired Jim Adelman. “He was just some new hands on board in the beginning,” says Clendenen. “Now he’s the man who makes it all work in every sense.”

The Parker praise dried up in 1994, when the critic “kicked me out of bed in a brutally aggressive and personal way,” says Clendenen, who refused to change to a riper style, even as the popular palate shifted. Au Bon Climat’s fans remained loyal, and while many other wineries chased trends, Clendenen’s style never wavered, relying on whole-cluster and open-top fermentation, manual punchdowns, gravity flow — almost no machines involved except for the destemmer and press. 

“The idea is to do as little to disturb the tension and the texture of the wine as you can possibly do,” says Clendenen, who’s been able to maintain such practices even while growing to 60,000 cases. “That’s what we learned in Burgundy.”

Au Bon Climat sales boomed with multiple placements in the Sideways film, but Clendenen never stopped at just making Santa Barbara County pinot noir and chardonnay. Under the Clendenen Family, Vita Nova, Barham Mendelsohn, and Ici La Bas labels, he continues to explore many different grape varieties — from nebbiolo and teroldego to grenache gris and tocai friulano — and regions, including the Russian River and Anderson Valley. Many grapes now come from his Le Bon Climat Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, not far from his winery at Bien Nacido, and others from a Los Alamos ranch that he purchased called Rancho La Cuna. 

Clendenen is also famous in winemaking circles for his gourmet lunch spreads, which he prepares at the winery every day he is in town and not traveling to Europe or Japan, where his son, Knox Alexander, is in college. “The staff is so well trained, I don’t do a lot of hands-on production anymore,” says Clendenen, though he is involved in buying grapes, blending, and sales. “I found myself tasting wine too early in the morning because that’s all I was doing. So now I am making lunch, sitting down with the whole staff each day, and talking about the direction we’re going. It’s what keeps my hands from being the devil’s tools.”

Perhaps that’s one reason why his employees are dedicated, averaging 18 years of service. While Adelman goes back to 1991, cellar master Enrique Rodriguez has been with Au Bon Climat since 1988. Meanwhile, the list of winemakers that Clendenen has influenced is too long to recount, but includes such names as Rajat Parr, Paul Lato, Gavin Chanin, Gary Burk, Joshua Klapper, and his own niece, Marisa Clendenen Matela, who makes Bevela Wines. 

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing: the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 hurt business, as did the recession, which came atop the large harvests of 2008 and 2009 that Clendenen fully indulged in while buying a lot of new equipment. “I’m not stupid but I can behave in a stupid fashion,” says Clendenen. He emerged from those tough times with his brand intact, an outcome that did not happen for legends like Lindquist, who eventually lost Qupé, and Richard Sanford, who lost ownership of Alma Rosa. 

“I struggled a lot, and I have to say that I had a lot of friends that helped me out,” he explains of people who loaned him funds to stay alive. “They all got their money back and got interest that they couldn’t have gotten from anywhere else. I’m a guilty middle-class white kid who lived through the 1960s and ‘70s and thinks that’s the way life should be.” Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic will be the next challenge. 

While his son is studying in Japan, Clendenen’s daughter, Isabelle, is now working as a brand ambassador for Au Bon Climat, keeping him hopeful that the winery will remain a family affair. He doesn’t always understand her approach to millennial customers, but trusts her judgement. “She’ll find her way into what she wants to do,” he says. “She’s real smart.”  

As for his trademark long locks, Clendenen jokes that the plan was to have hair like Jesus and a belly like Santa Claus. “When a kid sees Jesus and Santa Claus in the same guy, that’s a popular fella!” he says with a chuckle. “But people told me that the kids were seeing Charles Manson or the KISS band.” 

Even as the hair grows a tad thinner and more white than blonde, the look still reflects Clendenen’s iconic individualism. “To pursue a passion as vigorously as I pursued mine,” he says, “you need a little bit of that freedom.” 

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