I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve forgotten a lot of things in the 30 seasons that have passed since the launching of Edmunds St. John. Forgetfulness has it uses, don’t you think? And there’s still so much I remember, too; I’ll share a little of it with you, if you have the patience for it; maybe just a highlight from each vintage, if my memory holds up.
Back in the spring of 1985, I was doing an exhaustive amount of tasting of wines from both Europe and California, trying to zero in on what kind of wine I really wanted to make. There were a couple of wines that kept tugging at my sleeve, both from France’s Southern Rhone region, wines that delivered a certain kind of pleasure that I felt ought to be attainable here.About that same time I’d noticed numerous articles in various wine publications which had managed to find their way into my hands, articles that suggested that some of those Southern Rhone grapes might be at home here in Northern California. Vinified thoughtfully, they might produce something special. One night at Chez Panisse, just around the corner from where we then lived, Cornelia and I were mulling all this stuff over, while we waited for a table upstairs. When we were seated and handed menu and wine list, I noticed a Syrah from Qupé, in Santa Barbara County. I’d never seen that name, but, having confidence in the restaurant’s wine-savvy, we ordered a bottle. When I got my nose in a glass of that wine, the lights went on! The Universe was telling me I was at the gate, and it was time to step on through!
Yet, I hadn’t been happy with the Syrah we’d acquired in ’85, but as luck would have it, in late summer of 1986 we stumbled onto the Durell Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, and brought in a few tons of their Syrah grapes in mid-September. In the midst of fermentation, one night, those grapes filled the entire winery with what seemed to be the smell of hickory-smoked pork! I have never encountered quite that same smell from any of the other 18 plantings of Syrah with which we’ve subsequently worked.
On a Saturday morning in February of 1987 Kermit Lynch and Francois Peyraud came by to taste. (The Peyraud family owns Domaine Tempier in Bandol, where Cornelia and I had visited in March of ’86, on our honeymoon.) We tasted, from cask, through all the wines from the 1986 vintage, and I was, of course, curious to know what the wines tasted like to Francois, but his face really betrayed nothing much at all, until we came to the lovely Mourvedre from Brandlin Ranch on Mt. Veeder. Quite abruptly his eyes lit up, he took in a deep breath, and slowly exhaled with a sigh, whispering softly… “la terre parle,” affirming my own sense of just how special that old patch of Mourvedre really was.
In the Spring of 1988, still on the hunt for new sources of high-quality grapes, I visited the Sierra foothills. Nobody in Napa or Sonoma counties was interested in growing much of anything other than Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (Durell, at that time, was an anomaly, and I felt extremely fortunate to have made that connection). I was, again, lucky to be introduced to Ron Mansfield, who happened to have a couple of rows of Syrah grapes that he was willing to have me work with. They were situated in a cool spot in the Apple Hill district, above Placerville, and the barrel of wine they produced in ’88 was quite something, though it couldn’t have been more different from the Syrah grown at Durell. It was much lighter in color, quite perfumed and savoury. A colleague of mine who knew his stuff tasted it and quickly said “ this tastes really good; it’s like Jasmin Cote-Rotie!”
Very shortly after that Ron agreed to grow more Syrah for us.
In 1989, we made wine in a new facility, in Emeryville, just down the street from where the old Oakland Oaks ballpark had been. On the night of October 17th, a few hours after the Loma Prieta earthquake , I drove over through the darkened streets of Emeryville, to punch down the Durell Syrah grapes that were fermenting at that time. The winery was totally dark, with all the power out. I turned on the headlights on our forklift, and was shocked to discover that a pair of puncheons of the ’89 Brandlin Mourvedre had rolled across the floor and come to rest over the trench drain. By that point we’d lost about 60 gallons of what was, doubtless, the best wine in the building.
Cornelia and I returned to Europe in the Spring of 1990, visiting Germany, France, and Italy. One of our stops in France was at Chateau de Beaucastel, in Chateauneuf du Pape, where the Perrin family had, that very morning, shipped plant material to the United States, to propagate their new vineyard in California, now known as Tablas Creek. In Italy we spent most of our time in Liguria, hiking in Cinque Terre, and eating a heavenly local ravioli-type pasta called Pansotti, served with a glorious walnut-sauce. The wine we drank with it was Vermentino! Upon my first taste I wondered out loud: “why aren’t we growing this in California?” A few years later I learned that in fact the Perrins had included, in their shipment of vines for Tablas Creek, the very same Vermentino grape. It was 10 years after that discovery that we were able, with Ron Mansfield’s help, to establish plantings of Vermentino in the Sierra foothills that would eventually produce our Heart Of Gold white wine.
On a Sunday in late October of 1991, a bird flew into the winery, emitting a cry that sounded like fear or panic. I was in the back, checking barrels. The light was weird up front. I walked quickly toward the ramp and the roll-up door, and saw the sky above the Berkeley-Oakland hills completely embroiled in massive clouds of black smoke. The world was on fire!
Late January of 1992, we held a blind tasting at Montrachet, in Tribeca, for sommeliers, retail buyers, and writers, in which we showed our 1989 Les Cotes Sauvages next to 1989 Vieux Telegraphe, 1989 Beaucastel, 1989 Chateau Rayas, 1989 Clos Des Papes, and 1989 Vieux Donjon (those last 5 all from Chateauneuf-Du-Pape). When the paper bags were removed, nearly all the tasters were stunned to discover the wine they’d identified as one of the great Chateauneufs was, in fact, our own Les Cotes Sauvages.
At first light, on a September 1993 morning in Dry Creek Valley, in the company of 3 of my jolly cavistes, I picked Cinsault grapes until a couple of bins were full, at which point we retreated to El Sombrero, in Healdsburg, for tacos y cervezas!
Peter Hoffman, who owned the Savoy restaurant in SoHo, in Manhattan, invited me, in 1994 to give an address on the difficulty of producing soulful wines in an era dominated by marketing and the positioning of wine as a symbol of prestige and luxury. (Or something like that.) The presentation took place in the context of a dinner planned around our 1986 Mourvedre from Brandlin Ranch.
At a dinner on a Friday night in May 1995, in Davis (before a Saturday seminar on Syrah at UC Davis) Alain Graillot, a renowned Crozes-Hermitage vigneron whose wines I’ve always held in the very highest esteem, sat across the table from me, and at one point during the evening, he said to me “you know, we have never met before, but I have your wines in my cellar.” At which point I said to him that I was just about to tell him the very same thing, but he’d beat me to it.
March of 1996 saw the birth of our first grandchild, none other than Noah St. John, who is now a freshman at Wesleyan University.
After helping with part of the ’96 harvest here for Edmunds St. John, my daughter Heather worked the vendange for our friends in Valréas, Romain and Nancy Bouchard. (One very long night of pressing Pinot Gris during our harvest, we discovered a small white mouse in the press, just as we were about to close the doors to press the last load. The little varmint was spared, and the wine, too! During that pressing Heather called from deGaulle to let us know she’d arrived safely in France!)
In January of 1997 our 1993 Grand Heritage Syrah was served at a State Dinner at the White House, honoring the recipients of the Medal of Arts, and of the Charles Frankel Prize Awards. (recipients included Edward Albee, Lionel Hampton, Robert Redford, Maurice Sendak, Steven Sondheim, Rita Dove, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Bill Moyers) We like to think of those gifted folks enjoying that Syrah!!
Olivia Edmunds, our second grandchild, was born in March of 1998, doubling the ranks of Generation 3 !!
Ed Durell sold his vineyard early in ’98, and, having lost access to grapes from the Brandlin Ranch the previous year, we began to look, once again, for new sources for topnotch winemaking material. The search led us to the Central Coast area, where, during the early part of the year we were able to secure a couple of very exciting sources that would harvest their first grapes in 2000.
In the Spring of 1999 Ron Mansfield and I drove together to Paso Robles to visit some vineyards there, and en route, Ron told me of a site formerly planted to pears, east of Placerville, at 3,400 feet elevation, the owner of which was now wanting to plant grapes. When Ron asked what I thought might do well in that spot, I lobbied for Gamay. After some discussion, and some tasting, Ron persuaded Bob Witters to plant 4 acres to Gamay, and a fresh Jolliness began to take shape in the Western Hemisphere!
April and May of 2000 brought grand-daughters Emily, Megan, and Anastazia into the family!
In September of that year, while taking a close look at the Mourvedre grapes at Rozet Vineyard in Paso Robles (our first harvest there) I noticed that the grapes also seemed to be looking at me. They appeared to be glowing. I tasted some—they were ripe! The wine they made was stunningly good!
For several years in succession, our New York distributor held his Spring Portfolio Tasting at Windows on the World, on the top floor of the World Trade Center. In March of 2001 we poured wine there, for the last time.
Toward the end of August in 2002 the very first Gamay grapes from Witters vineyard were de-stemmed into bins, and Bone-Jolly was born. It must have been the lightest red wine made in California in 25 years!
Aidan, our 2nd grandson, was born at the end of February in 2003! He’s the 6th grandchild!
The harvest in 2004 started on August 9th, the earliest harvest ever. Grandchild number 7 was even earlier than that, arriving on the 9th of April, though her name, Sophia, didn’t emerge until the next morning.
The Spring of 2005 saw two really important plantings occur for us. With Ron Mansfield’s help, we’d located a site for Gamay on granite-based soil, at Barsotti Ranch, the kind of soil in which Gamay can produce it’s best red wine. Thus, a few acres of Gamay were established in ’05, along with a planting, at a different location a few miles away, of both Vermentino and Grenache Blanc.
At a special wine dinner in the Spring of 2006, a colleague from Beaujolais mentioned to me that he was making a small amount of rosé from his Gamay vines. I was thunderstruck! What a good idea! So that year we made our first Bone-Jolly Rosé, from a portion of the grapes at Witters’ Vineyard, to the delight of many!
When we bottled our ’06 Rhone-inspired blend in early Summer of 2007, we decided to give it a new name: THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC. (We were giving Rocks and Gravel a rest for a while, since a lot of the grapes we’d used in the ’05 vintage were no longer available, and the wine in ’06 was SO different.)
Our 8th grandchild, Madeleine, arrived at the beginning of June in 2008, right after Cornelia and I attended Cornelia’s 50th high-school reunion! There were extensive wildfires in both Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, about that same time, and though Syrah is always a smoky wine for us, our ’08 may have been the smokiest ever.
The vineyard manager at Unti Vineyard called me in March of 2009, wondering if I’d like to buy some grapes. The Grenache and Mourvedre and Syrah they grow are really exceptional. They practice both organic and bio-dynamic viticulture, and the results are terrific, so of course we accepted. Thus was Rocks and Gravel reborn. And for the first time, we fermented and aged it entirely in concrete.
A couple of late Spring frost events in 2010 wiped out about ¾ of the Gamay at Witters, and a portion at Barsotti, so our overall production of red Gamay was down by over 50%, and rosé was down to almost nothing.
The first half of 2011 was cold and wet, and harvest began quite late. For the first time, we decided to only use Witters Gamay for rosé wine, and to make all the red Gamay from Barsotti, with great results!
Around Hallowe’en in 2012, the New York Times put our 2010 Bone-Jolly Gamay at the very top of its list of wines to serve at Thanksgiving, and we sold out of both the ’10 and ’11 vintages in about 3 weeks! Yikes!
We decided, in 2013, to move our production of Rocks and Gravel back into the place where we started in 1985, in west Berkeley. With the exception of a one-ton lot of Mourvedre from Unti, all of our grapes were harvested between the 19th of August and Labor Day, making ’13 the quickest harvest we’d seen to that point. (The Mourvedre came in on the 17th of September.) Spectacular quality for all grapes!
The 2014 harvest began for us one day earlier than the ’13, and the last grapes (again, the Unti Mourvedre) came in two days earlier than in ’13, thus making it even earlier and quicker. Quality was, once again, superb. But it was such a dry season. We wait for the rain, and wonder—will there be enough water for the vines and for the next vintage?
Egad! 30 years in 4 and one-half pages! Time for a long Winter’s nap! Peace to you, in this dark season, turning…
Steve and Cornelia
2013 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir – Best ever! In 2013 the grapes from Barsotti Ranch produced the firmest, most expressive red we’ve made thus far from Gamay. Jolliness in its wild state!
$22.00 per bottle/ $237.60 per case
2013 Rocks And Gravel – Maybe the prettiest Rocks And Gravel thus far, with exceptional focus, and fine texture. With two or three years of cellaring this ought to be a gem.
$29.00 per bottle/ $313.20 per case
2012 Fenaughty Vineyard Syrah Signature – Fenaughty perfume, starting with violets, working its way through smoke, and a sage-like savoury note. Classic structure, rich and long. People say this tastes really good right now and they’re correct. Still, I’m betting they’ll flip if they try it a few more years down the road…
$32.00 per bottle/ $345.60 per case