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.”