Behind the Blog: Claiborne and Churchill Vintners

Doing journalistic work during a pandemic takes a hint of dedication followed by a heavy dose of luck. When brainstorming a topic for this article, my team and I chit chatted on zoom about our preferences between journalistic writing versus public relations writing, followed by discussing our preferences of Chinese food restaurants in San Luis Obispo, and dancing around how we felt about drinking water straight from the Brita water filter. Ultimately, we decided that writing public relations style for The Intrepid was the final story of our dreams for our final article as Cal Poly journalism majors.  

The thing about public relations style writing is that a conflict of interest is not an immediate dead end when pursuing a story, and because of this detail written in the fine print of our journalistic experience, we were able to do a story on my favorite entrepreneurs in the county, Claiborne (Clay) and Fredericka Thompson, the founders and owners of Claiborne and Churchill Vintners in Edna Valley. Claiborne and Churchill is only a hop skip and a jump past the San Luis Obispo airport, and the heavy dose of luck that made this story a reality is that I have spent every weekend for the past year working as a hostess outside the front doors of the Claiborne and Churchill tasting room. My team quickly bought into the concept of writing a story that involved visiting a winery, and soon enough we were on our way to creating literary magic. 

As entrepreneurs who took a leap of faith in starting their business, Clay and Fredericka Thompson are truly self-made, coming to an agreement that the loans they took out to keep their business going in the early years were pivotal in the winery’s existence today. The couple has always made wine with faith in the longevity of their craft, even when it took decades to convince the American public that Gewurztraminer and Rieslings could be dry, rather than sweet, as traditionally served in the U.S. Clay shared, “we had an idea and I think it’s important if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, to have an idea of something you want to do or make beyond making money,” and with that belief at the root of the winery’s values, the Thompson’s have successfully balanced being business-people and being community members, parents, and friends.

The dream team, as we are often referred to by ourselves and, by hearsay, the occasional professor, interviewed Clay and Fredericka over zoom and was able to hear the story of their lives firsthand, with a celebrity appearance from their cat, Riesling. Clay and Fredericka have lived the American dream in that they began their careers as professors in the Midwest before hopping in the car and heading west, feeling unfulfilled in their current careers and ready for something new. The pair ended up in San Luis Obispo, Clay began learning how to make wine, Fredericka found herself learning about business law at Cuesta College, and almost 4 decades they are preparing to make a sparkling rosé to celebrate the winery’s 40th anniversary, which will take place in 2023. Wine makers are apparently very good at planning ahead. 

My friend and colleague Grant Anderson was very taken with the Thompson’s story, sharing that, “[he] liked learning about how they found a niche in the winemaking business that separates them from other wineries. It was particularly interesting how their niche was inspired by the winemaking in the Alsace region on the border of Germany and France, a territory that has long been contested between the two nations and one that influenced the start of World War 1,” which goes to show how the winery has competed with the rapid expansion of the wine business in the Edna Valley by finding such a niche, as Anderson mentions. 

Our chief journalist for this story was Amanda Rondez, a powerhouse in her own right and an excellent team member, and her takeaway from this story was that she, “…enjoyed learning about how C&C was founded and Fred and Clay’s love for their wine and business,” which emphasizes the family orientated values and welcoming nature of the Claiborne and Churchill family. On a similar note, Johnny Crespin, the man with the plan and the coffee aficionado of our team, said that “[he] loved learning about the family values that C&C holds and shares with their customers,” which is case in point in showing how welcoming the couple was even over zoom with spotty WIFI connection. With Clay and Fredericka’s daughter Elizabeth (Lizzy) Thompson helping us along the way, our team felt ready to give up our careers in writing and start growing grapes, only hyperbolically, of course. 

We logged off our computers feeling both inspired and uplifted after a talk with Clay and Fredricka, and while the fear of the future that tends to lurk in the eyes of college seniors on the eve of graduation may not have given off the same warmth in return, we are thankful that the Thompson’s gave us a moment of their, and Riesling’s, time. 

You can follow Claiborne and Churchill Vintners on Instagram here.