This article was originally published in November 2020. Jim Clendenen sadly passed away in May 2021 at the age of 68 and is greatly missed.
More than three decades into his career, Jim Clendenen, the famously renegade personality behind California’s Au Bon Climat, is more establishment figure than young upstart. But he continues to push his wines forward, remaining tenacious in his belief that he – like all winemakers – can always do better
Over the years, we’ve been fortunate enough to share more than a glass or two of Pinot Noir with Jim Clendenen – the man behind California’s most progressive, game-changing name, Au Bon Climat.
Since he founded his winery in 1982, Jim has ridden the rollercoaster of critical acclaim and distain, determined to make restrained wines that don’t pander to the international palate. He founded the In Pursuit of Balance movement, his hugely successful “anti-Parker” drive, the aim of which was to create wines that went beyond a palate-pleasing moment for the critic, and more focused on long-term potential.
He works with some of California’s most highly rated vineyards, such as Bien Nacido in the Santa Maria Valley. His Wild Boy Chardonnay, with its unconventional label, is his entry-level wine. Although it is more opulent in style than his classic ABC Chardonnay, it is fermented and aged in French oak with clear Burgundian influence. If you’re intrigued about Jim, you can read the story of our last interview with him here, or you can get a taste for his unique brand of quiet controversy with some “best bits” below.
Jim Clendenen: in his words
Once you’ve won the Academy Award, they can’t take it away from you […] I don’t think that my style of wine ever changed, and I think Parker’s preference for a style of wine changed.
Parker felt I had an obligation to be poor and humble. And I just wanted to say to him, all you have to do is go into every garage in Bordeaux and every garage in Burgundy and open the doors: you’ll find a Mercedes. They don’t park ’em on the street. They’re not hanging around being poor.
I’ve got friends who’ve been generous to me for 40 years with their cellar, but now every time they open a bottle of wine, they tell me what they think it’s selling for at auction right now. And I’m just kinda going, this is what you worry about? Instead of what the wine is in the bottle?
The future for very expensive bottles of wine [is] finite. I can’t imagine there being enough people who really want to buy wine not for the sake of deliciousness.
We can make a good glass of Pinot Noir now, maybe we can make a very good glass of Pinot Noir sometimes, and so my pursuit is to see how far we can go from there.
I want longevity, I want intensity, I want complexity, I want all the things that are Californian fruit and sufficient acidity. I want a whole different dimension where you take the grape and you take the barrel and you take a little bit of work in between and you can make something that doesn’t remind you of grapes on any level.
The customer’s never right, but the customer often is smarter than I give them credit for. It’s amazing, you think they’re just a whole bunch of knuckleheads.
The truth in the wine business is everybody could improve.