Monday, March 27, 2006

Claiborne & Churchill

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I'm a firm believer that wine lovers love red and white wine. There's a whole world of interesting, charming white wines out there that're just dying to wash down that bite of tasty luncheon.

I discovered Claiborne and Churchill's dry 'Alsacian Style' Gewurztraminer a few months ago, and immediately stuck a pin in the Edna Valley map. It was a few dollars less retail in my store than my beloved Trimbach Gewurz, and had a bottle that said "We love Alsace, too! Give us a shot!" and I was not disappointed. I found a wine that showed the alluring floral/fruit aromatics that I craved, and have been a fan ever since.

The winery itself is an inspiring straw bale building, the first of its kind in California. The walls are made of 16" bales of rice straw and keep the inside a constant cellar temperature without using any form of mechanical heating or cooling.

It was an oddly dull, drizzly day in the Edna Valley when I drove out to meet Claiborne Thompson. He and I both were kinda out of it. We both secretly wondered how long it was until the cocktail hour, even as the wall clock mocked us with 1:15pm. Personally I was grateful he was as low-key as I was so I didn't look like a slacker. We had a nice chat.

Interview with Claiborne Thompson

C&D: I'm a really big fan of your Alsace wines.

Thompson: Thank you. But I've never maintained that our wines are carbon copies of Alsace. Fortunately, no one's ever come in and challenged me on that. Obviously, you can't duplicate something from another place. In Alsace they have a kind of earthiness and a sometimes a kind of oiliness that a lot of Americans don't particularly like, and in California you get this wonderful floral fruitiness that never fails because we have this beautiful weather.

How did your career in winemaking begin?

I had a career before this, I was a professor. Early in my life I got interested in languages because my parents were stationed in Germany. Spent a Fulbright year in Germany, got interested in the Middle Ages, and ended up getting a PhD in Scandanavian Languages. It was pretty far-out, esoteric stuff. And I got a job as an assistant professor, got the last good job in the country before things got really bad in academics. But I became disillusioned with academics, began to hate the politics...and there were other disappointments along the way. So during a year of soul-searching and wondering why I wasn't happy in my first career, I stumbled on the California wine industry...and got bit by the wine bug. One of the first wineries I visited was Edna Valley vineyard, it was brand new at the time...

What year was this?

1981. These two guys in their twenties took me down to their cellar and we tasted wine and I thought, wow, this could be fun, they like what they do. I talked my way into a job...I had to go to Dick Graff, who was the inspiration behind Edna Valley Vineyard, and asked him if I could get a a job as a cellar worker, and I think he thought it was a cool idea, to have a Harvard PhD working in the cellar for six dollars an hour (laughs). I sold my house, married Frederica and moved to California. It was a lot of fun, a fresh start, I was poor but happy, like being a starving student again.

We really worked hard, there was just a few of us making 25,000 cases of wine, but there was a great esprit d'coeur, the wines were good, quality mattered and quality was rewarded, everyone was mutually supportive.

A couple of years had gone by...and I told Dick I really wanted to make wine and I had this idea of a certain kind of wine to make, the Reislings and Gewurztraminers in the dry style, and I said, the reason why those wines are low on the list of bestsellers is because they're sweet and have no purpose on the dinner table. They were totally different from the wines that Edna Valley was making, so they allowed us to start our winemaking in (a little corner of) their cellar.

How do you make these wines?

One thing I learned from Dick is that there aren't any real tricks to making wine, traditional techniques work pretty well. I learned that if you start with good fruit and you don't screw it up, chances are it's going to turn out pretty well. So I concentrate on finding the best possible source for grapes.

Where do the grapes come from now?

Our main source is two vineyards in Monterey County.

What works for these varietals in Monterey?

Mainly climate. Californians believe climate is the most important thing...soil matters less. These are cool climate grapes, and the air comes down from Monterey Bay and, the guy who owns the vineyard I buy from claims it is the coldest grape growing area in the United States during the growing season. The other thing is the absolute care this guy takes in growing. He loves to grow for flavor and aromatics, he's a bit of a maverick. His goal doesn't seem to be to make a lot of money, but to make good wine from good grapes.

Has the style you've chosen caught on?

Really slow. I can't tell you how many times in the early days, we'd go to a wine tasting and people would pass by our table, see these tall bottles and just figure, no way, I'm not gonna taste those things, that's bubble gum wine, Blue Nun or something like that. It was really like pulling teeth to get people to try them. And there's this whole thing in California about, you have to follow fashion, and the fashion is to drink Chardonnay, and it's embarrassing if you have a tall bottle on your dinner table, it means you're not sophisticated or something. It's funny because, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If you learn just enough to think that you have to like dry wines, that's dangerous, but if you can move past that and realize that there's a time and place for every wine...then there's so much to enjoy. But recognition began to come and consumers caught up. We're at 10,000 cases, and we sell out every year.


Next up: a fun surprise for all you Land of the Giants fans....stay tuned, people.



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