All Wine Roads Don’t Lead to France

I met Claiborne Thompson in the early 90’s while on a wine exploration trip through the Edna Valley on the central coast of California.  Previously a tenured professor and Scandinavian Studies department chair at the University of Michigan, he and his wife and fellow professor Frederika Churchill stumbled on the winery scene in 1981, got bit and hung up the Old Norse Languages, Literatures and German professor academic life.

“I felt like I’d done it all, was in mid-life and wondered what else there was to work towards in academia,” Thompson shared in a relaxed way, indicative of his calming demeanor.

C & C’s first vintage in 1983 was created from a warehouse where cars would drive in then leave thinking they were in the wrong place.  Fast forward to the small, successful, present day straw bale designed winery.  When the ground broke in August of ’95, straw bale design was at the forefront of modern eco building.  C & C’s winery was the first commercial straw bale building in California.

“We hadn’t heard of straw bale buildings but our architect was familiar with this design”, said Thompson.  “We were a bit afraid about being quinea pigs but construction costs, energy savings and PR would be great.”  The design provides ideal insulation eliminating the need for heating or cooling.

Traditional old world wine making techniques prevail at C & C, as do old world grape varieties.  They are best know for Gewurtztraminer and it’s shy sister, Riesling, a modest wine that doesn’t show off and goes with everything.  Both are made in a dry style, similar to those in the Alsace area of France.  They have many loyal fans but do still get visitors who think the wines are sweet and reach for one of their popular Pinot Noir or other wines.

Alsacian wine styles were chosen to occupy an untapped niche.

“Fredericka and I love Alsace and its wines and have been there frequently,” said Thompson.  “More people have realized both Gewurtztraminer and Riesling are wonderful in a dry fruity style like ours and can commonly be found this way.”

The environment and its sensitivity is important to C & C, who is hoping to get SIP™ certified (Sustainability in Practice), through the Central Coast Vineyard Team, a California based 501c3 non-profit grower-group this year.  They are way ahead of most with regard to energy use with low electrical bills and no air conditioning due to their innovative straw bale building.  Recycled wine shipping containers are used and they happily accept them back for reuse.  Although they have an aquifer running through their property, they use drip irrigation and limit water use.

What’s in store for Thompson and Churchill?  They’re excited about their first small crop of estate Riesling this year and planting Pinot Noir next to the winery where an empty field currently resides.  Expect an event almost every weekend through the summer– from regular Friday afternoon “Sips & Songs” picnic style events to astronomy night with a buffet dinner, slide show and telescopes; to wine blending seminars, there is something for everyone.

I especially like their Clueless crossword puzzles.  Thompson is a crossword puzzle freak and invented a crossword wine label with obscurity, references to the winery and industry, and clues on the website.  It’s called Clueless because there isn’t room for clues on the label.  Clues are provided on their home page.  Solve it and find out about the wine inside.

Thompson is still excited about his career path after all this time.  It’s hard but gratifying and satisfying work, more than he ever dreamed.

Clay and Fredericka

Check out their website for the latest releases including the 2008 “Classic” Pinot Noir from Edna Valley, 2009 Cuvee Elizabeth Dry Rosé, 2008 Gewurtztraminer and 2008 Clueless White.

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