Jim Clendenen: 1953-2021In Memoriam | Thu Jun 17, 2021 | 11:00am
My old friend, winemaking mentor, and longtime business partner, Jim Clendenen, passed away in his sleep on May 15.
Two days earlier, Jim and I, along with another old winemaking friend, Paul Lato, took the day off to visit Raj Parr. Raj had recently moved to a farm and vineyard in Cambria, about an hour’s drive north of our winery in Santa Maria. He had planted and grafted 12 acres of vines to about a dozen esoteric and little-known grape varietals scattered among the wild, wind-swept, chilly hills near San Simeon. We were curious to see what he was up to.
Jim was my winemaking mentor, and he had also mentored Paul and Raj. It was a day of the master and three of his pupils; Jim was in his element.
Exploratory ventures like this were commonplace for Jim and me in our early days of learning about wine and its many facets. As our wineries grew and we became more and more attached to the day-to-day requirements, we rarely took a day to do something like this. The timing of this just felt right.
We spent a great day together. Raj cooked lunch, and we tried many of the first wines that he had just bottled from this new project. On the way home, we stopped at a wonderful fish market in Morro Bay. We all bought a bunch of fresh offerings, and Jim bought a huge piece of wild halibut that he would cook the next day for our winery staff lunch. We had some friends from Chicago visiting that day, and Jim wanted to have something special.
The next day, as he has thousands of times before, Jim cooked a beautiful lunch for our staff and guests, and I opened about 15 different wines for us to enjoy alongside. It was the last time I saw him.
Jim and I were both born in January 1953. He was a Capricorn; I’m an Aquarius. Luckily for us, 1953 was an outstanding vintage, and at various times in our 42-year-long friendship, we drank many a ’53 together — especially on our 30th, 40th, 50th, 53rd, 60th, and 65th birthdays. We still have some bottles stashed for our 70th. Damn it, Jim, you left us too soon!
Jim and I met in early January 1979, shortly before we turned 26 years old. We were both young, overly enthusiastic wine geeks, trying to figure out how we could make a living while pursuing our passion. Jim was the assistant winemaker at Zaca Mesa Winery, one of the prominent wineries in the nascent Santa Barbara County wine scene. I was hired as Zaca Mesa’s first tour guide. We didn’t get many visitors in those early days, so most of my time was spent working side by side with Jim in the cellar, learning to make wine.
Jim left Zaca Mesa after the 1980 harvest and went off to work the 1981 harvest in both Australia and Burgundy. When he returned, he and Adam Tolmach had plans to start their own winery called Au Bon Climat. Jim encouraged me to start my own winery that same year, and so in 1982, at age 29, we were both in the winemaking business.
In 1989, with the help of the Miller family, Jim, Adam, and I built a winery at the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. Adam left after the 1990 harvest to focus his efforts on his family property at The Ojai Vineyard. Jim and I have continued to make our wines in the same winery ever since.
We will continue to make our wines here as long as we can. And each day, when we sit down for our staff lunch, we will raise a glass to Jim Clendenen!