Claiborne & Churchill's Thirty-Year Evolution
October 20, 2014 – (San Luis Obispo, CA) Looking back over the last 30 years, Clay Thompson and Fredericka Churchill, owners of Claiborne & Churchill Winery (C&C), marvel at how stubborn they’ve been.
“We were always told ‘Don’t make wine for yourselves - make wine for the market,” said Clay, who was C&C’s winemaker until Coby Parker-Garcia took over in 2007. “But we just decided not to do that.”
Clay and Fredericka met while teaching Old Norse and German, respectively, at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s – a profession that became dull after 12 years. “When I was starting to make wine, I’d already had one career and been disappointed,” said Clay. “Integrity became very important to me after all the soul-searching I’d done. And it’s not integrity if you pander to the market. That’s business.”
Fredericka laughed. “Even though we struggled, it was a good move.”
A Change of Plans
Thompson was always an academically-inclined person, having studied abroad, and earned his PhD in Old Norse Language and Literature at Harvard University. He never could have guessed that his first professorial appointment, with the University of Michigan, would also be his last.
“I was invited to UCLA to give a talk on my academic subject and also to Berkeley in May of 1981,” he recalled. “Fredericka was visiting her sister in California at the time, so we rented a car and drove up the California coast, stopping along the way at a few wineries.”
One of those wineries happened to be Edna Valley Vineyard near San Luis Obispo. “It was really low-key,” said Churchill. “No one even knew there was a winery out there at the time, and there were just a couple of employees.”
This quick glimpse at the winemaking life spoke to Clay. “I thought, these guys like what they do, and they look happy. They work hard…and they like to work hard!”
That visit, Clay found himself signing on as the third employee of Edna Valley Vineyard. “They didn’t quite have me in mind – they were hoping for some young brute – but the overseeing wine master was [California pioneering winemaker] Dick Graff, and he was intrigued by the idea of having a Harvard PhD in the cellar for six dollars an hour.”
Clay and Fredericka soon moved to San Luis Obispo, Clay working at Edna Valley Vineyard full-time for five years, and Fredericka working at a bookstore and later teaching a few German classes at local university, Cal Poly. “We were newlyweds,” said Clay, “we had no money, and we worked all the time.”
Clay’s comprehensive understanding of wine developed in large part thanks to Edna Valley Vineyard’s lack of organizational hierarchy. “It was unstructured – there were no job descriptions. Everyone did everything together, which allowed me to explore all the different aspects of winemaking, including sales. Nobody went home until every job was done. There was a great spirit of camaraderie and mutual support.”
The idea to produce their own wine was planted just a few years into Clay and Fredericka’s new career when they traveled to Alsace, on France’s eastern edge bordering Germany. Fredericka was attending an academic conference nearby and the couple supplemented their trip by tasting wines in various neighboring regions. “Like everyone, we thought about making our own wine. Visiting Germany and Alsace, we thought, What about Gewürztraminer?”
And with that, Gewürztraminer, a little-known grape in the U.S. at the time, became one of Claiborne & Churchill’s founding varieties, along with Riesling. In 1983, making just 30 barrels of Alsatian-style white wines at night and on the weekends, Clay and Fredericka were already riding the Chardonnay trend that so many wineries were in the 1980s and beyond.
“I would make appointments with wine buyers at trendy restaurants in L.A,” said Fredericka, “and there was a great response.”
“Yes, the chefs and the buyers loved our stuff,” said Clay, “however we were a little ahead of our time, consumer-wise. But we were a breath of fresh air to those people who were tired of Chardonnay already.”
Despite the relative obscurity of their varieties, Clay and Fredericka’s “side job” soon produced close to 2,000 cases of Claiborne & Churchill wine, and the question of whether or not to take the plunge going full-time with the winery became urgent. In 1986, the two moved to an industrial park on the San Luis Obispo fringe to operate C&C from a warehouse until 1995. “This was a hard time,” said Clay. “We went through the first of several recessions in 1988, and all of a sudden restaurants weren’t buying wine. It was a struggle, but I usually tell people that even when it was bad, it was good. Even when it was really hard it was still a soul-satisfying profession to be in.”
With some much-appreciated critical acclaim came the need for a tasting room and a distributor. The property that C&C now occupies near the corner of Highway 227 and Price Canyon Road came up for sale, and though Clay and Fredericka were able to purchase the land, it would take six years and a small business loan to build the winery.
Today, when people think of the Claiborne & Churchill winery, they often think about the building itself, which was the first commercial use of straw-bale construction in California. Clay and Fredericka never expected to lead the charge with environmentally-sensitive winery design, but when they were approached with the idea, it stuck. “Straw bale just sounded interesting,” said Fredericka.
“We were told three things would happen if we went with straw-bale construction,” said Clay. “First, we would spend less on materials. Second, we would have lower energy costs because straw bale provides such great insulation. And third, PR would come our way because we’d be the first. And all three proved true.”
With its very visible position between the towns of Arroyo Grande, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo , distinctive wines, and forward-thinking construction, Claiborne & Churchill became an anchor in the developing Edna Valley wine community. Moreover, with the new facility came increased production and more experimentation with varieties, including cool-climate Pinot Noir.
The Godfather of Gewürz
In 2004, a young Cal Poly student came to Claiborne & Churchill to intern in the cellar, and within a few years, Coby Parker-Garcia would become Clay’s assistant winemaker.
“I was getting older and not doing so much of the physical work,” said Clay, who adopted the same “all-hands-on-deck” approach to winemaking that he’d experienced many years before at Edna Valley Vineyard. “After a while, I looked around and said, ‘Wait a minute. Coby’s doing all the work and I’m getting the credit.” In 2007, the title of Winemaker was passed to Parker-Garcia, an arrangement that suits Clay just fine. “He absolutely deserves the position – he does such a great job. And now, my new title is ‘The Godfather of Gewürz!’”
For more information about Claiborne & Churchill Winery, visit www.ClaiborneChurchill.com.
About Claiborne & Churchill Winery
Founded in 1983 by Claiborne (Clay) Thompson and Fredericka Churchill, Claiborne & Churchill Vintners is a small, family-owned winery devoted to producing Alsatian-style wines in California’s pastoral Edna Valley appellation. After successful careers in academia, Clay and Fredericka established C&C with a special focus on the dry, fruity, and food-friendly wines of eastern France’s Alsace region, namely Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and Riesling. Sourced from cool-climate vineyards that support these varietals’ naturally high acidity and elegance, C&C wines have won critical and popular acclaim for over 30 years. In 2007 Clay passed his position as Winemaker to Coby Parker-Garcia, who continues to emphasize minimal manipulation of both fruit and wine today. C&C’s straw bale cellar and tasting room – the first of its kind in California – is open to the public every day from 11 A.M. to 5 P.M. at 2649 Carpenter Canyon Road in San Luis Obispo, California. For more information, visit www.ClaiborneChurchill.com or phone 805-544-4066.