(El Jaleo, the painting which hangs in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, just a few blocks from Boston’s Fenway Park, is the work of the American painter John Singer Sergeant, who painted it in 1882. It is a very large painting, and as compelling a work as any I’ve seen in my lifetime.)
At the time I first saw El Jaleo, in the late Spring of 2016, I had just recently visited Shake Ridge Ranch, which is located a few miles east of Sutter Creek, in Amador County, in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Shake Ridge was planted, and is farmed by Ann Kramer, whose meticulous farming has garnered her a good deal of very well-deserved acclaim over the last six or seven years, and engendered strong curiosity in me about whether she might be growing something I’d like to work with. The impulse to visit Shake Ridge, which arose when I lost access to the grapes that produced our last seven vintages of Rocks And Gravel, put my curiosity to good use; I signed up to buy some Grenache, and some Mourvedre, and also—some Tempranillo, and Graciano!
Making a wine from these varieties brings to that wine a whispered reminder of Spanish culture, and also of how that culture has shaped California’s past, and thus, still shapes its present. In imagining how that connection might be expressed in the taste of the wine, I was also made to wonder how it might be conveyed in the service of enticing someone looking at a bottle of said wine, to decide to explore it.
There’s a fellow in the center of the El Jaleo painting shown on this label, who has been transported, by the performance that surrounds him, to a different world; we can see only that part of him that remains in ours, yet perhaps we can imagine, from the look on his face, what has become of him, as his soul ignites! El Jaleo: the Ruckus that transports us! It can come from art, from poetry, from dance, music, theater, or wine. When I saw this painting last Spring, in Boston, all at once I felt I understood, in some fundamental way, what happened inside me when I first tasted good wine.
My entry into the world of wine, 45 years ago, came in a rush, in a moment marked by powerful emotion, and stunning surprise. I have spent the past 45 years trying to understand it, and each time I try to retell the story, to myself or to anyone else, I’m never quite sure if I even know how to tell it properly. It must be an important story since it is one I am asked to tell many times each year; I’ll meet someone who’s interested in tasting one or two of the wines, and inevitably that person will ask how I came to be involved in the wine business.
Here’s the short version: I was, in the Summer of 1972, an expectant father. My first wife, the mother of my daughters, was a home-brewer, and shortly after we became partners, I, too became a home brewer. One afternoon, in July of ’72, I walked the five or six blocks to our local home-brewing supply store, in the Richmond District in San Francisco, to purchase ingredients for a batch of ale. I was unemployed at the time, not yet having figured out what I would be when I grew up. (I’d dreamed of becoming a famous singer-songwriter, for some time, but was not sufficiently equipped in the self-confidence department to make much of a go of that, though I wrote lots of songs.) To my surprise, when I entered the shop to buy my brewing supplies I noticed a sign in the window that read: HELP WANTED, FULL-TIME OR PART-TIME. By the time I walked out with my purchase, I’d talked my way into a job.
The store sold not only the home brewer’s needs but also winemaking supplies and equipment, so they made it clear they expected me to learn about wine, too, so that I’d be able to advise and instruct home vintners. I assured them I’d find a way to fulfill that part of the bargain, one way or another, and it was settled. Figured I’d fake it till I could make it. Not long afterward, fate intervened.
I had a co-conspirator in the singer-songwriter plot, a fellow named Mark, who loved to play harmonica and accompanied me on many a song late on a Saturday evening, after supper. Often there was beer, but Mark had a taste for wine, too, and, as it happened, he drove a delivery truck for a local wine importer. He’d learned enough, on the job, to be able to offer, when he found out about my new employment, to set up a tasting for me, and share what he knew. Within a few days, I was at his apartment in North Beach, and found, on the kitchen table, an array of a half-dozen wine glasses at each of our seats.
He poured a different wine in each glass, and pointing to the first glass, he instructed me to take a close look at the wine, mainly to note the color. Then I was to bring the glass to my nose and spend a bit of time smelling it and taking note of the aromas it had to offer. Very quickly I became aware of how much information the wine seemed to be able to convey.
As for tasting the wine, I was to take a bit of it into my mouth, but not to swallow right away. Instead, I should swish it around in my mouth, trying to bring it into contact with all the interior surfaces of my palate. Then I would draw in, through my open lips, a bit of air to volatilize the aromatic components in the wine.
My mind was already racing to keep track of the exponentially expanding series of sensory impressions, and thoughts, and questions, and associations exploding through my nervous system! When I started in on the second wine, the mere fact of the difference from the previous wine set off a new chain-reaction of neural fireworks. Questions began to pour out of me; I was flailing, trying to make sense of what I was experiencing, in a manner that felt a bit like a drowning person trying to find some way to keep from going under.
When I’d stuck my nose in perhaps the fifth glass, a red, I paused after the first sniff and closed my eyes, trying to contain myself. And noticed, beneath those shuttered lids, that I was seeing grand scenes reminiscent of Renaissance-era paintings and tapestries! The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were beckoning me through the extravagance of pleasure that had commandeered my being, sip by glorious sip! No matter that the wines in question were of no special provenance; they’d been sufficient to awaken the slumbering, (and hungering) soul in me! I began to imagine I’d stumbled upon the key to my own heart! By now Mark was trying to keep up with my questions, and recommending some books to read, and proposing that we get together several times, so he could show me some really interesting wines.
I was on fire! Nothing in my memory that I’d ever encountered had provoked quite such a powerful internal response. When I returned to work the following Monday, I was a different person than the gent that my employer had hired just a few days before.
Our 2016 El Jaleo begins its journey in bottle in a few days, carrying with it the lovely scents and flavors of Shake Ridge Ranch, and the beautiful Grenache, Tempranillo, Mourvedre and Graciano grapes that grow there, and at least a whisper of the journey I was blessed to begin 45 years ago, in an apartment in North Beach, where the party in the basement began. May we have music! And good company! And wine!
Viva, El Jaleo!
2016 Edmunds St John El Jaleo
!!! coming September 1st, 2017 !!!
copyright 2017, Steve Edmunds