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Tributes paid to Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat

Jim Clendenen, the popular winemaker of Au Bon Climat winery fame who helped make a name for elegant California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines from his base in Santa Barbara, has died. 

Jim Clendenen, who cofounded Au Bon Climat winery in California in the 1980s and was internationally recognised as a trailblazing producer of California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, has died at the age of 68. 

We are mourning the loss of Jim Clendenen,’ said Au Bon Climat on Instagram. ‘We lost a winery legend, a true icon, a visionary. There is a huge void where Jim Clendenen should be and we are in shock. His absence will be keenly felt, but his legacy will continue.’

There have already been many tributes across social media to a man who inspired others in the winemaking cellar but was also renowned for his generosity and love of entertaining guests.

‘We are deeply saddened by the loss of one of California’s most colourful and dynamic winemakers,’ said California Wines UK, the local branch of the California-based Wine Institute, on Instagram. ‘Farewell to the wild boy of California wine.’ 

Bob Lindquist, the celebrated winemaker who shared facilities with Clendenen for many years, told Decanter, ‘He was my mentor and great friend, and taught me how to make wine. 

He encouraged me to start my own winery (Qupé), the same year that he started Au Bon Climat, 1982.’

Clendenen was among a number of long-standing proponents of the sort of restraint in the cellar that has become a more mainstream and talked-about strand of California winemaking today. 

Sonal Holland MW, who was part of a 45-strong group of Masters of Wine to enjoy one of Clendenen’s famous lunches in 2018, described him on Instagram as a ‘legendary winemaker who redefined how Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays should be made’. 

In a 2017 Decanter magazine column referring to the conversation about ‘balance’ in California wines, Oz Clarke OBE wrote, ‘Jim Clendenen at Au Bon Climat has been talking this language since the 1980s.’

Jancis Robinson OBE MW, who previously coined Clendenen’s ‘wild boy’ nickname, said in an obituary and tribute, ‘The wine world really is much the poorer without this brave pioneer.’ 

UK wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd described Clendenen as ‘a true visionary’ and said ‘he will be greatly missed’. 

In California, Lindquist told of how he first met Clendenen, who was born in Ohio but developed a love for wine – and especially Burgundy and Champagne – during a year abroad in France while studying at the University of Santa Barbara. 

‘I first met Jim in January 1979 when I was hired to manage a wine shop in Los Olivos, CA,’ said Lindquist via email. ‘Jim was the assistant winemaker at Zaca Mesa Winery. We connected right away and discovered that we were both born in January 1953 (he January 11th, me the 24th), so we were both turning 26.

‘Nine months later we attended a Kinks concert in Santa Barbara, which got me fired by the wine shop (that’s another story), and Jim helped to get me hired at Zaca Mesa as their first tour guide. We didn’t get many tourists back in those days, so most of my time was spent working with Jim in the cellar.’

Clendenen subsequently started Au Bon Climat with Adam Tolmach, as a winery focused on Burgundian grape varieties. Tolmach left at the start of the 1990s to pursue other projects; including the Ojai Vineyard that he still owns today. 

Meanwhile, in 1989, Clendenen and Lindquist joined forces along with the Miller family to ‘build a winery together at the Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley’, said Lindquist. ‘We have been sharing the Clendenen Lindquist Vintners winery facility ever since.’

He added, ‘Jim was a force in this business. He travelled all over the world carrying the Santa Barbara wine banner. His loss has left a huge hole in our hearts and lives.’

In its Instagram tribute, Au Bon Climat quoted Clendenen’s daughter, Isabelle, who described her father as a ‘very generous, bright, and candid man’.

She added, ‘He made sure my brother [Knox] and I wanted for nothing. His loss affects so many, but his impact will never be lost to any of us. It means a lot to me that he was celebrated and loved by so many.’

See also:

Tributes paid to Pio Boffa, a Piedmont wine pioneer

Williams Selyem: An icon of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

Recent Decanter reviews of Au Bon Climat wines

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