The Origin of Claiborne & Churchill, Part I: <br/>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