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Exotic Wines From the Central California Coast’s Eccentric Vintners

TIMES WINE WRITER

In California’s Central Coast, as in many of the non-mainstream wine regions of the world, you can find some of the most wonderful and eccentric people making some of the most exotic wines.

The stories you get here, similar to those you get in the hinterlands of Mendocino and Amador, the Rhone and Alsace, are more fetching and entertaining than those of the more traditional and successful wine regions, such as the Napa Valley and Bordeaux.

Indeed, though the Napa Valley and Bordeaux have their eccentrics, their own lovable nonesuch elements, they are few. By and large the people who inhabit the more successful wine regions of the world are concerned about image and position and making a “proper” presentation.

In the established regions, wine people dress more traditionally; beards are rarely seen; wine makers drive conventional cars, say conventional things, and are unlikely to go out on a limb when it comes to controversial topics. To these folks, such topics are off the record if discussed at all.

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Moreover, because of the financial success of the wineries in such established regions, second- and third-generation family-owned wineries are commonplace. Sons follow fathers, and no matter how unruly the kids were as teens, once they get into positions of responsibility, the beards and boots are swapped for Talbotts and Ballys.

Not so in the less well recognized wine regions, where so many of the folks wear torn jeans, drive 15-year-old trucks (occasionally with a dog or two in the back), don’t own a comb, and are wont to say whatever comes into their heads.

These regions are charming evocations of life on the farm, of a time before the wine industry was discovered by the auction set. Wine was then not a collectible, but a beverage reflecting the soil and the climate and the energy of the people who made it. The feeling one gets in regions such as this reminds me of the movie “Being There,” in which Jack Warden utters that classic last line, “Life is a state of mind.”

The Central Coast, with almost no second-generation wineries, is home to a lot of these newcomers to the wine industry, these dreamers, those seeking to gain, through fine wine and food, that state of mind, that life style. And it’s here you begin to get the feeling for what wine from the ground up is all about.

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It’s not about money as much as it is passion.

It was, therefore, quite a shock to hear about the people behind the Claiborne and Churchill winery, to find out that he has a doctorate from Harvard in Germanic languages and she is a foreign language instructor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. It sounded far more traditional than the norm for the region, I thought.

Then I met Claiborne Thompson and Fredericka Churchill, husband and wife, wine makers, dreamers, perfectionists. The story is, true to the region, from left field.

Clay, as his friends call him, had been a white-collar professor of Germanic languages at the University of Michigan, comfortable with life. Then in 1981 he turned 40 and hit, in his own words, “my own mid-life crisis.”

“I was wondering what I was doing with my life,” he said. “So I took a trip to California, to this area, and started talking to people in the wine business.” And he said the reception he got here was warm. “People all said, ‘Join us, we’re having a great time,’ so I did.”

Within weeks in 1981, he quit his job at the university and married Fredericka. Thompson says Fredericka “was the only one crazy enough to follow me out to California to pursue this idea to make wine.”

The Thompsons moved out and he took a job as a $6 an hour cellar worker at Edna Valley Vineyards, and began contemplating his own wine.

“But I didn’t want to make the 551st Chardonnay in California,” he said, so he chose Gewurztraminer as the variety he’d make. Now, that’s a step not many would have taken, considering the fact that Gewurztraminer is considered by wine marketing companies to be about as popular these days as leprosy. But Clay and Fredericka had gained an appreciation for the variety when they traveled to the Alsace region of France.

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“We like that region of the world,” said Churchill, “and we had the added incentive to go there: we speak German.” And of course Alsace’s history is one of German occupation and thus many of the people speak German.

Thompson soon left Edna Valley to take the position of wine maker at Chamisal Winery nearby, and he began making his own Gewurztraminer and Riesling at Edna Valley.

And the style he chose for his Gewurztraminer was totally Alsatian, which means bone dry.

“Gewurztraminer is one of the most versatile wines because it is so full-flavored,” he said. “In some ways, it’s almost like a red wine, especially the way we make it, very dry and not tooty-fruity.”

Indeed, the wine is fermented in barrels and aged in barrels for a time to intentionally knock down some of the overtly fruity, lychee nut characteristics. The result is a wine not for the meek, but conceived and dedicated to the proposition that it is a perfect companion for Thai food.

To show this point dramatically, the Thompsons and I met for lunch one day at a Thai cafe called, entertainingly enough, Thai-rrific in San Luis Obispo. There we had a series of dishes of varying degrees of heat, testing whether that Gewurztraminer or any Gewurztraminer, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

The 1987 version of Claiborne and Churchill Gewurztraminer, spicy and quite complex with a creamy finish, has a layer of richness not found in many dry Gewurztraminers (probably from its oak treatment) that made it a marvelous complement to our food.

Since then I have found that when the wine is served with heavily scented dishes (spices such as garlic, ginger and curry), Claiborne and Churchill Gewurztraminer mimics a rather complex Chardonnay in aroma and taste.

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The same goes for another Claiborne and Churchill wine, the dry Riesling, which has a faint petroleum note in an otherwise Alsatian-dry, complex form that renders it excellent for spicy dishes.

“I have a lot of problems in blind tastings with this Riesling because it is so different,” said Thompson, and he pointed out that in style and usage, the wine is more like a fine French Chablis than some simple picnic quaffing wine.

A visit to the Claiborne and Churchill winery in San Luis Obispo is a lesson on how to do it yourself. Located in a business park, the winery appears, from the outside, to be a machine shop or a book bindery. Inside it is Spartan. There are the old barrels (Thompson doesn’t want noticeable oak in his wine, so uses old barrels) and the barest necessary equipment to make fine wine. And to show you how difficult it is to make it rich selling Gewurztraminer these days, the winery has yet to buy a computer.

Considering the fact that Gewurztraminer sells so slowly these days, it takes a great deal of courage for a winery to commit its future to it. Then again, with the great interest in Thai food lately, and the natural affinity Gewurztraminer has for it, maybe the Thompson’s wild dream will reap a harvest even they never expected.

Wine of the Week: 1988 Roche Pinot Noir ($15)--This is a new winery in the Carneros region of Sonoma. The wines are made by Steve MacRostie, former wine maker at Hacienda. Roche’s first Pinot Noir shows great style, not to mention courage. MacRostie made the wine to accent fruit, not depth of color, so it is pale ruby in color and Beaujolais fruity in aroma. However, the taste is lush and deep and there is lively, crisp acid to help the wine age. A gorgeous first effort.


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