Biz Buzz: Claiborne and Churchill owner reviews his second life as a vintner

Former professor of Old Norse languages started Edna Valley winery 30 years ago

March 3, 2011 

At 70, Clay Thompson is both reflective and forward looking.

“I feel like I’m at a height looking down at the past,” said the scholar-turned-winemaker. It’s been 30 years since the partial namesake of Edna Valley’s Claiborne and Churchill Winery moved to the Central Coast to start his “second life.”

Before that, he and wife Federicka Churchill Thompson taught at the University of Michigan. He was a professor of Old Norse languages and literatures and she an assistant teacher of German.

The Thompsons were inspired by the wines of Alsace, a Germanic region of France known for whites such as gewürztraminer and riesling.

They’ve remained loyal to those dry wines, adding pinot noir as it increased in popularity and became associated with the cool coastal regions around San Luis Obispo.

Like most local winemakers, Thompson enjoys experimenting.

“I make probably 16 other wines in very small quantities,” he said.

They are sold through the wine club and tasting room.

Pinot and reindeer

Thompson had occasion recently to revisit his “first life.”

“One of the high points of my academic career occurred in 1980,” the vintner said. “One of my ‘special specialties’ was runology, the study of inscriptions in the old runic alphabet.”

Used in Scandinavia during the Viking Age, the symbols have a handful of fans globally. Before he retired, Thompson assembled the world’s top runologists and organized the subject’s first international symposium.

“A year later, I had completely changed my life, left academics and started making wine,” he recalled. “But to my surprise, the people who attended that symposium kept it going.”

A Norwegian professor who had been a graduate student in 1980 contacted the Edna Valley winemaker to invite him to the most recent assembly. And could Thompson bring some Runestone Pinot Noir?

The wine was served at the symposium’s July dinner, paired with medallions of reindeer.

A month before the Oslo event, it was poured with dinner at Hearst Castle, when the Thompsons were Fine Wine honorees at the Central Coast Wine Classic.

Looking ahead

For decades, Claiborne and Churchill has proudly displayed the straw bale construction that insulates its building with no air conditioning.

The winery was an early member of the Sustainability in Practice certification program, designed by the Central Coast Vineyard Team. This spring, it is adding the SIP logo to the label of its new bottlings.

Only available wineries whose vineyards and operations meet standards for practices that support the long-term health of the environment and community are certified by SIP.

Clay Thompson’s commitment to forward-looking conservation programs earned him an honor, along with other local farmers, from the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden. Their work was celebrated at a Jan. 30 event.

Having recently turned over the reins of winemaking to Coby Parker-Garcia, such honors are making Thompson feel understandably nostalgic.

“I get recognized for my contribution during my ‘first life’ 30 years ago, and for my ‘second life’ at present,” he said. “A tidy full-circle.”

— Raven J. Railey

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