Jim Clendenen, Founder
The Man, the Myth
Jim Clendenen left an indelible mark on the wine industry as wine pioneer, mentor, ambassador, and impresario. He was beyond legendary; he had his own mythology. Jim didn’t just walk the walk, he paved the road. He was everything a winemaker wanted to be. He made great wines because he fiercely followed his principles. He refused to bow to fashion, making elegant wines when it wasn’t cool to be elegant.
For over 40 years Jim Clendenen’s classically styled wines of balance, restraint, and longevity were countered by his brazen, larger than life personality. Articulate, knowledgeable, well-traveled, passionate, and uncensored with a biting humor, Jim was an icon that wine cognoscenti gravitated to. He was both enthusiastic ambassador and guiding light for the Santa Barbara County wine region since its infancy that continued throughout his life.
He mentored many, influenced even more. Jim was essential in elevating the quality of Burgundian varietals on the Central Coast, and key in generating international recognition of Santa Barbara County as a world class wine region. He never rested on his laurels. He never lost his passion for wine, life, or loud tee shirts.
James Alexander Clendenen 1953-2021
Jim Clendenen would say he was born in Akron, Ohio in a gastronomically impoverished era during the culinary Dark Ages of the American 1950s. He attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, achieving high honors in pre-law. However, during his “junior year abroad” in 1974, while turning 21 in France, he discovered life beyond tacos. A one month stay in Burgundy and Champagne convinced him to attempt a career in wine rather than continue onto law school.
Jim’s winemaking career began with the 1978 harvest at Zaca Mesa Winery, serving as assistant winemaker to Ken Brown for three vintages. There he met both Adam Tolmach and Bob Lindquist, who together comprised the first students of what would later be called “Zaca Mesa U.” An overachiever, Jim left in 1981 to complete three harvests in one year on three continents: one in the USA, one in Australia, and one in France. While in France, renowned importer Becky Wasserman hired him to interview the winemakers in Burgundy she represented and document their viticulture and winemaking techniques. This insight into French winemaking was an amazing learning opportunity.
Upon his return, the decision was made to create Burgundian-styled wines in Santa Barbara County. Au Bon Climat began with the harvest of 1982 with then partner Adam Tolmach, using a converted dairy barn at Los Alamos Vineyard. From the start it was clear Old World winemaking methods would be employed to create balanced, nuanced wines with great aging potential. That has never changed even when flashy trends, from overblown fruit and high alcohols to excessive oak, were in vogue.
In 1990, Tolmach left to start Ojai Winery and Clendenen became sole proprietor. The winery moved to a production facility at the prestigious Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria shared with Rhône varietal master Bob Lindquist of Qupé winery. An accomplished cook with a lust for life, Jim’s daily luncheons for the winery crew transformed the modest warehouse of a winery to an epicenter of wine and food culture on California’s Central Coast.
Jim stayed true to his convictions and was proven correct as a more educated market came back to wines of balance. Through careful re-investment from its own production, Au Bon Climat grew to over 50,000 cases annually while earning world-wide acclaim. Though Jim loved Burgundy, his creativity, enthusiasm, and love of wine lead to him creating many other brands throughout his career including Vita Nova for Bordeaux varietals, Ici/La Bas for Burgundian varietals not from the Central Coast, and Il Podere dell’Olivos for Italian varietals. His most important label outside Au Bon Climat was Clendenen Family Vintners. Created as a legacy winery for his children, this was Jim’s passion project. It continues to represent out-of-the-ordinary varietals and styles made in small lot wines from great vineyards.
A gifted winemaker, Jim was also the quintessential salesperson promoting Au Bon Climat as well as Santa Barbara County as a world class wine region. Well before the movie sensation Sideways, Jim and his wines are credited with putting the Santa Barbara wine region (and Pinot Noir) on the map! From coast to coast and internationally, Jim spent much of the year traveling, spreading the gospel of Santa Barbara and its wines. That meant he was frequently not at the winery. Jim put together a top-notch winemaking team that understood and could execute his vision. In deference to their skills, Jim never referred to himself as the winemaker, but rather as the “Mind Behind”, which became his official title.
That action served the winery well when Jim unexpectedly passed away in 2021. He had a chosen dream team, headed by winemaker Jim Adelman, in place for a seamless transition.
The Clendenen legacy carries on
Jim’s other passion besides wine was his family. Daughter Isabelle and son Knox, grew up at the winery and often traveled worldwide with Jim on his wine trips. Isabelle is continuing Jim’s work in marketing, and son Knox is joining the winemaking crew starting with the 2022 harvest. Both have acclaimed Pinot Noirs named after them, with the first vintages their birth year; the “Isabelle” Pinot Noir began in 1995, and the Knox Alexander in 1999.
Jim is one of the true wine pioneers of Santa Barbara County, from the first wave of winemakers in the 1970s and 80s that put this region on the world map of wine. His flamboyant, unabashed personality and passionate views contrasted by quiet, subtle, nuanced wines made him controversial, but propelled the wine region to new heights. Dozens of winemakers from the new generation cite him as an influence and inspiration.
Among his many accolades: In 1989 and 1990 Au Bon Climat was on Robert Parker’s short list of Best Wineries in the World, and in 1991 was selected by Oz Clark as one of fifty world-wide creators of Modern Classic Wines. Dan Berger of the Los Angeles Times named Clendenen the “Los Angeles Time Winemaker of the Year” in 1992; Food & Wine magazine named him “Winemaker of the Year” in 2001. Germany’s leading wine magazine, Wein Gourmet, in 2004 name Clendenen “Winemaker of the World;” and in 2007, Jim was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.” The winery itself has earned multiple ‘Winery of the Year’ acclaim throughout the years, most recently from Antonio Galloni’s Vinous (2019) and Wine & Spirits Magazine (2020 and 2021).