On May 15, legendary winemaker Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat died in his sleep at 68, leaving behind a legacy that will inspire future vintners, chefs, and historians in Santa Barbara, the United States and throughout the world.
He was known for his larger-than-life personality, recognized by his flowing head of shoulder-length hair and appreciated for his fantastic lunches and balanced bottles of pinot noir and chardonnay that were produced in the low-intervention “Burgundian way” decades before many California winemakers let go of the dominant Bordeaux style.
In its obituary, Wine Spectator called Clendenen a “colorful Santa Barbara pioneer,” and the San Francisco Chronicle described him as “the vintner who changed the course of California pinot noir.” Le Du Wines, among many others from around the world, especially France, praised Clendenen on Instagram for showing “generations of winemakers what was possible, that the path was open.”
Thanks in no small part to Clendenen’s decades-long career, pinot noir and chardonnay varietals are synonymous with California. Clendenen was known for ardently defending the finesse and delicacy of wines made in the Old World style that he loved, sometimes going against popular opinion, which often favored bold and highly alcoholic bottles. He also proved that the cooler climate of the Santa Maria Valley was an enviable terroir for a vineyard. Sourcing grapes from a number of partners, he produced up to 30,000 cases a year.
Clendenen’s media accolades run long, with some notable highlights over the years, including “Winemaker of the Year” by The Los Angeles Times and Food & Wine magazine.
But in 1982, when Clendenen began Au Bon Climat winery in a barn outside of Los Alamos with his former partner, Winemaker Adam Tolmach from Ojai Vineyard, the path to success was anything but guaranteed. The friends took over a sleepy winery with money borrowed from friends and family.
After working for Zaca Mesa Winery in Los Olivos, where they learned how to ramp up production in a matter of years, moving from 15,000 to 100,000 cases, the two left for Burgundy, France. On the ancient estates of France’s golden slope, they feasted on multi-course meals, always with wine, took coffee breaks, and learned drinking songs.
In France, Tolmach said, they realized that “fancy wine” didn’t require “fancy equipment.” It could be made in a “crafty, small” way as long as they paid attention to the details. On their return, Tolmach said they used the traditions and techniques acquired abroad, from whole cluster pressings, long lease contact to French Oak barrels.
In the end, it was Clendenen’s commitment to tradition that ironically made him a trailblazer and commercial success, recalled Marshall Miller, vice president of operations for Miller Family Wines, who knew the family’s business partner since he was a child.
“He was pioneering a subtle sophisticated style of wine in Santa Barbara County, but using very traditional methods. Those things shouldn’t go together, but in his case, they do,” Miller said. “And he was a lot of fun and did not put on airs, but took wine very seriously.”
But a passion for cooking, generous family meals, and in particular, a deep understanding of butter is what Miller remembers most vividly. “He cooked the way he lived his life, with rich and expansive food that reflected his personality,” he said.
Clendenen used his palate as a guide for developing a network of high-profile restaurant clients nation-wide, which in turn, helped to boost the notoriety of his portfolio, and in particular, Santa Barbara County wines.
“He had very legitimate and close relationships with restaurateurs around the country. They had real respect for his wine,” said Miller. “When Charlie Trotter shut down in Chicago his last bottle was Au Bon Climat, and that’s not just a coincidence or a marketing strategy. It was a way Clendenen had chosen to live life.”
On Anacapa Street in downtown Santa Barbara, the Au Bon Climat tasting room is busier than ever. Clendenen’s collection of age-worthy wines and affiliated labels, like Clendenen Family Vineyards, Ici Li Bas, Vita Nova and Barham Mendelsohn, remain in stock and ready for an honorific toast. After all, as it says on the Au Bon Climat website, “Life is too short to drink bad wine.”
• Abigail Napp writes the monthly Wine Buzz column for the Business Times. She can be reached at [email protected]