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For over 30 years in California’s Edna Valley, we have quietly produced what is considered one of the most dependably delicious Dry Rieslings this side of Alsace, France. Always erudite, educational and entertaining, our founding winemaker Claiborne Thompson shares what he’s discovered about what many consider to be “the world’s greatest white winegrape.”
Is Riesling a German word? Any idea what the root of the word is, or its meaning?
Its name is a bit of a puzzle. It’s possibly related to the German word reissen, “to tear, to carve, to cut,” but attempts to explain this connection are pretty lame.
Where does the Riesling grape originally come from?
It’s origin is no doubt to be found in Germany, specifically the Rheingau. There is a reference to “riesslingen” vines in a document from 1435, written by a cellarmaster with the amusing name of Klaus Kleinfisch (“Littlefish”) to his boss, the Count of Katzenelnbogen (“Cat’s Elbow”). The whole story sounds to me like a Mel Brooks comedy sketch.
Do you know how old it is?
Really old, probably going back to Roman outposts along the Rhine.
How did you get into Riesling?
Well, both my wife Fredericka and I have connections to Germany, and Riesling is the German grape par excellence. I first visited Germany when I was 17, so my first wine experience was with Riesling. Fredericka’s mother is German (from the Rheinland), so she no doubt has a bit of Riesling running through her veins.
How does Alsatian-style Riesling differ from German Riesling?
When we started Claiborne & Churchill, we took our inspiration more from the (once German, now French) province of Alsace, across the Rhine from Germany. In Alsace, Riesling is king; it is the most planted varietal there, and nowhere else in France do they allow it to be grown. The Rieslings from Alsace tend to be drier, more structured and full-bodied than those in Germany. They are definitely not “sweet sipping wines.” (Having said that, it must be pointed out that these days German Rieslings are getting drier and drier.)
Where does C&C Riesling come from?
At Claiborne & Churchill we source our Riesling grapes from two regions: (1) our own Edna Valley, including our Estate Vineyard, and (2) Monterey County, specifically the Arroyo Seco area, where cold weather produces intensely aromatic grapes.
What are some typical aromas and flavors associated with wine made from Riesling?
One of the great things about Riesling wines is how they reflect a sense of place, of terroir if you will. But what all Rieslings have in common (if grown and made properly) is an abundantly floral and fruity aroma in the nose and a wallop of bracing acidity on the palate. In its youth you might find hints of apple blossoms, of peaches, of honey. As a Riesling ages it takes on more depth of flavor, and often develops a bouquet referred to by the off-putting word “petrol.”
What are the challenges to making it?
Riesling is a bit of a challenge to grow, because it is a late ripener and fairly susceptive to rot (including the precious “noble rot”). The grapes need to be pressed slowly and long, to get the best juice. Fermentation should be cold.
How long between pick, bottling, and release?
Riesling can be bottled relatively soon after it is made, but it needs a bit of aging before release. It is unfortunately true that most Rieslings are released too early (including ours) because people prize the youthful fruitiness more than the more profound flavors that the patina of age gives. Oh well, each to his own!
How do you most enjoy Riesling?
Riesling is famous for being the most versatile of wines and the most food-friendly. We enjoy it by itself as an aperitif wine (especially if it has a tiny touch of residual sugar), but it really stands out on the dinner table. I love it with poultry (Chicken in Riesling is a standard Alsatian dish), and fish, particularly shellfish. I think Dungeness Crab and Dry Riesling is a match made in heaven.
What other regions are making Riesling that you enjoy? (New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, etc)
Outside California, Germany and Alsace, good Rieslings can be found in Oregon and Washington, in the Finger Lakes region of New York , and in Australia. Each Riesling bears the hallmarks of its place of origin.
We will be releasing our 2014 Dry Riesling on May 1st 2015.
Making good wine is hard and exciting work, but getting these good wines safely into the bottle is something altogether different: hard and stressful work, you might say. Here at Claiborne & Churchill we can certainly attest to this; we’ve already bottled most of our white wines, having held three major bottling sessions in the first three months of this year!
The 2014 Dry Gewurztraminer, our most popular white wine, was bottled in January and has already been released to a thirsty wine club. February saw the Pinot Gris, the Dry Muscat, and the ever-popular Dry Rose ushered into bottles, and in March the Pinot Blanc, the Edelzwicker and the Dry Riesling (another signature wine) were bottled.
We now have a good handle on what the 2014 vintage has brought us, and we are very happy with how these wines have turned out. They taste fresh and vibrant, with beautiful aromatics, lush flavors, and great acidity. Sometimes a vintage brings quality to one varietal but not another, but the 2014s are all showing well in their youth, across the board!
Why was the 2014 such a good vintage? Ironically, California’s drought had a lot to do with it. If the dry and warm summer brought us one good thing (besides perfect beach weather), it was quality in the vineyard. Vineyards tend to thrive under a little stress, in this case limited water. A dry springtime and ideal weather during bloom and berry set helped create solid wines and above average yields. Moreover, during the peak of the growing season we did not see any nasty heat spikes. June was a warm month, but July, August and September brought us pleasant coastal weather, ideal for our cool-climate varietals.
Where are you from?
I am a California native, born and raised here in San Luis Obispo.
How did you end up in the wine industry?
Growing up working in my family garden I realized my love for agriculture, and after extensive travel to Europe and South America I knew the wine industry was my true calling.
When it came time for college I decided to study Agribusiness Marketing with a minor in Wine and Viticulture at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. I worked on the campus vineyard, learning the ins and outs of growing grapes and also took an internship at Claiborne & Churchill Winery in 2002. I would say this is where my love for winemaking grew and pushed my passion for wine even further.
At what point did you become winemaker at Claiborne & Churchill?
Under the guidance of our owner and founding winemaker Clay Thompson, I learned traditional European winemaking techniques and was quickly promoted to the role of assistant winemaker in 2004.
I supplemented this education with additional enology classes at the University of California Davis. And in 2007, I was officially promoted to head winemaker.
Can you describe your winemaking style?
I like to say I take a hands-on approach to winemaking. Get in and get dirty. As a winemaker, my job is to highlight the best qualities of each vintage. Each vintage is different and brings something positive or unique to the table. My job is to showcase the vineyard and vintage in each glass of wine. My wines are not the biggest, boldest, or most tannic. They show extreme finesse. My style is to make balanced wine that accompanies food that show solid structure, elegance, and age ability”.
When you’re not making wine, how do you spend your time?
When I’m not knee deep in winemaking, I enjoy the outdoor lifestyle here on the Central Coast with my wife Katie and daughter Callie. I like to surf, snowboard, mountain bike and grill on my downtime.
Gewürztraminer is a mouthful, in more ways than one. After 30 years of making, selling and championing wines from this lesser-known variety, Claiborne & Churchill Winery Founder, Clay Thompson, knows enough about its history, foibles and triumphs to be dubbed “The Godfather of Gewürz” by staff and all who know him. And with the recent release of C&C’s Alsatian-style 2014 Dry Gewürztraminer, this fascinating grape is most definitely on his mind.
What does this crazy German word Gewürztraminer mean?
Clay Thompson: “Gewürztraminer” is actually TWO words. The first part (“Gewürz”) is a normal German noun, meaning “spice.” The second part (“traminer”) is not a normal noun but a variant of a place-name, a town called “Tramin,” located in the German-speaking area of Northern Italy.
What are Gewürztraminer’s origins?
For decades we’ve all been spouting the party line that the Gewürztraminer grape originated in Tramin/Termeno, and in fact there are thousand-year-old records of a wine there called “Traminer.” Now along comes DNA research showing that Traminer is actually a variant of a somewhat obscure grape called “Savignin Blanc” (not to be confused with Sauvignon Blanc), and its home is northeastern France and Southwestern Germany rather than northern Italy.
How and why did you get into Gewürztraminer?
My wife [partner, Fredericka Churchill] and I were always rather “European” in our wine preferences. We were both very fond of German and Alsatian wines, so when we got this wacky idea to leave our comfy jobs in academia and move to California “to start a winery” (as if that were a simple thing to do), we took our inspiration from those wines. In the summer of 1983 we went to Alsace and hiked along the “Wine Road” from village to village, tasting the wines and talking to the vintners. We came back inspired and in the fall bought eight tons of Gewürztraminer and Riesling grapes from a local vineyard and made the first vintage – 550 cases – of Claiborne & Churchill.
How does Alsatian-style Gewürztraminer differ from, say, German Gewürztraminer?
It’s generally agreed that the Alsace versions of this wine are more aromatic than their German or Italian cousins. But historically there is another major difference between Alsace wines and the German wines across the border. In a nutshell: Germans make ‘em sweet, Alsatians make ‘em dry. Everybody knows how lovely the delicate sweet Mosel wines are (and how cloyingly sweet the inexpensive versions like Liebfraumilch are). And everybody knows how firm and dry and well-structured an Alsatian Gewürz or Riesling is. For years we have explained our C&C wines in this way. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve said, “try it, it’s fruity but dry,” I could have retired long ago.
Where does C&C Gewürztraminer come from?
In the early years, our Gewürz came from here in the Edna Valley, then from neighboring Santa Barbara and Monterey Counties, finally settling on the latter; especially the Arroyo Seco area, where a very cool microclimate produces wonderful aromatics.
What are the typical aromas and flavors associated with wine made from Gewürztraminer?
Some common descriptors are quite flattering (“damask rose” as one wine writer said of ours), and some, really weird (“cold cream”). The most common is probably lychee. Sometimes Gewürz goes through a grapefruity phase as it develops, and takes on rich and heady notes of ginger, allspice, and other baking spices.
What are the challenges of making it?
As Gewürz ripens on the vine, the famous spicy flavors and aromas start to develop just as the acidity starts to drop. It is important to catch this moment and harvest it before the acid disappears, leaving you with a very flabby wine. In the cellar, fermentation should be temperature controlled (i.e. cold), so you don’t lose all those aromatic esters.
How long between harvest, bottling, and release?
At C&C, it is always the first wine to be bottled, soon in the new year. It can be released after a few weeks’ bottle-aging, although there is something very special about an older (five to ten years) Gewürz, when it has acquired the rich and complex patina of age.
How do you enjoy Gewürztraminer best?
I enjoy Gewürztraminer best in months that contain a vowel, preferably on days that contain a “d.” But seriously, it is not only a great aperitif wine, but is also a great wine to pair with spicy, exotic, foods like Thai, Indian, Szechwan, and Japanese. It also matches up well with those in-between dishes, like pork, ham, turkey and salmon.
We are excited to announce the release of our 2013 PortObispo!
Port or “port-style” wines have always been a perfect accompaniment for a wide range of desserts and after-dinner snacks, from artisan cheese plates to savory cheesecakes and dark chocolate. We classify our PortObispo as a California dessert wine, rather than a port since only sweet, fortified wines that are aged and bottled in the Douro region of northern Portugal can technically be named port -or- porto.
When it comes to port, there are various methods and styles to making this classic wine. For instance: tawny ports age extensively in barrel, sometimes as long as 20 years. As it matures, the wine develops deeper, more complex characteristics while its color fades to a brownish, tawny hue. They range in sweetness, from sweet to medium dry. Ruby ports, known for its deep, ruby color, traditionally spend less time in barrel so it can retain more of its natural color, and sweet, fruity characteristics from the grapes.
Though our PortObispo is produced in more of a traditional ruby port style than a tawny port style, it is definitely influenced by the California-style of winemaking. Rather than, say, Touriga Nacional and Tempranillo, we picked late-harvest Pinot Noir from the Edna Valley and Merlot from Pozo Valley to make the 2013 PortObispo.
The ripe and juicy fruit is punched down several times a day, before and after fermentation to achieve maximum color and flavor. We then add wine spirits in sufficient quantity to stop the fermentation while the wine is still sweet (8.5% residual sugar/18.4% alcohol). The wine then barrel ages for 15 months in neutral French oak before bottling.
The end result is a bottle full of delightfully sweet dessert wine. Enjoy a glass of this smooth and balanced PortObispo with Stilton cheese or a flourless chocolate cake. In fact, our very own Robyn Tanner was kind enough to share a recipe for you to try out. Enjoy!
FLOURLESS CHOCOLATE CAKE
1 lb. bittersweet chocolate, chopped (56% cacao semi-sweet chocolate also worked)
16 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
1/4 cup strong coffee
8 large eggs
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease 9 inch springform pan and line bottom with parchment paper. Melt chocolate, butter and coffee together in the microwave for 1 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently until smooth. Using a stand mixer, whip eggs together for 5 to 10 minutes on high until very thick. Gently fold the eggs into the chocolate mixture using a third of the eggs at a time. Combine until no streaks remain. Pour the mixture into the prepared springform pan. Cover the bottom of the pan with 2 large squares of tinfoil and rest inside a larger roasting pan. Pour boiling water into the larger roasting pan until it reaches half way up the sides of the cake pan. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until a thermometer inserted an inch away from the pan’s edge reaches 140 degrees. Do not overbake! Remove the pans from the oven and let sit together for 45 minutes. Remove cake pan from roasting pan and let cool on a wire rack for 2-3 hours. Run a sharp knife along the cake’s edge to separate it from the rim. Refrigerate overnight. Before serving, remove the cake from the springform pan, slice carefully and garnish with powdered sugar and strawberries.
Though our name Claiborne & Churchill Winery is synonymous with Alsatian-style dry Riesling and Gewürztraminer, we have also developed a reputation for complex, layered Pinot Noirs from the Edna Valley of San Luis Obispo. We’re taking a look at our three staple Pinot’s: “Classic” Pinot Noir, “Runestone” Pinot Noir, “Twin Creeks” Pinot Noir and a brand new release our “Twin Creeks” Pinot Noir, Martini Clone.
“All three Pinot Noirs are very different in flavor profile, but similar in style,” said Winemaker, Coby Parker-Garcia. “At Claiborne & Churchill we do not produce an extracted, heavy Pinot Noir. Instead, we try to reflect Pinot Noir’s inherent elegance and complexity. All our grapes are grown within 3.5 miles of the Pacific Ocean, which helps when it comes to balance between acidity and fruit, as well as aging potential.”
2012 Classic Pinot Noir (1,222 cases produced, $28)
Since the late 1980s the “Classic” Pinot Noir has been a staple of our repertoire, and has always been made to showcase the elegance and complexities of Pinot Noir from the Edna Valley. With fruit sourced from Wolff Vineyards and Twin Creeks Vineyards, the 2012 vintage balances flavors of ripe cherries, herbs and spices and aromas of vanilla, cherries, and lightly toasted oak. The Classic Pinot’s smooth mouthfeel, silky tannins, and good acidity makes this wine a perfect match for wild Alaskan salmon, lamb chops, duck breast, and an assortment of cheeses.
2012 Twin Creeks Pinot Noir (236 cases produced, $42)
Production of the Twin Creeks Pinot Noir is extremely limited and sold primarily to members of our Cellar Club and in the tasting room. This wine is distinguished by its source: a collection of small vineyards on and around Twin Creeks Way, just down the road from the winery. These vineyards’ special soil and clonal selections help give the Twin Creeks its famous bold and spicy flavors, vivid cola and earthy aromas, and outstanding ageability. Pair it with lamb, duck, or beef bourguignon.
2012 Runestone Pinot Noir (173 cases produced, $48)
To produce the coveted Runestone Pinot Noir, winemaker, Coby Parker-Garcia selected eight standout barrels from the 2012 vintage, which he blended together to create a remarkably elegant yet complex wine. Fruit was sourced from Twin Creeks Vineyard, located on the west side of the Edna Valley, where the cool, coastal climate and heavy clay soils provides exceptional quality; as well as Wolff Vineyards, on the east side, which grows Pinot Noir that yields undeniably fleshy fruit-forward flavors. Together, these vineyards produce a wine that balances its soft tannin and velvety mouth feel with ample fruit notes. Our 2012 Runestone Pinot Noir offers vivid aromas of cherry, dried strawberries, and hints of oak. The palate is complex, layered with bright cherry, sweet raspberry, dark fruit and baking spice, with a finish that is ethereal and long lasting. A quintessential wine for pairing with winter fare, the 2012 Runestone Pinot Noir complements rack of lamb, sage-brushed turkey, and wild Alaskan salmon, and will continue to develop and improve over the next 8-10 years. Sold exclusively to members of our Cellar Club.
2013 Twin Creeks Pinot Noir, Martini Clone (126 cases produced, $46)
As mentioned above, our Twin Creeks Pinot Noir is a wine that delivers great structure, earth and spice notes, and outstanding ageability. As it happens, the four vineyards that make up the “Twin Creeks” bottling boast three different clones of Pinot Noir and two different rootstocks. With the intent to showcase the different Pinot Noir clones in our Twin Creeks Vineyards we decided to start producing small bottlings of each individual clone.
We are now excited to announce the release of our first ever clonal-select Pinot Noir, the 2013 Twin Creeks “Martini” clone. This clone has a rich history in California. It was originally brought to California from France to produce sparkling wine, but has since then been the basis for many exceptional Pinot Noirs. This Pinot Noir has a light ruby color and delivers beautiful floral and vanilla aromas with hints of sweet cherries and dried herbs. On the palate, the wine balances bright red fruit flavors, nice acid, and a youthful mouthfeel. You might want to open this wine a couple of hours prior to serving, or decant it if you wish. This Pinot will age nicely for the next 7-9 years. Sold exclusively to members of our Cellar Club.
Friday, February 20 | 6PM
Club: $75 | General $95
Kick off this exciting weekend on Friday with a gourmet winemaker dinner highlighting notable vintages of wines from our cellar. This will be a fun and educational dinner guided by our winemaker Coby Parker-Garcia and owner Clay Thompson. Enjoy six unique courses perfectly paired with Claiborne & Churchill Library Wines. *Limited Seating Available*
Saturday, February 21 | 1-4PM
Wine Library Grand Tasting
Club: $15 | General: $25
Experience a tasting showcasing the best vintages of our library wines. You’ll have the opportunity to taste and purchase from among two dozen white and red wines which have been carefully cellared for several years.
Sunday, February 22 | 11-4PM
Wine and Cheese Pairing
Club: $15 | $20
“Wine down” on Sunday in our garden patio with a flight of library wines and a gourmet cheese plate by Fromagerie Sophie. Each cheese has been specially selected to pair with these stellar wines.
The Wine Library Weekend is the perfect opportunity to taste and
broaden your palate with these rare and limited production wines!
PURCHASE TICKETS at WWW.CLAIBORNECHURCHILL.COM
or CALL US AT (805) 544-4066.
We hope you enjoy our Holiday Wine Tasting Notes Video by Owner Clay Thompson and Winemaker Coby Parker-Garcia.
2013 Chardonnay, Righetti Vineyard: Whether it’s rosemary-roasted Cornish game hen or butternut squash and pumpkin ravioli, serving up a glass of Chardonnay from the Edna Valley AVA is a guaranteed way to bring out the most in your meal. Continue reading here.
2012 “Runestone” Pinot Noir: After its 8 month absence, our limited production, barrel-selected Runestone Pinot Noir is back! Winemaker Coby Parker-Garcia selected 8 standout barrels from the 2012 vintage, which he blended together to create a remarkably elegant, yet complex wine. Contiunue reading here.
2012 Clueless Red: Starting with the 2008 vintage, we released a new blend with a “puzzling” wine label by the name of Clueless Red. It bore nothing more than a crossword puzzle. The puzzles and blends changed every year, sparking excitement with every vintage. Continue reading here.
Thanksgiving and other holiday meals have always been interesting for those who care about wine-and-food pairings. The wide array of different spices and sweetness levels at the traditional Thanksgiving dinner table presents challenges, and probably no one wine can solve the problem alone (though many would propose Dry Gewürztraminer as a solution). However, some wines (Cabernet, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc) would likely be ruled out altogether. At the Thompson’s table, where ten or twelve people of different ages and different tastes are seated, they solve the problem by opening one or two Alsatian-styled wines (Gewürztraminer and/or Riesling) and a Pinot Noir. These represent the most adaptable and food-friendly wines we know!
The Thompson’s have served this Sweet Potato Soufflé at their Thanksgiving dinner for over thirty years. We think it adds a light and elegant touch to a meal that can otherwise get a little heavy.
Prepare the sweet potatoes by boiling them in water, peeling off the skin and chopping them into chunks, or by baking them in the oven, halving them and scooping out the pulp. In a Cuisinart or other food processor puree the sweet potatoes along with the brown sugar, melted butter, egg yolks, lemon rind and orange juice. When completely blended pour into a buttered baking or soufflé dish.
In another bowl beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold them gently but thoroughly into the sweet potato puree. Bake in a 350º oven for 45 minutes.
4 sweet potatoes
half-cup brown sugar
half-cup melted butter
4 egg yolks
1 Tbs. grated lemon rind
1 cup orange juice
4 egg whites
PRINT RECIPE >>
View Wine Region News cooking demo with Clay Thompson >>
In previous installments of this brief “history” of Claiborne & Churchill, I have described how in 1981 Fredericka and I left our academic careers in Michigan behind and started a new life in the California wine industry. The first three vintages of our own wine (1983-85) were produced in a small corner of the Edna Valley Cellar, where I had finagled a job as a “cellar rat.”
In 1986 I left my job at Edna Valley, and we moved our production into a warehouse unit in a San Luis Obispo industrial park fondly known as “The Gourmet Ghetto.” (Both San Luis Sourdough and The Spice Hunter, hugely successful businesses, had begun there.)
In the hopes of establishing our own vineyard and winery, we searched far and wide for a property we could afford, and in 1990 finally purchased a six-acre parcel in the heart of the Edna Valley, with frontage right on Highway 227. An older house and a newer one stood at either end, with a large field in between, once used for dairy cows and then for horses. It was on this field that we wished to build our new winery.
We wanted a winery building that would fit the rustic, rural environment, and on the recommendation of a friend we hired an architect (Marilyn Farmer) known for her dedication to environmental concerns and sustainability. We had in mind an old-fashioned country barn, and this was indeed the first sketch we were presented with.
Our architect, however, had another idea to “pitch” to us: Straw BaleConstruction. She showed us a video of this kind of “environmental architecture”, where stacked bales of straw (recycled from the stubble in the rice fields north of Sacramento) form the walls of a building. We were a little hesitant at first, but we were promised three things: (1) lower construction costs (no 2×4 studs, no dry wall, no fiberglass insulation), (2) ongoing energy savings (the bales rated at R-65), and positive PR, since we were doing our part to “save the planet!”
We took the challenge and with the help of an SBA loan through our local banker (with whom we still bank some 31 years later)., we broke ground in August of 1995. The grading an excavating was done, the pad was poured, the post-and-beam structure was built within a couple of months. We then brought in a truck of 400 bales of rice straw, and scheduled a “barn raising.”
The word went out through the community of environmentally minded souls, and on a crisp Sunday morning in November some forty or fifty people showed up, where under the supervision of experienced straw bale contractors they raised the four walls of our new winery. At the end of a long day we hearty meal of lasagna accompanied by a generous flow of wine!
By the end of the year (after a nasty rain-delay) the walls were covered inside and out with three layers of stucco, and it was time to move our production from the old warehouse in the Industrial Park to our new quarters. We accomplished this at the end of January (1996), working round the clock for 36 hours, to meet the January 31st deadline.
Our winery has the distinction of being not just the first Straw Bale Winery, but California’s first commercial straw bale building at all, nosing out a Real Goods store in Mendocino by a few weeks. It has inspired other straw bale wineries around the world and has delivered all the advantages we were promised. It has held up beautifully for all these 18 years, including an earthquake in 2003, from which we emerged completely unscathed. And, despite our fears: no bugs, no mice, no critters of any sort, no mold, no rot, and so far the Big Bad Wolf has not come a-calling!