Claiborne & Churchill is a small, family-owned winery founded in 1983 by Claiborne (Clay) Thompson and Fredericka Churchill. Former teachers at the University of Michigan (Clay specialized in Old Norse Languages and Literatures and Fredericka taught German), the couple left the "Groves of Academe" for the vineyards of California in 1981 in order to start a new life in the wine industry. Clay began as a "cellar rat" in a local winery, learning the business from the ground up (actually underground), and soon the two were encouraged to start their own wine production in that host facility.
With its first crush in 1983 Claiborne & Churchill announced its special focus, producing 565 cases of Dry Gewürztraminer and Dry Riesling, modeled on the fruity but dry dinner wines of the French province of Alsace. Claiborne & Churchill now produces about 10,000 cases of wine a year, purchasing grapes from vineyards in the cool maritime valleys of California's Central Coast. About two-thirds of these wines remain our signature wines, the Dry Riesling and Dry Gewürztraminer, which are sold all over the country (and abroad) by a network of brokers and distributors. A variety of other wines, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as other wines in the Alsatian style (Pinot Gris, Dry Muscat, and an Edelzwicker), are produced in small lots and can be ordered directly from the winery.
In 1995 Clay and Fredericka completed construction on their new and permanent winery building. This structure, a noteworthy example of environmental architecture, is a "straw bale building," the first of its kind in California. With sixteen-inch thick walls made of bales of rice straw, the winery is so well insulated that it maintains a constant cellar temperature, without the need for mechanical cooling or heating.
At Claiborne & Churchill traditional European winemaking techniques prevail, including extensive use of barrel-fermentation and barrel-aging (even with Riesling and Gewürztraminer), minimal manipulation of juice and wine, "natural" or spontaneous fermentation using indigenous yeast, and limited use of SO2, all in the belief that the winemaker's task is to bring out the flavor and character that is latent in the grape. Our aim is to create pleasurable dinner wines in which there is a harmonious balance of fruit and oak, structure and texture.