Not a County Maintained Road
So here we are, 513 years later, and some things aren’t going all that well. Even confining this lament to the proceedings at Edmunds St. John (20 years later), it’s been pretty bumpy lately. Today, for example, the septic system at the facility into which Edmunds St. John has relocated (The former Chateau de Leu, in Green Valley, Solano County—think of it as East Napa) started backing up, shutting down any routine winery operations, which are heavily dependent on the use of water, and the draining away of said water. This was especially disconcerting because grapes began arriving, needing to be crushed, at around 10am.
I had my own set of grapes scheduled to arrive today from Paso Robles, some six bins of Grenache from Rozet Vineyard, and my driver left early this morning to fetch them in a timely way. However, at around 9:30 I received a call from the vineyard manager, informing me that the vehicle carrying the picking crew had broken down en route, and they’d gotten a very late start. (My driver, a fellow named Mark, whose presence in my life in matters vinous has been germinal, was fortunate enough, while waiting for the picking to be completed, to be offered a seat in front of a TV set for several hours, during which A Night at The Opera was being broadcast. By the time the fat lady sang it was nearly 2pm—in Paso Robles I mean.)
There have been signs, right from the beginning of this harvest, that it would not be smooth. On 31 August, in what I took to be a sound rental truck, I headed off to Rozet to pick up 3 tons of Viognier. I’d planned a very early (4:30am) departure, but was foiled, in that, by a dead battery. It took Triple-A an hour to get there to jump-start me, but after that I assumed the way was clear. I picked up the grapes around 10:15, and headed North, only to find, in Salinas, that the engine warning light had come on, and I was rapidly losing power. Some six hours later, I was on the road again, in a truck that the rental agency had to rent from a different company, and I arrived at the winery with the grapes at around 10pm. (This was deja vu, all over again; in 1985, driving two rental trucks to Paso, to retrieve our first ever grapes [9 tons of Syrah from the Estrella River Vineyard] both trucks broke down, on Saturday of Labor Day weekend. The round trip had begun at 8am Saturday morning. We arrived back in Berkeley at 4am Sunday. Then, in 1993, en route to pick up the very first grapes of that harvest, my rental truck broke down, and I was stranded for five hours before things were set right.)
There is, of course, during harvest, an inordinate amount of wear and tear on one’s body, and even at what feels, 20 years later, like too old to be doing this, I’ve been beating myself up with the demands of the hour. My back likes all the driving I do even less than last year. (Not to mention my wallet-ouch!!!) Some of the physical work actually feels good; the more I can move, the less beat-up I feel. But there are some dents and bruises. Remember the map of Italy on Gorbachev’s forehead? Well I’ve got a bruise on my backside (from inadvertently sitting down hard, on a protruding handle on a piece of machinery) that is the spitting image of the Secretary of State! And I managed to bang up my left knee while I was moving some boxes of wine on a handtruck, and the swelling is just beginning to subside, 10 days later.
And the bees, this year! While I’m sorting fruit into the crusher, yellowjackets by the dozens are divebombing the bins, and even honeybees are flying around the fruit, and around me. As it happens, I’m allergic to the sting of honeybees, something I discovered at age 20, while living in Michigan. But I’ve learned to handle the potential threat. First, and most importantly, I underwent several years of desensitization shots that should, theoretically, allow me to sustain two honeybee stings without serious repercussions. But equally important, I think, was an experience I had in 1991, less than a year after I’d begun the desensitization regimen.
It was October 19, 1991, and I was picking up the Mourvèdre grapes from the Brandlin Vineyard, on Mt. Veeder, in Napa. I was accompanied by a good friend, Joe Cristofalo, (Joe and I co-managed the C-league softball team we both played on) and his 4 year-old daughter, Prima. It was a hot, windy day, winds gusting from the East and Northeast. We were listening to the California Golden Bears play the Washington Huskies on the radio that afternoon; it looked like, if Cal could hold on to their early lead, like they might go to their first Rose Bowl in 35 years. When we pulled up to the spot where the grapes were stacked, in wooden boxes that were probably 60 years old, I noticed the bees.
There were hundreds and hundreds of them, both yellow jackets and honeybees, but many more of the latter. They were all over those boxes. Somehow I had to get the grapes from those boxes into the bins on my truck. Joe had intended to help, but attending a four-year-old would not permit it, so it was up to me. Each box had to be lifted to the bed of the truck. Then I had to climb up. Then pick up the box again, and dump it into a bin. Then put the box down on the bed of the truck, climb down, and put each box down in a neat stack. Each box weighed between forty and fifty pounds when full, and contained up to a dozen bees. I had to move very slowly, and very deliberately, and pay extremely close attention to every move I made. I had to look at any place I meant to touch before I touched it, to make sure I wouldn’t be threatening a honeybee. There were more than sixty boxes. It took a while. I’m not sure I’ve ever been as conscious at any other time in my life as I was during the transferring of those Mourvèdre grapes that afternoon. The next day, while I awaited the arrival of grapes from Mendocino County, the Oakland hills caught fire.
There are plenty of things I like about this harvest, most of which grow in the vineyards I work with. Because late August and September were so cool and mild this year, I was able, for the second year in a row to bring in Pinot Gris and Gamay at full ripeness with pretty low sugar, and great acidity. The wines seem really promising. And the Grenache from Fenaughty Vineyard seems, as it ferments, to have unusual depth of aroma and flavor. And I’m working with a new Mourvèdre source this year that also has me hopeful for great things.
And, of course, the adventures aren’t over yet. There’s still the aforementioned Mourvèdre, the Syrah from Bassetti, and a bit more fruit from Fenughty to corral, and possibly a bit of second-crop Gamay that might make a really good rose. Who knows what may transpire before all those babies land safely in their fermenters?
(It didn’t take long for an answer to appear; Thursday morning the Chronicle had a story about a fire at a place on Mare Island, in the Northern reaches of San Pablo Bay, an old Naval warehouse facility called Wine Central. The fire apparently destroyed up to a half million cases of wine being stored by both wineries and collectors. When I was trying to figure out where I would relocate Edmunds St. John early this year, Barry, the winemaker at Audubon told me about Wine Central, where they were already relocating most of their barreled wine and all their cased goods. As he described the facility to me it didn’t sound like it would work for me, so I kept looking. If I hadn’t it’s likely much of my wine would have gone up in smoke. Sadly, for Barry, he has apparently lost what he felt were the best wines he’d ever made.)
It looks like we’ll finish up the bringing in of fruit on Tuesday, with Syrah from Bassetti, and then, after a couple weeks time to wrap up pressing and barreling, we’ll be done, at last. But don’t take that seat belt off, just yet; you never know what’s coming down the road.
Many people have been asking if we’ll do our annual pre-holiday open house this year, and we’ve been asking ourselves the same question. So, in an effort to keep the event local, we’ll be joining forces, on Saturday and Sunday, December 3rd and 4th, with our friends from two Berkeley wineries (Eno and Harrington) at their facility, which was Edmunds St. John’s original home, at 805 Camelia St., between 1pm and 5pm. It’s not very big, so it’ll be cozy. I’ll have more details in an upcoming communique, so be on the lookout.
Ain’t nobody breathin
Trouble won’t find;
Ain’t no crooked road I wouldn’t ride…
Nothin’ But Trouble copyright © 2004