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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!
2012 Estate Dry Riesling: 2012 marked the fourth official harvest of our SIP (Sustainability in Practice) Certified Estate Riesling vineyard. And what a great vintage it turned out to be! Rather than releasing this soon after bottling (as we do with our Central Coast Dry Riesling)…Continue reading here.
2013 Pinot Blanc: Speaking of SIP, we are happy to source sustainably grown Pinot Blanc from our neighbors down at Laetitia Vineyards. This rich and mouth-filling wine delivers intense jasmine, peach, and citrus aromas while offering flavors of melon, toasted almond, and spice. Continue reading here.
2012 “Classic” Pinot Noir: Since the late 1980’s our “Classic” Pinot Noir has been a staple of Claiborne & Churchill. It has always been made to showcase the elegance and complexities of Pinot Noir from the Edna Valley. Continue reading here.
2012 Malbec: Malbec is back! It’s been over 3 years since we last released our Malbec, and we couldn’t be more excited to have it back in our line-up. Continue reading here.
It’s early September and harvest is in full swing here in the Edna Valley. Because of the warm and dry winter and the early onset of bud break, we’ve been ahead of schedule all season! In fact, a small lot of Pinot Noir was the first to be harvested, making it the first vintage in twelve years we’ve processed red grapes before any of our white varietals. With that said, we still have about 85% of our Pinot Noir to bring in from the Twin Creeks vineyards this Friday! This will account for a good majority of our wine. (No doubt it comes as a surprise to many that Pinot Noir is our largest production wine with five different bottlings awaiting release for 2015.)
This 2014 harvest also marks the sixth official vintage of our “Claiborne Vineyard” Estate Riesling. At 4:30 am yesterday the crew started picking our 2 acre vineyard, which yielded a total of 5.8 tons. Though this wine might not be released until 2016, our 2012 Estate Riesling will be available later this month. We were privileged to have our friends in Fialta (@fialtamusic) use our Estate Riesling vineyard as a backdrop for footage in their new music video. They were here at 5 am as the action was happening and crews were busy picking. Stay tuned for yet another great song and music video by one of our favorite local bands!
We now have 90% of our Riesling in and it’s only the second week of September! This is in contrast to last year, where we did not start picking until early October – just another reminder of this year’s early harvest. Heck, we might even wrap up harvest by the end of the month!
As we continue with our traditional winemaking practices, our winemaker Coby has also decided to implement whole cluster fermentation on small lots of our Pinot Noir and Syrah the last couple years. Happy with the results, he’s decided to whole-cluster ferment a larger percentage of this year’s fruit. The goal with whole cluster fermentation is enhanced aromatic expression, greater complexity and silkier smooth tannins. We look forward to the progression of these wines over the coming year.
What number harvest is this for you?
“This will be my 12th professional harvest, not including the two “learn by doing” harvests at Cal Poly.”
What music do you like to jam to during harvest?
It really depends on where we’re at during the season. If I’m out sampling grapes, something mellow. But if I’m doing punch downs or hard cellar work I like to listen to reggae or classic rock. And if I’m driving to go check out vineyards I enjoy listening to sports talk radio.
With such a warm dry winter and early bud break, how has it affected this year’s harvest?
This is definitely one of the earliest harvests in California history and Edna Valley history. It’s the first time we have ever picked Pinot Noir in August. Grapes are tasting very good at lower sugar levels, yields are average, high quality, no rot, and very good uniformity in the vineyard.
I would say the good thing about having such an early harvest is that you get it done sooner and life on the central coast during fall is some of the best weather. So we should be done harvesting all of our grapes by the end of September, which means that we will get to enjoy a little bit of October.
Are there any new wines in the works for the 2014 vintage?
We’re going to keep most of our portfolio the same with the addition of another Malbec. We are making a 2014 Malbec from Santa Margarita Ranch.
Which wine growing region has had the most influence on you?
I would say it’s a split between Burgundy and Alsace. These two regions are two of my favorite regions in the world, not only for how beautiful they are but the style of wines and the class of wines they produce.
What is your favorite beer to drink during harvest?
Anything that is cold and wet. Typically I like IPA’s however they can be a little big and a little bitter, so I would say Pacifico is probably one of my favorite beers to drink after a long day of work, it really quenches my thirst!
Veiw a list of Commnon Harvest Terms here.
In my previous two entries of this rambling “history” of Claiborne & Churchill, I described how in 1981 Fredericka and I left our former academic careers in Michigan behind and started a new life in the California wine business. I had managed to finagle a job as a “cellar rat” at Edna Valley Vineyard, where I got a thorough “education” in winemaking; two years later my mentor (the late Dick Graff) gave us permission to start making our own wine in a corner of their cellar.
So: in 1983 we borrowed a few dollars from relatives and bought 30 used barrels and 8 tons of grapes: Riesling and Gewurztraminer. Determined to specialize in “niche wines” inspired by the dry white wines of Alsace, we jokingly told our friends that we were going to “make wines that nobody drinks.”
Alternative White Wines
In the summer of 1984 it was time to sell these “wines that nobody drinks.” Where to start? Bear in mind that in those days wine was sold not in BevMo, not in Costco, not in Total Wine & More, Whole Foods, Vons, Albertsons, and other warehouse-type stores, but in “Fine Wine Shops.” Such shops had savvy wine buyers, a sophisticated customer base, and a limited selection of the most prestigious wines from California and Europe.
Somehow (the Edna Valley/Chalone connection was helpful), Fredericka was able to secure appointments at a number of fine wine shops in the Bay Area, in Santa Barbara, L.A. and Orange County. We grabbed some samples, hopped in the pick-up truck, and took off to sell these wines (that nobody drank).
To our surprise and delight, we were welcomed by the wine buyers with open arms. We were “a breath of fresh air”, bringing not just another Chardonnay, but fruity and refreshing (but dry) wines, “delightfully different” wines they all were fond of. They bought our wines, they featured us in their newsletters, they helped us sell out the entire vintage in a few months. “Hey, this is easy,” we thought.
Not so fast! It seems that while the wine buyers were excited by this new wine venture of ours, the wine-drinking public was still a few years behind the curve. Stuck in the Chardonnay/Cabernet rut, they had trouble adjusting to the idea of a Dry Gewurztraminer or a Dry Riesling.
Now began the hard work of promoting these wines, getting people to taste them, winning them over one by one. Gradually we increased production; our initial vintage of 565 cases became 1100, then 2500, then 3000. In the early ‘90s (still in our “warehouse winery”) we began selling direct to consumers through wine tastings and the wine club. We got a big boost when we completed the new winery in early 1996; we had a visible presence in the heart of the Edna Valley. The wine-drinking public took more and more to “alternative whites.” Tourism (and wine tourism in particular) increased dramatically, as people discovered San Luis Obispo (“the happiest city in America,” according to Oprah Winfrey).
We now produce upwards of 8,000 cases a year, still with our original focus on “Alsatian style” white wines. We’ve weathered three recessions and an equal number of “booms.” Last year we celebrated our 30th anniversary. Apparently we now make wines “that people drink.”
2013 Edelzwicker: We’ve been making an Edelzwicker every year since day one back in 1983. It has long been a favorite quaffing wine, something you can serve on all sorts of occasions, to all sorts of wine drinkers, from novices to oenophiles. Continue reading here.
2013 Pinot Gris: Pinot Gris has been a big part of our repertory since the late ‘90s. It’s much more serious than your typical Italian-style Pinot Grigio, as it delivers good acid, pear and white peach aromas, and a rich mouthfeel. We barrel ferment it in 100% neutral French oak. Pinot Gris serves as a great accompaniment to Lasagna Alfredo, Cioppino or enjoyed on its own. Continue reading here.
2012 Twin Creeks Pinot Noir: Since last summer, when we sold out of the ’11 Twin Creeks, many of you have asked when the new vintage would be released. Lo and behold, it’s back! Here at Claiborne & Churchill, we produce three different Pinot Noir bottlings, each with its own unique profile. Continue reading here.
It’s mid July, and as we look onto our estate vineyards, we see our Pinot Noir clusters turning from a youthful shade of green to its classic purplish hue. What does this mean in the world of viticulture? Well, it’s a clear indication that veraison has started. This French term means the “onset of ripening” in the vineyard. From here on out, the sugars in the grapes (in the form of glucose and fructose) will start to accumulate, the berries will soften, and the anthocynins (which gives the grapes its red color) will continue developing within the skins.
What’s interesting is just how early verasion has occurred. This stage of a vineyard’s annual growth cycle typically begins in the later part of July/early August. Ever since our warm, dry winter the vineyards in the Edna Valley have been ahead of schedule all year. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when we started noticing signs of versaison around 4th of July.
Though our young Estate Pinot Noir vineyard is looking healthy, we must continue working in the vineyard to ensure a bountiful harvest. Our newly appointed Assistant Winemaker, Zack Geers, has been leaf pulling this week to give better ventilation and fruit exposure to each vine. He has also dropped any excess clusters that might be bunched too closely together. This is an important process, allowing for vines/fruit to acquire the right amount of nutrients and also reducing the risk of bunch rot.
Do you love Riesling, “the world’s greatest white grape”? Well we do! And we celebrated it on Friday, June 20, with our inaugural “Romance of Riesling” event here in the garden at Claiborne & Churchill.
For the first time ever, we focused on only one grape varietal for an entire dinner/tasting/seminar. I should mention that we started the evening off with our 2012 Sparkling Blanc de Blancs; I can’t think of a better way to start a celebration!
Our dynamic duo, Owner Clay Thompson and Winemaker Coby Parker-Garcia guided guests through a pairing of Rieslings and tapas. Chef Russ Thomas of Two Cooks artfully prepared the five delicious courses. (see menu below)
Crab Snap Salad on Crunchy Yukon Gold Chip
Apple, Celery, Lime, Parsley, Lipstick Pepper, Shallot, Tarragon Aioli,
Pickled Chili & Lemon Cucumber Garnish
2013 Dry Riesling
Grilled Shrimp with Asparagus Purée
Garlic, White Wine, Flat Leaf Parsley, Bolio Toasts
2011 Dry Riesling
Soy Paper Wrapped: Red Miso Glazed Shiitake Mushrooms, Pearl &
Black Rice, Daikon Radish, Hoisin Chili Sauce
2008 Dry Riesling
Coriander Rubbed Pan Seared Duck Breast, Caramelized Shallots,
Crispy Won Ton Skins, Ginger Vinaigrette
2005 Dry Riesling
Chorizo and Pork Stuffed Cabbages, Pine Nuts, Raisins in Beef Broth
2012 Estate Dry Riesling
Clay & Coby opened their discussion to Q&A where they and our guests delved deeper into each vintage.
Guests were able to experience first hand what contributes to Riesling being the “world’s greatest white grape”: it’s made in a variety of styles, from ultra-dry to a sweet desert wine and everything in between! And it is so extremely versatile that it pairs with a wide variety of cuisines!
We continued this educational journey with a tour of our Estate Riesling Vineyard where Coby educated our guests on its SIP Certification (Sustainability in Practice) and its ability to grow in a cool-climate region such as ours here in San Luis Obispo wine country. This was the perfect opportunity to highlight our 2010 Estate Dry Riesling, which we bottle aged three years prior to its release. Many of our guests were surprised to learn that Riesling has great aging potential due to its naturally high acidity and pronounced fruit flavors. Aged Riesling exhibits wonderful nuances and complex flavors of petrol, diesel and minerality and our 2010 displayed this so well!
Pairing in the Vineyard:
Gourmet Artisan Cheese (from our local cheese shop, Fromagerie Sophie)
Ducket’s Caerphilly and Pont L’Eveque
2010 Estate Dry Riesling
We concluded the evening with a final pairing in our eco-friendly strawbale cellar/tasting room. This was definitely the icing on the cake!
Brown Butter Sea Salt Cookie (from our local Brown Butter Cookie Company)
Shortbread Cookie with Browned Butter, Brown Sugar and Sea Salt
2013 Riesling, Oliver’s Vineyard
2011 “Nektar” Estate Late Harvest Riesling
Thank you to all of our guests. This was an amazing evening of delicious food, great wine, and good company! We look forward to more unique interactive tastings of this type.
Please visit our website to keep up-to-date with upcoming events and new wines.
Join our Club to receive discounts and priority seating at such events!
We’ve selected six of our favorite recipes that would be perfect for your July 4th celebration. Included are some pairing suggestions, but feel free to mix and match! Try one or all of the following recipes and don’t forget to share your pictures with us (post your pictures to our facebook, instagram, or twitter accounts). #claiborneandchurchill
These tasty and refreshing feta stuffed watermelon blocks would pair wonderfully with our “Cuvée Elizabeth” Dry Rosé.
How about some spicy lemon shrimp skewers to heat things up?
Our Dry Gewürztraminer would be a great compliment to these savory shrimp.
via food network
For The Grill
Just in case you didn’t get enough spice with those shrimp, you better try this amazing andouille and beef burger with spicy mayo and caramelized onions.
Pair with our cool-climate Syrah.
via bon appetit
Now we try to round each meal out with some type of veggie, and this charred corn salad with basil and tomatoes is the absolutely delicious!
How about a little Dry Riesling with this guy?
via bon appetit
This red, white and blue potato salad is a patriotic twist on an American classic.
Our “Classic” Pinot Noir is flavorful yet delicate enough to pair with potatoes.
via taste of home
No meal is complete without dessert! Try out this berry tart with lemon cookie crust and top it off with a little “Douce Amie” Sweet Orange Muscat.
via better homes & gardens
Thank You to all our loyal Cellar Club Members, we appreciate each and every one of you!
To learn more about our Cellar Club, please visit us at www.claibornechurchill.com