Just Another Whistlestop
2005 marks the 20th anniversary of Edmunds St. John’s first days. Though it never occurred to me in 1985 that I would ever write that sentence, the sentence itself, and the fact that occasioned it have now come and gone, and I’ve still got plenty of work to do. I keep thinking there must be something I can write, something I can pass along in the way of wisdom gleaned, or lessons learned that will add to the stream of wonder (“Oh, say; I never thought of that!”) that accompanies so much human endeavor.
I’ve thought about it enough. I even went so far as to patch together a sort of chronology covering the events of the last two decades that mark the forks in the road that influenced the trajectory of Edmunds St. John. It’s interesting how detailed the memories are for the first few years, and for the last four or five, but in the middle there’s a lot fewer stories that come readily to mind, though I’m sure if I dwell on it at length, some of them will find their ways back. The chronology started out as a way to develop a sort of “highlight-reel” that might fit in the limited number of pages in a newsletter, but there was just such an enormous amount of material, that I quickly gave up that particular approach, though I have continued to work some on fleshing out those middle years. (I might have to resort to writing a book, though finding the time to devote to that seems pretty daunting.) In a couple of years, 1993 and 2000, I kept a running journal of the events of harvest, so, at least for 2 of our 21 harvests there are plenty of details.
One of the most compelling things about my job is that it is intricately connected to the natural, seasonal cycles of the earth and sky, the oceans, the wind. When I started doing this work, I knew that, intellectually, but I learn it again, each year, now, through my body, through my senses, through my hands and feet, my back. My body carries each of those seasons in it; that’s what memory is. The wines that I’ve made have their memories, too; they carry their share of me in each drop.
In 1985 I turned thirty-eight. Two of my early teachers whom I met that year, Richard and Chester Brandlin, were in their early sixties at the time. They’d been farming all their lives, and there was no one in California who could have claimed to grow better grapes. They asked how old I was, and when I told them, they just smiled. Chester said, “Hell, you’re still a kid.” I was strong. I could stay up for nights on end tending fermenters, punching down caps, throwing barrels around, getting by on little sleep. That first year the adrenaline was enough. The adrenaline, and Cornelia.
In ’85 we had kids in school, from fifth grade to college junior. Now we’ve got seven grandchildren, five of them in public schools, kindergarten to fourth grade. We’ve been kicked upstairs. (Now I watch my daughters negotiating their ways through the process of being and becoming parents, and I think they’re probably better at it, in most ways, than I ever was. Same for Cornelia’s kids, too.) The oldest grand-kids, Noah and Olivia, take Tae Kwon Do and Capoeira classes several times a week, and I usually have the pleasure of taking them to their Wednesday classes, but when Harvest time comes, I have to bow out for the duration, and I miss them terribly. Now that the ’05 grapes are all picked, and most of the wines are safely tucked away in barrels, I find myself really wanting to be with them, and their little cousins.
Our only customers for the first few years were in California, and for awhile I called on them all myself. I think by late ’87 or early ’88, with the help of a broker I knew from a tasting group that dated back to the ’70s, I got a little wine placed in New York, and in Pennsylvania. Then, in ’88, a couple of wines got good scores from a very prominent critic, and my phone began to ring with offers to distribute our wines far and wide. Since then, we’ve had wine in 29 different states, 3 Canadian provinces, Singapore, Japan, Peru, and several northern European countries, as well as the British Isles. Since ’01 the customer base abroad has shrunk a bit, but the domestic front has grown. Interestingly, there are still tons of people in Berkeley who’ve never heard of us.
We used to do a Harvest Party every year for friends and family who’d been supportive in those first few years. We’d throw together a big stew and some salads, and some bread and a bunch of cheeses, and hang out on a Saturday evening with anywhere between 40 and 70 people, drinking whatever our current releases were. After the numbers crept up into the range of 100+, we decided to start doing our yearly tastings, and actually selling some wine at the event. It’s still a really great party, enough so that the numbers have continued to grow, and we love the chance to reconnect with everyone who comes.
Selling, in the current market, has become a more and more important job, and one of the biggest challenges for Edmunds St. John. There’s SO much wine out there, all of it shouting Buy Me! Buy Me! I work hard trying to figure out how to get people to notice us without being completely vulgar. It seems like you have to be constantly reinventing yourself so that the story you have to tell is always new, always fresh. Life has a way of helping that process along, creating an endless supply of surprises along the way, not all of them felicitous. Somebody decides to sell the vineyard that produces your best wine. Your hot new distributor in a major market can’t control his growth and suddenly what was once your best account becomes your tenth best account. You spend 15 lonely years getting retailers and restaurants to believe they can sell Syrah, and suddenly there’s 250 new wineries that have Syrah for sale, and they can afford to give the stuff away to secure space on the shelf or the list.
In 1985 I told a friend from that ’70s tasting group that I was going to corner the market for Mourvèdre, and he laughed and said, “Yeah; I bet you will.” Cornering a market that doesn’t exist may not seem like much, but it was those first couple of Mourvèdre wines from Rich and Chester Brandlin’s grapes that made the phones ring back in ’88. Now I’ve got the Gamay market cornered. Wonder how long that’ll last? Always a good idea to have a couple more tricks up your sleeve.
And it’s essential to have someone who can contextualize the whole process of bringing our wine and our customers together in a way that makes us all glad for the connection. Cornelia is a genius at that, and that’s something I seem to learn about her, over and over again.
We’re just wrapping up our first harvest in the facility we moved to in Green Valley, in Solano County; it’s the first time we didn’t crush and ferment our fruit in the East Bay, and I’m still working on getting used to it. I’m not sure of all the incarnations of the property; most recently, and for quite some time it had been Volkhardt Family Winery, and it was known for a while as Chateau de Leu. It’s now called the Green Valley Winery. It’s in a pretty little valley off to the North of Interstate 80, a few miles North and East of Vallejo. I must have driven past it a thousand times and wondered what was there. Now I know.
Yeah, we’ve been around more than twenty years, but we’re just getting started.
Three to Get Ready; Now Go, Cats Go!
14th Annual Fete du Vin Extravaganza
featuring: Edmunds St. John, Eno, Harrington
Saturday December 3rd, Sunday December 4th, 1:00pm until 5:00pm, at 805 Camelia St., (between 5th and 6th), where things started for Edmunds St. John over 20 years ago, and now home to our friends Sasha Verhage, and Brian Harrington, of Eno and Harrington, respectively. All three producers will exhibit their wares. It’s a smaller venue than you’ve visited in previous years, hence we’re spreading it out over a couple of days.
RSVP at (510) 981-1510. We look forward to seeing you there!