Beloved winemaker Jim Clendenen died at the age of 68 on Saturday night while resting peacefully in his sleep, according to Jancis Robinson.
Recognized and labeled as the “brilliant mind” behind Au Bon Climat, a prestigious winery in Santa Barbara known for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris, Clendenen received numerous accolades during the course of his illustrious career.
Robert Parker named Au Bon Climat (French for “a well-exposed vineyard”) one of the Best Wineries in the World in 1989 and 1990. British wine writer Oz Clark selected Clendenen as one of the 50 best creators of Modern Class Wines, and he was named Best Winemaker of the Year by the L.A. Times in 1992, then again by Food Magazine in 2001. The German food and wine magazine Wein Gourmet declared him Winemaker of the World in 2004, and in 2007 he was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America.”
Born in 1958 in Akron, Ohio, Clendenen remembered the times as the “culinary Dark Ages of America.” He later graduated with high honors from the University of California – Santa Barbara, with a degree in pre-law. But a trip to France when he was 21, with extended stays in the Burgundy and Champagne regions, changed his mind about law school and forever altered the course of California wine history.
As assistant winemaker at the Zaca Mesa Winery starting in 1978, Clendenen perfected his craft over the course of three vintages. In 1981, he also helped with the crush in France and Australia. As noted on Au Bon Climat’s website, “Three harvests in one year confirmed his masochistic tendencies.”
After starting his winery dedicated to Burgundian varietals in 1982, he built the business with capital reinvestment to the point where he was producing 50,000 cases annually, and in the process, Clendenen helped put the Santa Barbara area on the winemaking map. As a newly established wine region back in the late ‘90s, his efforts sourcing estate plantings in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties were instrumental in the area’s success.
Clendenen was known for his eccentricities, bright blue eyes, and outgoing personality, and based on the love he showed those around him, his heart was as big as his hair.
Nicolas Cornejo was the first employee hired in 1992 when Clendenen Vineyard Management was born. After many years working together, Clendenen graciously sold Cornejo the business when he retired in 2016.
His death comes as a shock to the food and wine community. Many on social media are mourning the loss of a legend in the California wine business.
Such a loss. One of the best. A genuine privilege to have known him. R.I.P 😥🕊 the big drinks party in the sky is gaining yet more legends one by one🍷
— Sophie McLean (@Sophie_McLean) May 17, 2021
Clendenen is remembered as a maverick in the industry, one of the rarified few that drives inspiration and rewrites the rules. He will always be remembered by all that he touched with his incredible wit, infectious energy, and passion for life.