Encompassing the Charm of Alsace

A Brief History of Alsace Wines

Part of what makes Claiborne and Churchill so unique and special is our production of Alsatian white wines.  These wines  are virtually unheard of among novice wine enthusiasts.  Alsatian wines originate from the region of Alsace in France, producing delicious, high quality wines, dryer in contrast to their neighbors in Germany.  The German-influenced wines are often sweeter, but produced from the same grape varietals.

Map of Alsace Region of France


Wines such as Rieslings and Gewürztraminers are today generally misconceived as being “too sweet” in the United States.  This is mostly due to a sweeter style with higher residual sugar evident in these wines in the 90’s.  Many producers who work organically didn’t want to pick grapes before they reached total ripeness and didn’t want to add store-bought yeast to complete fermentation that indigenous yeast couldn’t.  This resulted in the wines retaining more sugar post fermentation.  Due to the popularity with consumers and some wine critics preferring the sweeter wines and rewarding them with high scores, winemakers were discouraged from changing their methods until more recently.


Vintners began to adjust their viticultural methods to define ripeness with lower sugar content in the grapes.  Winemakers have worked to achieve beautiful acidity and vibrancy rather than letting the sugars take over and being stuck with a syrupy product.

Gewürztraminer Grapes on the Vine


Embracing Tradition

Our take on Alsatian wines pays homage to how they were traditionally produced and enjoyed. Because of our proximity to the ocean, cool coastal breezes and morning fog create a growing environment similar to that of the Alsace region, yielding in Rieslings and Gewürztraminers with evident floral, spicy, and an array of fruit notes balanced with excellent acidity.  We celebrate a harmonious balance of fruit and oak, structure and texture.


For more information, click here for a fabulous article that goes more into depth on the history of the Alsace region wines.


Harvest 2016: Preparation & Predictions

With the beginning of August behind us, we are looking forward to our most exciting time of the year: harvest! The grapes are almost ready for their metamorphosis into some great wines. We have some special inside information into Harvest 2016 for Claiborne & Churchill from Winemaker Coby Parker-Garcia. Keep reading to see his explanation of how harvest works and his predications of how it will turn out this year.

Claiborne & Churchill, Harvest 2016

Harvest 2016 predictions:

Things are looking great for the upcoming 2016 Harvest! We are expecting higher yields of fruit compared to 2015. This year’s harvest will still be an early one, however, we will begin picking fruit about two weeks later than last year. Over the past decade we have seen a consolidated in the time span of which we harvest our grapes. There are some days where we are picking Riesling and Pinot Noir on the same day. So, we are seeing the ripening track close together.

How to decide when to pick:

We are expecting to start harvesting fruit in the next week. To decide when we start, it is important to test the fruit to make sure the flavor profile and sugar levels are at the right spot for optimal wine making. Coby makes frequent visits to the vineyards to sample the fruit, even the Riesling and Gewürztraminer vineyards in Monterey county. In the last days before picking, Coby is keeping a close eye on the forecast as heats spikes will accelerate ripening. August has had great weather for the end of the growing season with the morning fog and afternoons in the eighty degree range.

Next steps:

After the grapes arrive at the Claiborne & Churchill crush pad, it’s time for the next steps for Harvest 2016! This is where some of the processes differ from one variety to the next. See how it works for reds, whites, and rosé below!

White Wines:

All of the white grapes for Claiborne & Churchill wines are whole cluster pressed; that takes just over ninety minutes to extract the juice from the skins. After this, the juice is pumped into a tank to cold settle ( at 40 to 50 degrees) where the solids fall to the bottom and the juice is racked off its solids to another vessel for fermentation. The clear juice then ferments in the vessel of choice, which at our winery is either barrels or stainless steel tanks. Fermentation in the barrels takes about three weeks compared to the stainless steel tanks which takes five to six weeks. After that, they can be transferred into a new clean vessel.

Red Wines:

For the red grapes, we de-stem the grapes and leave them as full berries. For some, we even leave the stems on! The grapes then sit in fermentation vats for two weeks and get punched down 3-4 times per day. The grapes do a three to five day cold soak and then we inoculate with three different yeasts or allow for native fermentation. All red wines go through malolactic fermention (about 3months) with the exception of our Port. After secondary fermentation SO2 is added to the barrels and topped every two to three weeks. After aging for 8-14 months the wine is filtered and bottled.

Cuvée Elizabeth Rosé of Pinot Noir:

We pick the Pinot Noir a little earlier for the Rosé and then crush and de-stem the grapes into ¾ ton fermentation bins. After 17 to 24 hours of skin contact the juice is Saignée and racked into neutral oak red wine barrels. Select yeast is added, and the juice ferments for about 3 weeks to a month. The Rosé is then racked back into clean barrels and ages for 4-5 months.

A small percentage of finished white wine is blended into the Rosé to increase aromatics and fruitiness. The finished blend goes into stainless steel tank where it sits for about one month before being fined, filtered and then bottled.

We are excited for harvest 2016 to begin and are looking forward to making our ever popular Sparkling Wine, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as a new Grenache/Syrah blend. Check out our social media accounts for updates on Harvest 2016 at Claiborne & Churchill!

Meet Winemaker Coby Parker-Garcia

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.

Winemaker Coby Parker-Garcia

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.

Q & A with Claiborne & Churchill Winery’s Clay Thompson: “Why Gewürztraminer?” And other good questions…

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.

Claiborne & Churchill Winery Founder Clay Thompson

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.

Claiborne & Churchill 2013 Dry Gewurztraminer

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.

Gewurztraminer Grapes

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.

Gewurztraminer Grapes

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.

The Origin of Claiborne & Churchill, Part IV: “A House of Straw”

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.

Claiborne & Churchill Winery - Thompson Family

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!”

Claiborne & Churchill Strawbale Winery

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!

Claiborne & Churchill Strawbale Winery

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!Claiborne & Churchill Strawbale Winery

The Origin of Claiborne & Churchill, Part III: “Selling Wines that Nobody Drinks”

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.”

Claiborne & Churchill Dry Gewurztraminer & Dry Riesling

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.

Claiborne & Churchill Wines

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.”

The Origin of Claiborne & Churchill, Part II:
How To Start a Winery With No Money and Scarcely a Clue

In early August, 1981, I gave up a tenured professorship at the University of Michigan to move to California and start work as a “Cellar Rat” in a local winery, for $6 an hour. Fredericka and I had married on August 6th took Amtrak from Ann Arbor to San Luis Obispo, arriving just in time for one of the earliest harvests in history.

The Pinot Noir crush started during the second week of August, and I quickly learned that I had severely underestimated my fitness level. Crush work at Edna Valley in those days was extremely labor intensive; within a month I had lost fifteen pounds and gained a nice layer of callouses all over my hands. At the end of each 14-hour day I would return to our little apartment on Higuera Street ($330/month) sore and exhausted.

Regrettably, I did not keep a diary of those early days. It was abundantly clear that I could not both DO the job and also REFLECT upon it. It was one or the other. I had burnt all my bridges, and I had to succeed in my new career.

I had never been happier in my life.

Working in the “wine business” was a breath of fresh air after the stale and stultifying atmosphere of the university. Here I found co-workers who reveled in hard work, who supported each other at all times, and whose satisfaction came from creating a product of the highest quality.

I hasten to add also that it was a heck-of-a-lot of fun. The camaraderie, the horse-play, the pranking, the unrepeatable bad jokes: there was an esprit de corps I have never experienced before or since.

Edna Valley Vineyard Crush Crew 1982

In 1983, after two years of cellar work, crush and bottling, laboratory and even sales experience, it was time to take stock of my new “career.” I was never really on a track towards the title of “winemaker,” usually reserved for those who studied the subject at U.C. Davis. For a while it looked like I might be groomed to sell wine for Edna Valley and its parent, Chalone.

But what I really wanted was to make wine. Our own wine. Different, special wines. “Niche wines.”

In those days the advice was to make not wine that you liked, but that the market liked. “Make Chardonnay and Cabernet and hire a pretty girl” was the mantra.

Fredericka and I rejected this idea. Through our experience in western Germany and eastern France we had developed a love of the dry, fruity and well-structured Rieslings and Gewurztraminers of Alsace.

In the summer of 1983 we flew to Europe, took a train to the town of Barr at the northern end of the Alsatian “Route du Vin”, and back-packed southward through the vineyards and wine villages, sampling the wine and food and visiting and talking to the vintners themselves.

We returned eager to make wines inspired by the wines of Alsace. Still, we had no winery and no money. Happily, we were able to borrow a little from relatives, and then received permission from Chalone to start our wine production in a small corner of the cellar at Edna Valley Vineyard.

In the fall of 1983 we bought 30 used barrels and eight and a half tons of grapes and produced 563 cases of barrel-fermented, dry wines: 224 cases of Dry Gewurztraminer, 128 cases of Dry Riesling, and 211 cases of a blend of the two, which we called “Edelzwicker” after the Alsatian name.

Claiborne & Churchill's first vintage

Now we could joke that we had fulfilled our dream not only to “make wines nobody drinks” but also to “make wines nobody can pronounce.”

Next: Part III; “Selling Wines that Nobody Drinks”

The Origin of Claiborne & Churchill, Part I:
Mid-Life Crisis and How to Cure It

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.

Clay and Fredericka Thompson Wedding Photo

Clay and Fredericka Thompson
August 6, 1981

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