© BBR | Jim Clendenen will be missed in California and around the world.
Au Bon Climat’s founder, winemaker and rebel-in-chief Jim Clendenen has died at the age of 68.
By W. Blake Gray | Posted Tuesday, 18-May-2021
Jim Clendenen was not an elegant man: with his long hair, colorful shirts and projectable voice, he was always the center of attention.
Yet the reason he deserved that attention is because he stood up, loudly, for elegance in wine at a time when most of the California wine community cared only about power.
Clendenen, the owner/winemaker of Au Bon Climat, died over the weekend at age 68. His loss today is as large as his presence was. He was everything we want a winemaker to be: he made great wines because he followed his beliefs. He refused to bow to fashion. He didn’t jack up his prices just because he could. And he played an important role in revitalizing a California wine scene even when most of its leading lights didn’t realize that such a rebirth was needed.
Everyone has a Jim Clendenen memory, or if they are lucky, several. Mine are always going to be of him in wine symposia in the early and mid-2000s, the peak period for excess in California, and questioning – often loudly from the back of the room – why the highest scores had to go to the ripest wines. Why does there need to be so much oak? If the wine is this soft on release, is it going to be dead in five years? Clendenen asked these questions publicly, and they needed asking.
This was especially important in Santa Barbara County, where Clendenen spent his entire career. The region had been producing wine for only about 10 years before he founded Au Bon Climat and, in an era when a Wine Advocate score could make or break a winery, he represented an alternate way.
“Jim was one of the pioneers of Santa Barbara County that everybody leaned on,” said Nicholas Miller, whose family owns Bien Nacido Vineyards, where Clendenen’s winery was located. “We were so reliant on him being the guy. Whenever we put a panel together, we said, let’s put Jim on it. He gave more than most. More than anyone. He made elegant wines when it wasn’t cool to be elegant. He never changed: he himself was not elegant. But he had a gravitational pull. If he was in the room, everyone got sucked in.”
“Jim Clendenen was born in Akron, Ohio to gastronomically impoverished parents during the culinary Dark Ages of the American 1950s,” the Au Bon Climat website reads. He went to University of California, Santa Barbara for a pre-law degree, but a visit to France during his junior year abroad turned him away from law and into wine. It’s a shame for American jurisprudence: it’s easy to imagine Clendenen making his case in a courtroom, though he might not have cared if the jury agreed.
He worked as assistant winemaker at Zaca Mesa for three vintages, and then joined Adam Tolmach to found Au Bon Climat. Tolmach left in 1990 to found the Ojai Vineyard, leaving Clendenen alone in charge.
The Miller family built a winemaking shed on their property at Bien Nacido that housed the two most influential wineries in Santa Barbara County, Au Bon Climat and Qupé. Clendenen had a huge impact on the farming at Bien Nacido, which is one of the best-run large vineyards in California. I asked Miller what it was like to work with Clendenen.
“I don’t think you worked with him,” Miller said. “Jim had an agenda, and if it worked for him he did it. It wasn’t just Pinot and Chardonnay for him here. He pushed the limits. We grew Nebbiolo for him. We were doing Mondeuse. Petit Verdot. He believed in the property. He was the ambassador for the vineyard locally, and he took it overseas as well. He was our single greatest ambassador. We’re new to making wine as a family. The people that came to Bien Nacido and saw it, came to see him.”
An international treasure
Clendenen enjoyed everything about wine culture: eating, cooking, and drinking wine. He traveled widely and he may have been more recognized in Europe and Japan than in the US. This is an analogy he would probably hate, but he is like New York City: to most Americans he was an outlier, but to people overseas he seemed to epitomize the US.
He was one of the first members of In Pursuit of Balance, a movement that finally sprung up of like-minded winemakers. He was always a Burgundy fan, from the time he spent a month working harvest in the beginning of his career, and is probably best known for his Pinots Noir. But he was equally passionate about Chardonnay. In 2016, we talked about Chardonnay. Here are some things he had to say. I hope it gives the feeling of what it’s like to talk about wine with him, because that was always a pleasure and one we won’t get again.
“In the first third of my career, Napa was making the ‘food wines’,” Clendenen said. “They were picked too early. ML [malolactic fermentation] was suppressed. They didn’t have flavor. They were bad wines. Then they went the other way, to 16 percent alcohol. Oak barrels, malolactic, lees contact – all the things you’ve learned to love in Chardonnay have been exaggerations in California. That’s when [critic Robert] Parker anointed Kistler as the best Chardonnay around. I don’t know how you can drink that.
“Santa Barbara had 11,000 acres of Chardonnay in the ’80s. Then 8000 acres were bought by big companies from the North Coast [Napa and Sonoma]. When the next economic downturn came, the first things that were thrown under the bus were Santa Barbara County Chardonnay grapes. After the downturn you could buy Meridian Chardonnay for $4.99. You could buy Cambria for $11. People would ask me: ‘Why should I spend $18 on your wine? These other wines were more expensive and now they’re less.’ I said: ‘That’s why you should buy my wine.’
“The saddest thing from the Chardonnay business is that so many people think they can get a satisfactory wine for $15 and they can drink it tonight. I’ve made wine to age my whole career. So many Chardonnay consumers aren’t taking advantage of the high quality of $35 to $60 wines. You just don’t see anybody coming out with very high prices. My wines must have been ludicrously expensive in the ’80s because I was selling a lot of Chardonnay at $35. Now I sell the Sanford & Benedict Chardonnay, the same wine I made at $35, I sell it at $30. Real dollars.”
In fact, though he grew Au Bon Climat to a world-renowned 50,000-case winery, Clendenen never cashed in the way many would. His wines stayed affordable; very few of his single-vineyard Pinot Noirs are over $50 even now, and Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County AVA Pinot Noir is still just $24 at the winery.
“He never raised the price of that wine,” Miller said. “Post-Sideways, he could have tripled it.”
His winemaking neighbor Bob Lindquist sold Qupé in 2018, but Clendenen was still working at Au Bon Climat to the end of his life.
“He never sold out,” Miller said. “So many of the top winemakers in California move on to something else. He never had that transition to move on to do a second act.”
He is survived by his daughter Isabelle, who works in sales at the winery, and his son Knox Alexander.
I wish I could transmit the experience of sharing a meal with Jim: gregarious, thoughtful, well-informed and ready to eat and drink for hours. But there is one consoling thought today: he made all of his wines to age, and in the bottle he is still with us.