by Fred McMillin
for January 22, 1999


Winery of the Week

Bitten by Bacchus


The beginner was rolling barrels around the winery cellar for $6 an hour. Nothing unusual about him, except he was a bit old for such hard work (42 years old), and was the world's leading authority on ancient Scandanavian language. In fact, only a year earlier he was chairman of the Scandanavian Studies Dept. at the University of Michigan.

A year later, 1983, he had learned enough to know he loved the wine business, and was well aware that "I couldn't just be the world's oldest cellar helper." His name was Dr. Claiborne Thompson.

Claiborne and Churchill Winery

The Rest of the Story

Fortunately his wife, Dr. Fredericka Churchill Thompson, was equally enthusiastic about changing from teaching to trellises. Voila! The Claiborne and Churchill Winery was born, just south of the city of San Luis Obispo in the Edna Valley. Not wanting to become simply another Edna Valley Chardonnay producer, they concentrated on Gewürztraminer and Riesling. What do the critics think?

  • Author James Halliday—"Clay Thompson has focused on Riesling and Gewürztraminer, which he makes so well."
  • Author Bob Thompson—"Claiborne Thompson and his wife, Fredericka Churchill, produce a worthy dry Gewürztraminer."
  • Prof. John Baxevanis—"The Alsatian-style Riesling and Gewürztraminer are mouth-filling and intensely fruity, offering good value."

The Thai Connection

The Thompsons recommend serving these wines with spicy Asian dishes. L.A. Times authority Dan Berger tells of tasting them with the couple at the Thai-rrific Cafe in San Luis Obispo. He was particularly impressed by the Gewurz richness and complexity from subtle oak treatment, finding it "a marvelous complement to the Thai food."

Just the Facts

Winery—Claiborne and Churchill
Address—860 E. Capitolio Way, San Luis Obispo
Phone—(805) 544-4066
Winemaker Claiborne Thompson's Background - Princeton grad in 1963 (about that time my wife and I would drive to the university to see their 6' 5", one-man basketball team named Bill Bradley); PhD. at Harvard; Fulbright scholar; prof at U. Michigan; then disaster in 1981...bitten by Bacchus.


Something else important happened in 1982 to Edna Valley winegrowing, in addition to the arrival of the Doctors Thompson. On June 11 the Edna Valley was granted the status of an official federal American Viticultural Area in recognition of its distinctive soil and climate.

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


WineDay Annex

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Fred McMillin


Welcome to WineDay, the electronic Gourmet Guide's daily update. Monday through Thursday, WineDay presents a wine profile. Then on Fridays we present the Winery of the Week to take you through the weekend.


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