Blast from the Past
There was a wine I bought some time in the early part of 1985, from my old friend Kermit Lynch. It was the year I started Edmunds St. John, and I wasn’t sure yet what kind of wine I intended to make, so I was shopping around for inspiration. The wine was from grapes grown in Rasteau, mainly Grenache and Mourvèdre; the producer was Château du Trignon. It was from the 1981 vintage. It featured the marvelous, heady perfume of Provence, yet it also had the nuance and seductiveness that made me think of fine Burgundy. It cost five dollars at the time. It was heavenly. It wasn’t the kind of powerhouse wine that seems to grab the critics attention, but it was plump and gorgeous, and it made a roast chicken or a lamb chop an occasion for giving thanks, merely to have been born. (It was an 88 point wine, if I ever drank one.)
Eventually, of course, I decided that, indeed, I would devote myself to pursuing the mysteries of Grenache, and Mourvèdre, and Syrah, as well as the white varieties that originate in the same neighborhood. And though the wine that finally convinced me that I should undertake that pursuit was a different wine, as I think back on it, it was that Rasteau that really set things in motion.
There were an awful lot of things to think about in the beginning. About the time I’d begun to think about my label design, I happened to wander into Kermit’s shop again, and was captivated by a poster on the wall near the front door. It was an enlarged version of a menu that had been created for a dinner held in 1981 at Chez Panisse, featuring the Châteauneuf du Pape wines from Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe, and Château de Beaucastel. The printing was especially artful, and impeccable. It seemed to focus the reader’s attention in a way that gave the mind both ease and a sense of witnessing something true. And there was a wonderfully evocative landscape image — a Provençal-ish panorama: the sky was a brooding, stirring, very dark cobalt; the foreground nearly glowed orange-gold. And there were cypress trees, almost glistening in the eerie tension between sky and foreground, suggesting great distance, both physical, and metaphysical. A transporting image that seemed to convey not only the cultural transposition from Berkeley to Châteauneuf du Pape, but from the present era to a kind of longed-for, (perhaps-only-imagined) cultural ancestry. It was perfect; the artist had found a visual language that could express the spirit of what I felt I’d set out to do.
His name is Wesley B. Tanner. He lived in Berkeley, so I called him on the phone, and asked if he’d ever done a wine label. He answered that he had not, but it sounded like it might be interesting to think about. I asked if I might visit and bring a bottle of wine to share that might suggest something about what I hoped to accomplish, that might serve as inspiration for a label. That sounded like a fine idea to him and we made a date.
Wesley’s office/studio was in a warehouse in southwest Berkeley. It was a fascinating place. There were, as I recall, a couple of letterpresses, one a very old, hand-operated machine. There were cabinets of oak. An oak writing desk, I think. Drawers and drawers of type. Hundreds of books. A couple of comfortable chairs. And floorlamps that gave warmth to that space. The walls held marvelous art, including some of Wesley’s printing, and some things done by others. Lots of other stuff, arcane and archaic, of interest mainly to craft-oriented fanatics, and lovers of old books. It was the kind of environment I find at once calming, and stimulating. Wesley apologized for the mess. Then we seated ourselves in the easy chairs, and began the serious business of drinking a bottle of ’81 Rasteau from Château du Trignon.
1981 was a really successful vintage in certain parts of the Southern Rhône, and, clearly, in Rasteau the year was among the best. The wine was a deep purple-ruby red. The aromas of thyme, lavender, violets, strawberry, mulberry, raspberry leaf, underbrush, and cracked pepper danced elegantly in the space above the rim of each of our glasses. In my mouth the wine was silky and multi-faceted, the flavors echoing precisely the impressions from the smell. Tannins, sweet, textured, and extremely fine enveloped my tongue and palate through a finish long and delicious. Shivers of pleasure welled up in me. The wine was as good as I remembered it. Wesley liked it, too.
As we drank, I told him the story of my career, to that point, in the wine business, and what I was hoping to do, as a winemaker. He told me a bit of his history, and we passed the afternoon in a manner that life, mostly, seems to offer only too infrequently, these days. In no time at all, it seemed, the bottle was gone, and we were making plans to visit a few wine shops to observe, and talk about labels. (It’s funny, in hindsight, how much the label we finally settled on looks like the image from the menu. On the other hand, it probably makes perfect sense.)
That conversation occurred some 18 years ago, and since then Wesley moved (back in ’91, I think) to Ann Arbor, Michigan (a town I lived in for a few years back in my wild and rambling days as a hippie folksinger, before I got shanghai’d into the wine business), so I haven’t seen much of him in a long while.
But I’ve begun to notice, in recent months, how our very popular wine we call Rocks and Gravel, vintage 2000 (and now the 2001, as well) seems to carry some aromas and flavors that strike me in a familiar way, that make me want more, especially when I’m drinking it with dinner. With, say, roast chicken, or a good lamb chop (seasoned with, for example, rosemary and garlic), and I finally figured it out. It’s a wine that’s affecting me in exactly the way that ’81 Rasteau did. It’s got that perfume, that pretty fruit, that seductiveness. It has a very similar kind of weight and balance, depth of fruit and texture. It whets the whistle, and tugs at the sleeve. There’s no other response possible but to hold out one’s glass, and fill it again.
“Give me blood-red wine;
Lord, the soul gets thirsty
Out on that crooked road…”
(Rocks and Gravel copyright © 2002)