In Memoriam: Jim Clendenen, Au Bon Climat Wine Legend, Remembered as ‘Larger Than Life’

By Gabe Saglie   |   May 18, 2021
Jim Clendenen died at his home in Buellton at 68 (Bob Dickey photo)

The Santa Barbara wine industry — and the wine world as a whole — lost one of its superstars when Jim Clendenen died over the weekend. He passed away at his home in Buellton, in his sleep. He was 68.

Wine aficionados who did not know him personally certainly knew his wine, especially his flagship brand, Au Bon Climat. Loosely translated to “a well exposed vineyard,” the label was the prime vehicle for his unapologetic approach to winemaking, especially to making pinot noir and chardonnay. His wines were influenced by his admiration of Burgundian techniques and were consistently fresh, balanced, and restrained.

Those who did know him, though, would say that the man behind the wines — or “The Mind Behind” as he dubbed himself — was anything but restrained. When Jim Clendenen walked into a room, people noticed. He was ebullient and exuberant, enthusiastic and energetic. His loud shirts and flowing hair, in fact, were extensions of a wonderfully dynamic personality.

“It’s funny, I always think that winemakers are their wine,” says fellow winemaker and Montecito resident Doug Margerum. “But Jim wasn’t. If his wines were more reserved, he was certainly larger than life.”

He calls Clendenen, who was godfather to his son, Evan, a mentor. The two men were also business partners in the wine project Vita Nova.

That was one of Clendenen’s trademarks, actually — his imaginative approach expanded his creative horizons, and he pushed out various boutique endeavors, like Barham Mendelsohn, under which he crafted pinot noirs from Sonoma’s Anderson Valley, and Clendenen Family Vineyards, for which he made artisan-style versions of varieties like gewurztraminer, chenin blanc, and petit verdot. His nebbiolo was barrel aged for five years.

But it was Au Bon Climat, or ABC, that became his most famous calling card. It made him — and by extension, his home base of Santa Maria Valley and all of Santa Barbara County — recognizable in wine drinking circles both domestically and around the world. The various “Winemaker of the Year”-type accolades he won over the years came from publications like the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine Magazine, and Germany’s Wein Gourmet. The latter, actually, called him “Winemaker of the World.”

“He did a magnificent job at spreading our message,” says winemaker and Montecito resident Fred Brander, who became fast friends with Clendenen in 1978, before either would become a torch bearer for Santa Barbara County wines. “If Robert Mondavi can be credited with championing Napa, then Jim was his counterpart down here in Santa Barbara.”

It was Clendenen’s friend and fellow culinarian Frank Ostini, of Hitching Post II fame, who discovered Clendenen Saturday night, after several calls to Clendenen from family had gone unanswered.

“We were so blessed to have him a part of our lives,” says Ostini, who enjoyed a 40-year friendship with Clendenen. “I will dearly, dearly miss him.”

When Ostini moved the Hitching Post wine production to the Au Bon Climat facility in 2019, it was “a homecoming,” he says, since the HP label produced wines there back in the 1990s and moved out only when space became tight. (Clendenen’s good friend Bob Lindquist also made wine at ABC for many years, until he sold his Qupé wine brand in 2018.) What’s remained the same at Au Bon Climat, says Ostini, are the faces of the employees — a team of close to 30 people, many of whom have worked at ABC for decades. That’s a testament to Clendenen’s professional generosity.

Jim Clendenen, center, met with fellow winemakers in 2015 to reminisce about the Santa Barbara Wine Festival at the SB Museum of Natural History. Also pictured, from left: Bob Lindquist, Ken Brown, Richard Sanford, Doug Margerum, Drake Whitcraft, and Fred Brander (Gabe Saglie photo)

“These are such great people who’ve now lost their leader,” says Ostini. “We’re here to hug them and hold them, and to be a part of keeping the whole thing going.”

Clendenen’s daughter, Isabelle, who works in sales at ABC, confirms that the world of Au Bon Climat will live on. It is, after all, “a family business through and through,” she says. “Even if you’re not related by blood, you’re still a member of our family.”

In a conversation with the Montecito Journal on Monday, Isabelle, 26, shared personal insights into the man so many consider a superstar:

“A lot of people are focusing on what he did for the wine industry, but he was also devoted to charity work. He supported charities in places as far away as Atlanta and North Carolina and Alabama. He was really focused on children, because children were the most important thing to him.

“People say he was loud and strong, but he was also a very sensitive person. He cried as easily as anyone.

“And he had a hatred for social media. Especially Facebook — that one was the worst. He was such an emotional person that all he wanted was a physical connection with people.”

Isabelle’s brother, Knox, 21, resides in Japan. Jim Clendenen married and divorced twice, most recently to Morgan Clendenen, a winemaker of viognier for many years under the Cold Heaven label.

“I know how Isabelle and Knox feel,” says Drake Whitcraft, who took over Whitcraft Winery when his father, the legend Chris Whitcraft, passed away in 2014. Drake, too, was in his 20s. “It’s indescribable how deep a void is created, losing your dad. You only get one.

“Jim is a force to be reckoned with in the wine industry — not was — is, even posthumously,” said Drake Whitcraft. “Jim was not only a great winemaker… he had the business savvy, too. And anyone who met him knows how he could captivate a room with stories told with precise details, as if he were experiencing them right then.”

Jim Clendenen was born in Ohio and graduated with high honors in pre-law from UCSB in 1976. He’d already been to Burgundy and Champagne, though — he turned 21 in France, in fact — and the allure of pinot noir and chardonnay would eventually win out.

A stint at Zaca Mesa Winery in 1978, under the tutelage of winemaker Ken Brown, led to Clendenen working three global harvests, an amazing feat, in 1981 — Santa Barbara, Australia, and France. He founded Au Bon Climat in 1982 with friend Adam Tolmach, who’d leave in 1990 to launch Ojai Vineyard. Clendenen would go on to grow Au Bon Climat by using European-inspired, Old World techniques, a course to which he stayed true even when California winemaking, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s, leaned toward bigger, richer wines. 

“That’s to be admired,” adds Brander. “He didn’t get caught up in fads or styles. He kept true to Burgundy, to winemaking that was not modern or popular. He let the vineyards do the talking.”

Clendenen took his winery, which has a tasting room in downtown Santa Barbara, to a yearly production of some 50,000 cases. He sourced grapes from a variety of vineyards, including Sanford & Benedict and his own sustainably farmed Le Bon Climat. He was one of the biggest fruit purchasers at the famous Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, which is owned by Santa Barbara’s Miller family.

“I’ll remember him for always sticking to his guns,” says Nicholas Miller, who runs sales and marketing for the family’s wine enterprises. While Bien Nacido is best known for its pinot noir and chardonnay, “we were growing things like merlot and nebbiolo for Jim — he definitely pushed the limits at Bien Nacido.”

Clendenen was also known for his hospitality. Lunches he hosted regularly at ABC, in fact, became legendary.

“You never knew who’d show up or which wines would be poured,” recalls Miller. Actually, Clendenen was known for one of the most extensive libraries of older vintages on the Central Coast, many of which would get poured at his lunches. And the cooking — homegrown but always gourmet, and plentiful — was done by the Mind Behind himself.

Those who knew him well will say that the pandemic took its toll on Clendenen in various ways. The threat to his compromised health meant, by necessity, that he had to become more reclusive. And a lifestyle defined by endless wine dinners, meet-and-greets and journeys around the globe to promote wine coming to a sudden halt — that was not an easy new reality for someone who thrived on the human connection.

“Him passing away — that was something he was afraid was going to happen soon,” admits Isabelle.

A memorial for Clendenen is being planned.


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