The legacy of Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen

When Au Bon Climat founder Jim Clendenen unexpectedly passed away on 15th May 2021, aged just 68, there was an outpouring of sorrow. FONDATA’s Gavin Lucas considers how the one-of-a-kind bon vivant shaped Santa Barbara and California’s wine scene today
The legacy of Au Bon Climat’s Jim Clendenen

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Since setting up Au Bon Climat (ABC) in a converted dairy barn at Los Alamos Vineyard in the early 1980s with then business partner, winemaker Adam Tolmach, Jim Clendenen had become something of an icon in the wine world – and if you met him you knew about it. With a big mane of long blonde hair and a penchant for loud patterned shirts, Clendenen was the very embodiment of larger than life. A natural raconteur with a discerning palate and an unstoppable enthusiasm for gastronomical excellence and entertaining guests, he was, by all accounts, the life and soul of any party – and almost always the last man standing. But beyond his “wild boy” reputation and his appetite for good times, Clendenen was insatiably inquisitive, well-travelled, knowledgeable, articulate (and famously “uncensored”), hospitable, generous to a fault, and able to engage an audience on a level even the most in-demand after-dinner speakers can only dream of. These qualities undoubtedly contributed to Clendenen becoming the most important voice to champion the Central Coast wine region, and one of its most celebrated, and consistent, winemakers.  

In her obituary for Clendenen, Jancis Robinson MW (the first to dub Clendenen the “wild boy” of wine) noted that, “He was a party animal and rabble-rouser, yet the wines he made, with admirable consistency, were models of long-lived restraint; the exact opposite of exhibitionist. The wine world really is much the poorer without this brave pioneer.”  

Celebrated Central Coast winemaker Bob Lindquist described Clendenen as his “mentor and great friend; he taught me how to make wine. He encouraged me to start my own winery (Qupé), the same year that he started Au Bon Climat, in 1982.”  

“His passing is a loss for the entire world of wine,” wrote California winemaker Gavin Chanin, who was mentored by Clendenen.  

Born in Akron, Ohio in 1953, Clendenen’s journey in wine began while he was studying law at the University of California, Santa Barbara. During his junior year abroad in ’74, just as he was turning 21, Clendenen spent time in both Burgundy and Champagne and fell in love with wine. Although he graduated with High Honours in pre-law in ’76, by the harvest of ’78 he had started a three-year stint as assistant winemaker to Ken Brown at Zaca Mesa Winery in Los Olivos in the Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Barbara. It was there that he worked alongside both Bob Lindquist (who would become the founder of Qupé), Adam Tolmach (co-founder of Au Bon Climat) and also Jim Adelman who, several years later, would join Clendenen at ABC and who – after 30 years of working alongside Clendenen – remains the winemaker and head of operations at Au Bon Climat today.  

Top of page: The wild boy himself, Jim Clendenen, photographed by Michael Sager. Above: Adam Tolmach (left) and Jim Clendenen (right) in the mid-1980s, and Clendenen's iconic Wild Boy Chardonnay label

By the time Adelman joined ABC in 1991 (after getting a degree in enology from California State University, Fresno in ’87, then a post-graduate degree in microbiology, and working a stint at Domaine Chandon in Napa), the winery was gaining critical acclaim. It had moved into a new winemaking facility, a huge industrial shed on the edge of the renowned Bien Nacido Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley which it shared with Bob Lindquist’s Qupé. Clendenen had bought out his original partner Tolmach, who wanted to focus on his own Ojai Vineyard project.  

“Up to that point, Jim had always done the marketing and Adam had always supplied the analytical experience, the chemistry, and Adam had been doing more of the actual physical, winemaking,” recalls Adelman of the time he joined ABC. “Obviously, during harvest, they were there together, and both worked incredibly hard, but generally, that’s the way it was divided up – Jim would travel and promote, and Adam would stay and make the wine. So, they needed somebody to replace Adam Tolmach and be the guy there who could answer the phone, do some chemistry, and top barrels – and all the other stuff you have to do when you have a winery. They hired me in 1991, and I’ve been at Au Bon Climat ever since.”  

After just a few years of Adelman joining the team as ABC’s Winemaker in the 1990s, Clendenen came up with a new job title to better describe his own role: the Mind Behind. “It was the perfect title for Jim,” says Adelman, “because at that point he realised that he was no longer going to be the person who would be physically emptying the barrels, but he needed a title that explained that he was the ideas guy, the founder – quite literally the mind behind Au Bon Climat.”  

Adelman’s job title was refreshed too. “For a couple of years, I’d been the official winemaker – but there was more to it than that, really I had much more of a managerial role where I did things like make sure that the grape trucks arrived on time with the grapes; I did all the coordination with the vineyard guys; I did all the coordination with glass companies, the label companies, the capsule companies. I did a lot more than just making the wine, and also we were a team of winemakers, so it didn’t make sense to have an individual named as the winemaker. So I became the General Manager and was much more comfortable with that. Obviously, Jim had the final say – so in technical terms, he was probably the winemaker – but it all made sense to us for Jim to be Mind Behind, me General Manager, and Enrique Rodriquez [who has worked at ABC since he was 16 back in 1988] as Cellar Master and then a bunch of guys who also helped make the wine.”

Left: Jim Clendenen practising his swing, photographed by Macduff Everton. Right: the next generation of Clendenens: Jim’s children, Knox and Isabelle, who are both involved in the winery today

A few years later, Clendenen and Adelman found out that one of their winemaking heroes in Burgundy – Aubert de Villaine at Domaine de la Romanée-Conti – also didn’t have a winemaker role. “He referred to his role as director of operations, I think,” says Adelman. “We thought, ‘Oh, this is great, we share a similar business model as the legendary DRC!’”  

While Clendenen’s story is well documented, Jim Adelman’s journey in wine is less so. It began when he met Bob Lindquist in the mid-1970s in his hometown of Camarillo in Ventura County when a 23-year-old Lindquist set up a wine tasting room and needed someone to help out. Adelman, then aged 17, was looking for a summer job so worked with Lindquist at the tasting room until Lindquist moved up to Los Olivos to work for John Rehm, the son of the owner of Zaca Mesa Winery, at a food and wine shop. On Lindquist’s second day in the shop, a 26-year-old Jim Clendenen came in to talk about wine and, over the next hour or two, the two realised they shared a bond and became instant friends. When Lindquist lost his job at the store (after attending a Kinks concert with Clendenen), Clendenen helped him get a job as the tour guide at Zaca Mesa. Meanwhile, Adelman had kept in touch with Lindquist and a few years later, when wondering about a future in wine and if he should perhaps get some work experience under his belt, he too got a job at Zaca Mesa Winery through Lindquist – which is where he met Clendenen and all their futures in wine became intertwined.  

“Jim and his first wife Sarah had just bought a home in Los Olivos and like a lot of us they couldn’t really afford the mortgage and so they rented a couple rooms out, one to a waiter called Matt, and one to me,” recalls Adelman. “Jim hadn’t started Au Bon Climat yet and was working part-time as a waiter at a little restaurant in Solvang called Belle Terrasse, but was mostly working on starting Au Bon Climat. Each day when I got home from working at Zaca Mesa Jim would grab a basketball and he’d say, ‘Let’s go over to Los Olivos School and play.’  

“So that’s what we did most days as it was just walking distance to the school and we played a lot of basketball. Jim was really good at basketball. Much better than me. And so he won most days, but it was a fun time and after we’d come back to his house and we’d eat well and drink wine and our conversations were probably about 50% basketball and 50% wine. At that point in time, Jim was a young guy who didn’t have a huge amount of money, but he was already buying a lot of wines very smartly and so we had good wines to taste from all over the world, and wine was much cheaper back then as well. Jim and I became very close.”

Artworks featuring Jim Clendenen in the style of Munch and Magritte, created by Katie O'Hara for Clendenen Lindquist Vintners

That was early 1982 and Clendenen’s wine collection, though in its infancy, was benefitting from a very productive previous year abroad. In ’81, his thirst for winemaking knowledge and experience had led him to take part in not one but three harvests – on three different continents: in the US, Australia and one at Domaine des Ducs de Magenta in Burgundy. While in France, waiting out a rainy few weeks for the grapes to ripen, Clendenen spent some time with Jean François of renowned Burgundy cooperage François Frères, meeting some of his clients and learning a lot about barrels. He was particularly impressed with (and influenced by) Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s unique way of using barrels. Esteemed importer and barrel broker Becky Wasserman also gave Clendenen the opportunity to meet and talk to all the winemakers she represented in Burgundy about their viticultural practices and winemaking techniques, giving him even more insight into French winemaking.  

In an interview for Wine & Spirits magazine Wasserman recalled Clendenen returning from an appointment she’d set up for him to spend some time with Gérard Potel of Domaine de la Pousse d’Or. “You could tell that something had transpired. Certainly, the discovery of the Burgundy Jim wanted to make would have contributed to it. I remember the way he looked. He wasn’t sitting back in an easy chair. He stood with his elbows to the side of his body; his whole body position was intense; it wasn’t relaxed. He kept repeating, ‘I want to be somebody. Those are the wines I want to make,’ he said. ‘I want to be somebody like Gérard.’”  

A large portion of Clendenen’s winemaking reputation can be attributed to his steadfast conviction to make wines similar in style to those made by the Burgundian winemakers he most admired. Even when, for a period in the 1990s, it was de rigueur for Californian wineries to make big, bold ripe wine, ABC maintained its focus on creating well-balanced wines of subtlety and restraint – delicious on release but with the potential to age. It was an approach that eventually paid off – as Clendenen joked to Elaine Chukan Brown in a Wine Institute webinar in August 2020: “I’ve been waiting 30 years to become an overnight success.”  

But even by the end of the 1980s, Au Bon Climat was on Robert Parker’s short list of the best wineries in the world, and in ’91, ABC was selected by British wine writer Oz Clarke as one of 50 worldwide creators of Modern Classic Wines. Dan Berger of the Los Angeles Times named Clendenen the Los Angeles Times Winemaker of the Year in 1992; Food & Wine magazine named him Winemaker of the Year in 2001. Germany’s leading wine magazine, Wein Gourmet, named Clendenen Winemaker of the World in 2004; and in 2007, Jim was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America. The winery itself has earned multiple Winery of the Year awards throughout the years – and continues to do so with the most recent coming from Antonio Galloni’s Vinous (2019) and Wine & Spirits magazine (2020, 2021 and 2022).  

“When they set up ABC in the early ’80s, both Jim and Adam wanted to elevate Burgundian varietals in Santa Barbara and emulate those French wines that they loved. They definitely did not want to put any New World spin on it,” says Adelman. “ABC was always the winery looking to pick grapes first at lowest sugar but always looking to make wines of balance, wines that went with food. That was such a big thing for Jim.”

Jim Clendenen looking out to sea on a trip to Antarctica in 2017

Jim Clendenen was a foodie long before the term was coined – and an accomplished and enthusiastic chef who loved to cook and to host. The relationship between wine and food was something he explored and celebrated every day – on his travels and when at the winery too.  

“Whenever people come to the winery – journalists, restaurant tours, retail, whoever it is, sure we’ll do a barrel tasting with them but we tell them that if they’re not going to stay for lunch, don’t bother coming because we want them to taste our wines with food,” says Adelman of the culture Clendenen instilled at ABC – where the winery lunches (which were often cooked by Clendenen himself) have, over the years, become the stuff of legend.  

“Wine is supposed to be consumed with food,” maintains Adelman. “You don’t sit at a table with 300 glasses of different wines to enjoy it all – you have a bottle with a meal – and that was something of huge importance to Jim; to make wines that went with food, and our wines were tested every day with food. Jim made a lot of Indian food, spicy food and that isn’t always considered Pinot Noir-friendly, but our wines always had enough intensity and power to stand up – even though those qualities didn’t come simply from sugar and ripeness.”  

Clendenen had a particularly acute palate and the gastronomic equivalent of a photographic memory. This allowed him to experiment very successfully with recreating all kinds of cuisine from around the world at home or at the winery. It also added a particularly useful string to his winemaking bow.  

“He drank a lot of wines from all over the world and he could remember all of them individually,” says Adelman. “He could remember how a wine he drank 12 years ago paired with something he ate. He could compare, say a DRC vintage he was tasting with one he had tried 10 years previously. So, he could understand where it was on its journey. His knowledge was vast and that was such a huge benefit to him as a winemaker. In the early days, whenever we were making wine and tasting together, I might say, ‘Oh, this doesn’t seem like it’s headed the right direction’ – perhaps the wine might show some reduction or some H2S – and Jim would say, ‘Oh no, it’s okay – it’s fine where it’s at.’ Or the other way around – I’d suggest that a wine seemed like it was on the right track and Jim would say, ‘No, we need to do something.’ I learned so much from him.”  

Clendenen’s ability to remember everything he’d tasted and draw on a mental library of references that he was more than happy to share with fellow winemakers made him a very special resource and a highly regarded consultant worldwide. Clendenen also built a physical “library” – a 5,000 square foot building with 35-foot-high walls all stacked with bottles of older ABC wines so that it would be relatively easy to pick out a particular vintage (such as a 20-year-old Chardonnay) to share whenever the occasion arose – and in the context of being served by Clendenen himself, it wouldn’t merely be a pleasurable experience, but an educational one too.

The Hitching Post 2's Frank Ostini (left) with Clendenen (right) in the mid-1990s

Clendenen’s generosity to share what he knew was simply part of his DNA. One winemaker who can attest to that is Gavin Chanin who began his career as a harvest intern at ABC and Qupé under the tutelage of both Clendenen and Lindquist. He spent several years learning from them as he progressed to become assistant winemaker for both labels. Now he runs his own winery, Chanin, in Lompoc Santa Barbara that makes wine with grapes grown in some of the vineyards Chanin became familiar with during his time with ABC and Qupé – namely Sanford & Benedict in the Santa Rita Hills, and Los Alamos and Bien Nacido in the Santa Maria Valley. “Jim gave me everything: an education, a career, a life passion, a craft,” he wrote by way of tribute on Clendenen’s passing. “And the amazing thing is that my story is not unique. Jim mentored half of Santa Barbara County as well as people all over the world. Marcel Giesen, one of New Zealand’s most highly regarded winemakers, credited Jim with accelerating the quality of all New Zealand wine by 20 years after Jim visited in the 1990s and shared some of those tricks he learned.”  

Clendenen’s thirst for knowledge never waned, nor did his love of sharing it. He devoted his life to spreading the good word – not just about ABC wines but also about the quality of the grapes being grown and the wines being made in Santa Barbara County.  

“He brought the world to us, and he exposed us to the world – he really was the greatest ambassador for wine from the Central Coast region,” affirms Frank Ostini whose restaurant, The Hitching Post 2, and Hitching Post Wines (which he co-owns with Gray Hartley) famously featured in the 2004 Academy Award-winning movie Sideways, the unexpected success of which also served to direct more wine lovers’ attention towards Santa Barbara.  

Ostini first met Clendenen in the early 1980s, when Jim was working part-time as a waiter. “I was a customer at the restaurant and it was clear that Jim was totally into wine – and with my family having a restaurant, he invited me to a wine tasting group he had started, and we became lifelong friends.” Ostini too was interested in winemaking and started to make Hitching Post wine around the same time Clendenen set up ABC. “Jim’s first commercial vintage was 1982 whereas I was making wine at home until 1984 and then I made wine commercially at a winery for five years for my restaurant brand, Hitching Post, but we only sold the wine in our restaurant,” explains Ostini. “It wasn’t until 1990 that Jim invited me to come and make wine at his winery. He’d just moved to a big facility which he shared with Bob Lindquist’s Qupé label and he invited me to come and make my wine there. We were a very small project in a big operation but we really learned our winemaking sensibilities being around that winery. As far as balance, European, Burgundian style – we learned all those techniques there. Jim would travel around and soak up ideas and knowledge – whether that was from Australia, Burgundy, Italy, South Africa – he went everywhere, telling people about what we were doing in Santa Barbara, and always came back with new ideas to share, to talk about and to try.”  

While Sideways helped put Santa Barbara County wine on the global map, there can be no doubt that Jim Clendenen was a central figure in the zeitgeist that meant the region was, by the mid-1990s, becoming known for producing the kind of subtle, balanced Pinot Noir wines that the movie’s main protagonist, Miles, waxes lyrical about. A 2009 Sonoma State University case study noted an increase in Pinot Noir sales of about 16% in the three years after the release of the movie.  

“In terms of being responsible for the increasing quality of Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara through the 1980s and 1990s, Jim was certainly up there,” says Adelman, “but it wasn’t just ABC that was making really high-quality Pinot Noir. Sanford Winery was, and still is, making really great Pinot Noir, and then there’s Hitching Post Wines, and consultant [and Pinot Noir specialist] Lane Tanner too. All these people were making better and better Pinot Noir all through the same time period while simultaneously battling against these big heavy red wines that were coming out of Napa. There were also a lot of big rich wines coming out of Paso Robles and Lodi wine regions, and even from Santa Barbara County too. What Jim did – besides stay true to his original vision of the kind of wine he wanted to make – was take on the responsibility of putting the whole Santa Barbara County on the map and really helping the area grow in terms of international renown.”

From left to right, Enrique Rodriguez, Jim Clendenen, Jim Adelman and Arturo Alvarez: the core ABC winemaking team

Whether he was speaking at a wine fair, a charity event or simply to a group sat around a dining table, Jim Clendenen had an innate ability to engage and enthral. His daughter Isabelle, now in her late 20s, grew up in a wine-obsessed household and witnessed her father speak to different-sized audiences around the world.  

“I imagine most people attribute travelling around to talk about your product as marketing, but Dad, he had headlight eyes,” she says. “When he was giving you his attention, it was like you were the only person in the world. It was this ability to connect with people in a deeply personal and powerful way that really made people fall in love with him. Since he passed, I can’t tell you how many hundreds of people have come up to me telling me how my dad was their best friend, because even if they’d only met him a handful of times, he always made them feel special. And the thing about it is, is that it was genuine. He was a polarising character because, by the same token, if he didn’t like someone, it would be very, very clear. He wore his heart on his sleeve, but he genuinely cared for and remembered all of these different people he met. I’m very lucky in that I seem to have his knack for remembering faces, but Dad also had the ability to remember [corresponding] names – and it all came from his sincere love of making personal connections and sharing his love of wine. That’s what really set him apart. And so while he spent a lot of time talking about ABC wines in a lot of different places to a lot of different people, I don’t think of it as marketing. It really felt like when you heard him talk, he was doing what he loved. Marketing came as a by-product rather than the main goal, in my opinion, and I’ve always found that incredibly inspiring.”  

Isabelle double-majored in Japanese language and culture, and cellular biology in 2017, and very quickly decided she wanted to work in wine. Equipped with an excellent palate of her own, she started out in the ABC tasting room but, being fluent in Japanese and with a deep understanding of Japanese culture, her role has naturally expanded to help promote ABC and the Clendenen Family Vineyards wine in Japan and to a wider Asian market. (Clendenen Family Vineyards was set up by Jim as a passion project primarily to explore more idiosyncratic and experimental styles than ABC.) That she should be fully ensconced in the family business comes as no surprise to fans of ABC. When Isabelle was born in 1995, in her honour, her father created ABC’s first blended Pinot Noir – a Grand Vin of sorts – called Isabelle that is made each year with the best barrels from at least six different vineyards.  

When his son Knox (godson of barrel broker Mel Knox) was born a few years later, Jim Clendenen created a Knox Alexander wine, made from the finest lots of Pinot Noir from the two estate vineyards at Bien Nacido and Le Bon Climat. Knox is currently studying communications at Temple University in Japan, and is also set to join the family business after graduation. “I’m very excited for when he gets back to California,” says Isabelle, “so we can really be a team. In a way, we’ve been working for Au Bon Climat all our lives.”  

There is, undoubtedly, a Jim Clendenen-shaped hole that can never be filled, both in the wine world and in the hearts of those who knew him. But with the familial, long-term winery team of Jim Adelman, Enrique Rodriguez and Arturo Alvarez (the newest member of the core team, Alvarez has been with ABC for over 20 years) remaining at the helm of Au Bon Climat – and with Clendenen’s two children picking up the mantle – his legacy looks set to endure for years to come. 

Browse all current Au Bon Climat listings, or read more about California. 

This article was originally published in Issue Three of FONDATA. 


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