As our tagline says The Buyer is very much about “connecting the premium on-trade” and sharing stories and insights on how producers and buyers are working together to sell wines into busy sommeliers and wine merchants. Here we tell the story of how Richard Ellison, founder & managing director of Wanderlust Wine, was able to use a California Wine Institute buying trip to tie a new distribution partnership to bring in some of the late Jim Clendenen’s rarest wines from Santa Barbara into the UK.
Wanderlust Wine’s Richard Ellison on his passion for balanced Californian wines and why he is so proud and excited to be bringing the late Jim Clendenen’s Family Vineyards wines into the UK for the first time.
Richard Ellison was buying iconic Californian wines long before he ever thought of doing so professionally, never mind setting up his own wine importer business to source and build up one of the most exciting ranges of US wines available in the UK.
His love affair with the US and Californian wines, in particular, came when he was working in New York in his previous career in finance. “I used to drink a lot of Californian wine when I was there and got to see the diversity on offer and a lot of what didn’t make it to the UK” he says.
Ellison can quickly reel off four producers whose wines he would search the shelves of wine merchants in New York for: Ridge Vineyards; Au Bon Climat; Joseph Swan; and Turley Wine Cellars.
Little did he know then that a few years later he would be sitting down at the winery just outside Santa Barbara and meeting the family of winemakers located in the facility that Jim Clendenen and Bob Lindquist made famous.
“I would use the spare time I had to go and travel around California and go and see the people and the wines I admired, and I slowly started to build up a knowledge of styles and an understanding of what people were doing on the West Coast,” he explains.
When those thoughts started to evolve and build into the idea of starting his own wine importer business – Wanderlust Wine – he knew California would be the foundation for his range. Not only did he know the wines, but he felt they offered such great value for money and there was still a largely untapped market for so many of them in the UK. “The wines I’ve often drank and discovered over in the US really are top draw and not all of them made it in the UK,” he says.
At the time – around 2014-2015 – Burgundy was still relatively cheap and there simply was “not the focus on California as there is now,” he adds. We have subsequently seen the move away from big, tannic, heavily oaked wine, towards leaner, fresher, fruitier, lower alcohol styles which for California and the US was championed by Rajat Parr and the ‘Pursuit of Balance’ movement.
“That really opened the eyes of people here,” claims Ellison. “There was now this new wave of both younger and older winemakers all looking to make great, more approachable wine with lower alcohol that can still age beautifully.”
That gave Ellison and Wanderlust all the impetus they needed to start bringing in these wines to the UK. Over the last six years Wanderlust has slowly built-up a following amongst leading sommeliers, restaurants and independent wine merchants for his eclectic range of Californian wines that have never been seen this side of the Atlantic before. It now has a range of over 120 Californian and US wines.
“Aside from the big, extraction led styles, I was able to demonstrate that California had smaller producers making more balanced styles and the feedback was only positive with people very interested in what was going on. This ‘balanced’ style of wines that could compete with the old-world in its own way was the style of wine we started to bring to the UK.”
When the opportunity came earlier this year to take part in the California Wine Institute’s Kickstarter programme, that provides a bursary for UK importers to help fund a buying trip to the region, he jumped at the chance. “I was excited about what I could find and bring back post Covid,” he says. “I couldn’t wait to get back over there.”
Ellison says there is now a clear split between the wineries and the wines being produced in California. Instead of “trying to cover everything” some producers want to do the big extractions and still keep making fruit bomb wines over 15% and the other crowd are who are committed to lower intervention winemaking and turning to organics with overall lower alcohol wines.
“There are so many interesting wines being made now in California from a wide number of varieties from Roussanne to Counoise, Gamay Noir, Mondeuse, Nebbiolo, Fruilano, and Clairette Blanche. With climate challenges, certain winemakers are challenging the norm with what can be planted where, taking the varietal, soil and local climate into consideration. They are also doing so much more experimenting which is great to see,” he explains.
Which brings us back to the late Jim Clendenen. Ellison says it was the fact that Jim’s wines were always more balanced and more European in style that first attracted him to drink Au Bon Climat, wines Clendenen was making back in the 1980s and 90s long before Robert Parker came along and turned everything on its head.
“I always saw Jim as a warrior, proving he could make world class wines to compete with Burgundy from that cool Santa Maria Valley location. He stuck to the style he believed in all through his life.”
Combined with Bob Liquidst of Qupé, it was their experimental spirit and freedom to explore new ways of making wine at the winery they established that helped not only make their own brands famous, but also provided a platform and a home for other winemakers that they would invite in to make wine under the same roof, so that they could all share their ideas and philosophies.
Ellison had been keen to one day get to see the famous Clendenen-Lindquist winery and it was during his recent trip that he finally got the chance to go and pay the team and family a visit. A meeting which soon turned into an invite to stay for what turned out to be a long lunch with other local Santa Barbara winemakers.
“As soon as I sat down there was this big bottle of old Clendenen Family Chardonnay, a wine that Jim had made from his own vineyard ‘Le Bon Climat’ in small production. The Clendenen Family Vineyards label was established as a true passion project and legacy winery. Tasting the range of these unknown wines was like seeing an artist’s original paintings; the wines were such true expressions of things Jim really loved, like Nebbiolo and Friulano.”
Ellison had brought over some English wines and he was able to share them over the lunch, as well as demonstrate his long-standing passion and love for the kinds of Californian wine they were making.
“Being a wine merchant is a bit like having a record label and wanting to work with bands and artists that you really believe in. For me, drinking Au Bon Climat was like listening to the Beatles and Rolling Stones; the wine and the bands I grew up with. I told them how historic it was for me to be there and was able to really show my passion for these wines. I told them about my belief that California can make it in the UK and that it is the low intervention and balanced wines that are leading the way.”
He adds: “These wines deserve to be in people’s glasses in their homes and on tables in restaurants, drank and enjoyed by everyone that loves Jim’s style and vision.”
He says he is excited to be able to give the family label, Jim Clenenden label wines a new opportunity in the UK and see how they evolve over the years now that Jim Clendenen is not there leading the way. He is returning to the winery in September to work this year’s harvest.
“Jim’s spirit very much lives on through the wines we know and also through the winemakers influenced by Jim to make wines in the balanced, nuanced style”, he adds.
Clendenen Family Vineyard Wines
Wanderlust Wines has signed a distribution deal to bring in the Clenenden Family Vineyard Wines to the UK. The range includes:
- 2017 Friulano “Borgo Buon Natale”
- 2013 Viognier Le Bon Climat “The Second Coming”
- 2021 Mondeuse Rosé Bien Nacido Estate Plantings
- 2019 Chardonnay ”The Pip”
- 2017 Chardonnay Bien Nacido
- 2016 Chardonnay Le Bon Climat
- 2007 Chardonnay Le Bon Climat
- 2019 Pinot Noir ”The Pip”=
- 2018 Pinot Noir Rancho La Cuna
- 2013 Pinot Noir Rancho La Cuna
As well as the Clendenen Family Vineyard wines Richard Ellison was also able to strike deals and partnerships to work with new wines from Eric & Lyle Railsback, ‘Railsback Freres’ (Santa Ynez), Presqu’ile Estate (Santa Maria), Baxter Winery (Anderson Valley), Sabelli-Frisch (Lodi) plus, another of his all-time heroes Joseph Swan in Russian River Valley.
California Wine Institute’s Kickstarter Campaign
The California Wine Institute’s Kickstarter project is a stimulus package for UK importers to use help them source, distribute and sell Californian wines in the UK. iIt provides funds that can be used for buying trips, hosting tastings and dinners and working with California producers in the UK market.
“The stimulus helps UK importers with a solid commitment to California wines whilst also giving a boost to those just beginning their journey with California,” says Justine McGovern, trade director for the California Wine Institute in the UK, Ireland, UAE and India.
Edition 2 of the Kickstart campaign rolls out in September. To find out any more information contact Justine McGovern on firstname.lastname@example.org.