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Claiborne & Churchill – Vikings, Riesling, and Crossword Puzzles

April 1, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 2 Comments

The road into wine is a varied path. Some are born into it and it is only a matter of time before they take the wheel. Some buy their way in, successful tycoons with enough personal drive and ego to play the high-risk game of world class wine production; often hiring others to do the driving for them. Still, others are drawn away from entirely different careers and career paths by the siren call of the fermented grape. Tragically, some are dashed against the rocks of reality even as others slip past the dangers to collect their reward. Milla Handley gave up a potential career in commercial real-estate, Paul Clifton was a firemen, Dave Potter was on his way to becoming a lawyer, Ryan Carr a graphic designer.

Of the people I have met over the past five months, Claiborne “Clay” Thompson has one of the more interesting paths into wine. Before he made a name producing Alsace wines of balance and charm, before he was a cellar rat at Edna Valley Winery for $6 an hour, Clay earned his Ph.D. from Harvard. So how did Clay and his wife go from Professors at Michigan State (he being a Professor of Medieval Literature and Languages and she of German) to producing award-wining wines on the Central Coast of California?

It was Jean-Pierre Wolff, another Ph.D. making wine in Edna Valley, who I profiled a few weeks earlier that encouraged me to contact Clay. “I suggest you also consider Claiborne and Churchill.  Very interesting and nice people”, he wrote in an email. I was familiar with the name and had seen plenty of their wine in recent years, but knew little if anything about it. Claiborne and Churchill made a decision when they started their winery 26 years ago, to focus on the wines of Alsace.  “We elected to focus on these white fruity varieties that other people made sweet and make them dry”, Clay told me. “We thought ‘probably people will just beat a path to our doorstep if we make the Riesling dry instead of sweet’”, he said with subtle sarcasm. “It took a little more work, a little educating…we had to do a lot of arm twisting to get people to try it.” As Clay spoke about his Riesling I thought about Dave Potter’s words from the previous week about the white grape. “It’s pretty”, he had said, “like a snowflake”. Clay has pretty Riesling.

Clay was very willing to invite me up for a chat at his Edna Valley facility on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo. I didn’t know what to expect from him. I read some articles on their hay bale constructed winery, (this is a whole other story and almost everyone focuses on this aspect of the Claiborne and Churchill’s story. Really interesting stuff and you can read more on their site) which was a first of its kind in California. I read that it was a trip to California that inspired Clay and his then fiancé Fredericka Churchill to give up their careers and move west and it was a backpacking trip in Alsace that inspired their desire to focus on the white wines of the Alsace region like Riesling. However, I didn’t know what to expect Clay Thompson.

Clay has sort of a James Cromwell thing going on. He is a tall and thin man with white hair and a gentle demeanor. He speaks softly, purposefully, and gives thought to how he might reply. Think Joe Biden and then think the exact opposite of Joe Biden. I could certainly picture him diligently at work on an account of Vikings of ye olde (The Viking and the Runestone – An Epic Tail of Bravery by Claiborne Thompson, which he could no doubt write). He would sit in a tall-backed chair drinking tea, bookshelves brimming with other scholarly works from floor to ceiling. In the background, would be a laptop and it would of course be open to, because like I said, Clay is a scholar and he recognizes my great potential in that arena.

“I told everyone I was doing an interview with Access Hollywood,” he told us with a chuckle as we followed him into the tasting room of his Eco-friendly winery. “So there is more to Clay than Vikings and Old World wine”, I thought. He repeated the joke about an hour later when another guests asked if we were doing an interview to which he replied, “yeah, this guy is from Access Hollywood. They also work for American Idol.” The man who asked, Eric, inquired how Clay felt about a wine blogger coming to ask him questions about his wine, to which Clay responded, “It happens everyday. I carry my fame well.” We laughed and Eric (see super slick picture of him in his blue vintage Mercedes Benz), who appeared to be a regular started to impersonate Clay. “Not only am I strong but I’m also handsome”. Clay then instructed me to make sure I “put that down”, which I am happy to do! Let the record note that you, Clay Thompson, who as recently as ten years ago was still carrying wine barrels around, is both strong and handsome! I also promised Eric that I would put this in the article. Eric, this is for you!

But to be sure, the man is still a scholar. He spoke three languages while I was there (English, German, and a little Swedish). I think he speaks more. I wanted to show off my Chinese, but he probably speaks that too and better than me. Remember that scene in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, where Dr. Jones is making that rubbing of the burial tomb? I used to pretend I was doing that when I was a kid. While living in England, Clay actually made such rubbings, two of which hang in his tasting room. “I lived in England a year. My family and I went around and rubbed these brasses. In the floor of the church there is a brass etching and the person is buried underneath.”

At one point, a debate arose about my surname, Kelterer. I had heard it meant winemaker in German and what better time to ask then when you are interviewing a Harvard PhD who lived in Germany and his wife (also a Professor who taught German) is also present. So after some back and forth, which included a guest who was tasting wine that day that just happened to be from Germany, it was decided that a kelter, referred to a large metal vat used for wine production. Clay found this funny considering why I was visiting him. I was born to store wine, which I regularly do, in modest amounts.

You hear a lot of people compare the Central Coast of California to Rhône, is that a fair comparison given that you are working with Alsace varieties here?

“You sort of have to take that with a grain of salt. Everyone who makes a kind of wine always says where they’re located is exactly like the wine in Europe…If there was going to be a Southern Rhône of CA it would be Paso Robles. Syrah grows well in both cool and warmer climates and John Alban down on Orcutt Road [in Arroyo Grande] is a pioneer in Rhône varieties and he would say it’s a Rhône region. We have been making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which are Burgundian for ages, since the 70’s you know? Not we, but the region. I mean people in Oregon say “look we are on exactly the right latitude, we’re Burgundy. This is Burgundian!”

Each location is unique, so people should just focus on the wines then?

“Exactly! No, I agree completely, let the wines speak for itself. We don’t have to have the crutch of being just like some place in Europe. We make our own wines. They taste a little different, they’re usually more fruity, get more sunshine. We used to have the words “Alascian Style” on our labels and we’ve taken it off now, because it’s our style.”

It was a trip to California that made you want to make wine. What is the story behind it?

“Two things happened. One is, I began to get disillusioned and slightly depressed about my current position as a Professor and it coincided exactly with turning 40, this midlife stuff. I got divorced, I bought a sports car. By coincidence, there was a conference, an academic conference in Albuquerque and then I went to visit a friend in Phoenix and I got invited to give a talk at UCLA. And then there was symposium up in Berkley….so I had this little California trip planned with my then fiancé. We rented a car and drove up the coast. There were just beginning to sprout up these little boutique wineries and I got interested in visiting them…So, I called a few wineries that were onthe way like Firestone, Zaca Mesa. At Firestone, I got a hold of this guy who was Vice President for sales and he said, ‘oh yeah, I was a French teacher for twelve years,’ and I thought, ‘my god, you can just become something else?’…Edna Valley was the third winery we stopped at and they had barely finished building it…There were two guys working there, the winemaker and the assistant winemaker…and they took us down in the cellar and we tasted different barrels and I thought, ’this is really cool’…’these guys like going to work and I don’t like going to work’. So I said, ‘how do you get in this business?’ They thought I had a lot of money and wanted to buy a winery and I said, ‘no, just work’, and they said ‘just get your foot in the door…we’re going to hire a guy next year for crush.’ So I said, well, would you be interested in a Harvard Ph.D.?’ So they kicked the question upstairs to the wine master, the guy who was overseeing the winemaking.…He was kind of a maverick himself, in fact he had gone to Harvard and studied music…The upshot is they said, ‘sure, you can come to work for us, starting wage is $6 an hour’. I went back, packed up, sold my house…got married, moved to California, and started a new job all in the same week.”

“When you get bit by the wine bug you will do anything to make wine. You’ll crush all day and then clean up all night and then go home at three in the morning and get up and do it again. I never looked back. I worked in the cellar for two years and they let me do everything, because there were only three of us making the wine. That gave me a chance to explore all the tasks…I was trying to figure out what to do with my position, because I was not on track to become the winemaker, because I didn’t go to Davis you know…I talked to this guy Dick Graft who was the head wine master….I said ‘I really kind of want to make wine, I’ve got an idea of the kind of wine I want to make’. And I explained this Alsatian dry fruity kind of wine and he said, ‘well that sounds interesting. Why don’t you start your production in our cellar.’ So I borrowed a few thousand dollars from my mother and uncle and bought thirty barrels and 8 tons of grapes and then I paid a fee for using all of their equipment and the space I occupied in their cellar. So that’s how you start a winery with $15 thousand instead of $15 million.”

Do you have a wine making philosophy?

“What I learned from Dick Graff was…that there are no little tricks to making good wine, it’s a very basic thing. You start out with good fruit and you don’t screw it up, minimal manipulation and so on. I still believe that…You just have faith in the grapes. The wine is latent in the grapes and all you are doing is bringing it out.”

Are there trends in California wine you are encouraged by?

“Grape growing has improved enormously. People are understanding where to grow certain varieties and how to grow them for maximum excellence. That’s encouraging. I will tell you what else I am encouraged about, is that a new younger generation is catching onto wine and they are not slackers and are really into it and that bodes well for the future. In fact, I’m really stoked on young people. We have a good source of young people out of Cal Poly, they’re enthusiastic, they don’t mind working hard. It’s all good values in the wine business.”

Do you have a favorite aspect of winemaking?

“Not bottling, not bottling! That’s the most tedious; it’s the most dangerous. Until you get the cork in the bottle it’s scary. Crush is obviously the most fun. The first day of crush is like magic.”

Who has inspired you in California wine?

“Well the original inspiring guy was this guy I have mentioned several time…his name is Richard Graff. He studied music at Harvard and he was kind of an eccentric guy. His mother, I think, bought him a little vineyard in the Pinnacle Mountains that was called Chalone. He started making Chalone wines, it was the late 60’s maybe, and they were just killer. The place was dry farmed; there wasn’t any water. His original winery was an old hen house…He was just obsessed with quality…He was the one that convinced me that you could make good wine without being a rocket scientist, if you get good grapes and you use good judgment and you bring out the latent quality in the grapes. That’s the biggest inspiration.”

Ridge comes up a lot with the guys I talk to.

“Absolutely, Paul Draper, he’s just golden to me. He’s smart and modest at the same time.” There were several ohhs and ahhs in this statement. “They have never sacrificed their standard to get scores. They make wines that you need to age for a while, they don’t’ make wines that are over alcoholic. They may take a little time to come around but they don’t make fruit bombs. It’s just a great, great place.”

The many winemakers that I’ve met who are uninterested in what their wines score encourage me. Claiborne and Churchill are not a huge facility, but they have their following and do just fine. They seem content with this. They don’t need a big score from the top critics to tell them what they are doing is right, they know it is.

Like Clay and Fredericka were nearly 30 years ago, I hope California wine is at a crossroads. Clay and his wife decided to go against the grain when the found themselves at a crossroad. With SO much focus in recent years on the debate between big over the top wines and the critics who love them, the nuanced wines supported by critics who love to hate what the other guy likes, and with many winemakers increasingly interested in making what THEY like, is there really a revolution in the mix? Time will tell. I know there is at least a small one, for I have met a few of the soldiers leading the fight.

For Claiborne and Churchill, they are making honest wines they like to drink. Clay subscribes to the “keep your hands off the wine as much as possible” approach. At the end of the day, if you put away the critics, if you close the big wine publications, and if you ignore the corporate shouting that tells you what you should like, there remains one simple rule to enjoying wine. I first came across the thought when I was reading Kevin Zraly’s publication “Windows on the World”; drink what you like. This is the only real rule you need to follow in order to enjoy wine. To this I add for winemakers: make what you like and don’t let anyone tell you different.

Claiborne & Churchill

2649 Carpenter Canyon Road
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
P (805) 544-4066
F  (805) 544-7012

If you are looking for a fun wine experience, order a bottle of the Clueless Red, whish is the title picture for this article, you know – Vikings, Riesling, and Crossword Puzzles. If you can solve the crossword puzzle, Clay will send you a prize. Pretty brilliant. Oh, and yes, he already sent a bottle to Will Shortz.

Currently there are "2 comments" on this Article:

  1. sarah Shotwell says:

    I happened upon this while exploring your blog, and have to commend you for this fantastic and worthy interview. I cut my teeth on Claiborne & Churchill wine, and these people taught me everything I know about the industry. They are so generous with their time and resources, and are truly good-hearted, talented and kind. I feel like its folks like these that make Central Coast wine special – no pretention, all quality and class and good humor.

  2. Wayne says:

    Thank you for the kind response Sarah. The Thompson’s are the finest of folks. In my travels, I have found a spirit of cooperation alive and well from Santa Barbara to Paso. This is not to say it does not exist else where, but particularly here.

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