Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie
April 21, 2015
Organolepticians # 90
We went for a hike in the hills south of Mt. Diablo last Saturday, in a group of eleven that meets yearly to walk for a few hours in one another’s company, get some fresh air and work up a sweat, then change into something fresh and stylish, and regroup at a tavern or a trattoria, to eat and drink, and to toast the birthday of the instigator of all this conviviality, our friend Ray.
We’ve done it enough years now, that it’s become not so much a ritual (though it’s certainly that) as more of a family reunion, and, in its way, a pilgrimage. We walk to honor the passing of another year, and the blessings of our growing and deepening friendships.
I felt really lucky that we could make this excursion on such a glorious April day, one which featured balmy temperatures, a landscape profuse with wildflowers, and blossoming trees, and the hillsides still fresh with greenery from fairly recent rainfall. A few weeks later and we might have seen only brown under the trees, and the hike may have felt much different, much less enlivening.
The date this lovely hike occurred was the 18th of April, and it’s a date I remember because on the same date, in different years, a couple of events occurred that have always stirred my imagination. The earlier of the two, in 1775, was the famous “midnight ride” of Paul Revere. More recently, and more locally, in 1906, “the Earth Shook, The Sky Burned” in San Francisco. Neither of my parents were yet born; my father’s father was a teenager in Salt Lake City.
Reminded of the earthquake, and the ride, I took it upon myself to see what other kinds of mysteries might have unfolded on April 18th, and found quite a list, a few of which I’m including, here:
In 1506, the cornerstone of St. Peter’s Basilica was laid.
In 1676, native Americans mounted an attack on European invaders in what is now Sudbury, MA.
In 1783 the shooting stopped in what later became known as the war for Independence.
In 1834 Charles Darwin sailed for Rio Santa Cruz in Patagonia.
In 1831 the Wilkes expedition set sail for the South Pole.
In 1861 the Battle of Harper’s Ferry erupted, on the same day when Robert E. Lee declined the offer to command the Union Army.
In 1881 Billy The Kid escaped from the Lincoln County Jail, in Mesilla, New Mexico.
In 1912 seven hundred five survivors of the sinking of the Titanic arrived in New York aboard the RMS Carpathia.
In 1927 Chiang Kai-Shek formed an “anti-government” in China.
In 1942 James Doolittle led the bombing of Tokyo, and other cities in Japan.
In 1946 Jackie Robinson made his debut at 2nd base for the Montréal Royals.
In 1949 the Republic of Ireland withdrew from the British Commonwealth.
In 1954 Nasser seized power in Egypt, becoming Prime Minister.
In 1955 the first “Walk/Don’t Walk” lights were placed in busy intersections.
In 1956 Egypt and Israel agreed to a cease-fire.
In 1958 a US federal court agreed to release Ezra Pound from an insane asylum.
In 1966 Bill Russell became the first African-American head coach in the NBA.
In 1991 the US Census Bureau admitted it had failed to count as many as 63 million people in the 1990 census.
It was nice, as you might imagine, to feel so far, in both space and time, from all the commotion. Even so, in the midst of nature’s splendor, I found my thoughts turning, again and again, to the unnerving lack of rain in Northern California over the last several years, and the looming Summer, and the amount of water needed by grapevines to produce a healthy crop, and the tremendous amount of water necessary to turn grapes into wine successfully.
The past two seasons have provided us with what are quite likely the best quality grapes we’ve ever vinified, and it seemed mystifying to me that that would be so, in a drought, since the lack of moisture would seem, at least intuitively, to suggest that things are out of balance, and would result in too little or too much of one thing or another in the grapes, and therefore, the wines, as a result.
Both the past two harvests were unusually early, and very short, and very rapid. Both years were marked by very early budbreak, warm temperatures, almost no incidence of rain during the growing season, and very consistent conditions. What I’ve tended to expect during warm seasons, when things progress quickly, and harvest comes early, is that the development of aromatics and flavor, and phenolic material (pigment, tannin, etc.) in the fruit will take longer to accumulate than grape sugar will, so there’s the worry that the wines produced might be especially marked by higher alcohol levels, thus making it more challenging, particularly with varieties that tend to ripen earlier, to produce wines with the subtlety, freshness, and delicacy for which I strive.
Yet what seems to have occurred is that, because of the very low moisture levels in the soil, at the point at which the grapes began to accumulate any sugar, the vines reacted to that signal by accelerating the development of phenolics, and of aroma and flavor, sufficiently so that, at the point at which the fruit tasted fully ripe, the sugars were still pretty low. And, perhaps most significantly, though the temperatures were warm, they never got really hot. Sugar accumulation seems to have occurred only by photosynthesis, and not by evaporation, and shriveling. That could have gone differently if we’d gotten, for example, the dry offshore winds we’ve often experienced during parts of harvest, accompanied by witheringly hot temperatures. To put it another way, we were incredibly lucky. And the wines, oh, the wines!
Now, the 2015 season is well underway, off to an astonishingly early start; some growers reported some budbreak in mid-January! Already there are signs of bloom in several divergent locations, at least a month early.
whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
inspired hath in every holt and heath
the tender croppes… and smale fowles maken melodye… (Chaucer)
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with Spring rain… (Eliot)
Bring me little water, Sylvie, every little once in awhile… (Leadbelly)
I’ve been reading the tea leaves,
I’ve been watchin’ the birds;
There’s so little I could tell you,
It might be nothin’ but words… (Edmunds)
2014 Heart of Gold (62% Vermentino, 38% Grenache Blanc)
A fresh glass of sunshine! Pretty, light (11.37% alcohol), fresh, and ravishingly deliciously, irresistible. $22.00 btl/ $237.60 per case
2014 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir Rosé The very jolliest bottling thus far (and yes, it’s true, it does get better every year!) Racy, crunchy, glug, glug!
$22.00 btl/ $237.60 per case
See “The Wines Page” at edmundsstjohn.com for other wines available!