A psychologist friend of mine once told me that three of the biggest risk factors for stress are (1) a change of job or career, (2) moving to a new home, and (3) getting married. When I told him that I did all three of those in the same week, he said “wow, you’re off the charts!”
It all started with a birthday party I threw for myself in the early ‘80s (nineteen-eighties, wise-guy). I was turning forty, riding the crest of a successful career (tenured, department chair, published author, etc.) as a college professor in Ann Arbor, Michigan. According to the printed invitations I sent out: “Life Begins At Forty.”
Little did I know how true that would turn out to be. Within months I had grown unsatisfied and disillusioned with academic life, tired of petty departmental politics, and increasingly unhappy with the prospect of doing the same thing for the next 30-40 years. Classic “Mid-Life Crisis.”
In the spring of 1981, after attending an academic conference in Albuquerque, I travelled to California. I was invited to give a guest lecture at UCLA and then take part in a Seminar at Berkeley. At the same time, my fiancée Fredericka Churchill was in California visiting her sister. We decided to rent a car and drive from L.A. to Berkeley up Highway 101, through what we now know as the Central Coast.
We decided to stop at a few of these new things called “boutique wineries” on the way. Our third visit took us to San Luis Obispo, where we eventually found a small metal building housing a winery called “Edna Valley Vineyard.” At that time it was a small start-up, a joint venture between tiny Chalone Winery in the Pinnacles and Paragon Vineyard, owned by pioneering grape-growers Jack and Catherine Niven. Amazingly enough, I had actually tasted a stunning Chardonnay from those grapes at a wine event in Ann Arbor the previous year.
We found two fellows in their mid-twenties having lunch there (burritos and Negro Modelo). One of them gave us a tour of the cellar and let us taste some of the ’81 Chardonnay out of different barrels. Hello? Can you say “Wake-Up Call?” Can you say “Epiphany?”
“How do you get into this industry?’ I asked. “Oh, just get your foot in the door,” came the reply, “this is California, just go for it!”
–“Where would I get a job?’
–“Well, we’re thinking of hiring a (beefy) cellar worker to do grunt work this Fall.”
–“Would you consider hiring a 40 year-old Harvard PhD instead?”
To make a long story short, I talked my way into a job as a “Cellar Rat” at Edna Valley Vineyard, with a starting wage of $6 an hour. Fredericka and I returned to Ann Arbor, telling all our friends that we were “going to California to start a winery.” And that is how, in early August 1981, I (1) changed my job and career, (2) moved to a new home, and (3) got married, in the same week.
Stay tuned for part II!
Claiborne (Clay) Thompson
Claiborne & Churchill Winery