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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!
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.