Got the Butterflies
I had a conversation with another winemaker recently about a subject that comes up for me constantly, and for which the answer seems to continue to evolve. We were discussing what makes Edmunds St. John wines so different from other California wines. He’d raised the subject by mentioning the lack of oak flavor in our wines. That difference is an important one, but it’s only one, and I’ve struggled for years to find a way to explain to myself what the fundamental difference is, in a way that penetrates to the heart of the question.
One approach I’ve taken, in recent years, has been to make the distinction that my winemaking isn’t market-driven. I’m not trying to find a way to provide easy gratification to a particular market-segment. Wines that astonished and delighted me in 1972, back when I first took notice, were not, I believe, made to accomodate a particular demand. They were just made. They tasted the way they did because of where they were grown, and when and by whom, in a particular cultural environment. (These were, of course, largely European wines.) Underlying that cultural environment, I believe, was an appreciation and acknowledgement of, and a reverence for the gift that nature (or a God or gods) had provided in creating the elements, e.g. soil, climate, grapes, human sensibility and ingenuity, to bring such an undertaking to fruition with such inspiring results. So the context in which those wines were made was originally cultural, not commercial. And, in trying to produce wines that might give me the same kind of astonishment and delight (to which, I believe, no one is immune),I felt no need to be concerned about market considerations.
The California wines that have become the most renowned, over the last 15 or 20 years, the ones most written about, the ones that command the highest prices, nearly all share certain differences by comparison to the wines I’m making. Nearly all of them exhibit a very strong oak presence, in both smell and taste. Power is nearly always the chief underlying structural attribute. There’s nearly always a kind of sweetness, attributable, I’d guess, to the exceedingly ripe nature of the fruit from which the wines are made, and the vanillins in the oak (and, perhaps, as well, the high level of glycerine from prominent alcohol). All these characteristics are things that bring people pleasure of a sort. If they didn’t, these wines wouldn’t be so popular. But the elements of surprise and delight are missing, for me. California’s fruit is famous for getting really ripe — much riper than its European counterparts, overall, so the power element is a given, far more often than not. And the winemaking employed these days seems to be largely about building on top of power. About creating seasoning to augment power. If there’s spiciness, it’s usually oak-derived. If there’s caramel, or coffee, or pepper, they come from something other than that which the grapes already had it in them to express.
I’m reminded of an article I read last week, in the New York Times, about black American musicians who had turned away from rap because, although that musical form had opened up the expression of a kind of ferocity derived from the rage that characterizes a major part of the cultural milieu from which it emerged, it seemed, inherently, to exclude any expression of vulnerability, leaving an irreconcilable void in its wake. (I hope this is neither too much of a stretch, nor too much of an oversimplification for anyone; intuitively, it feels like an apt comparison.) California’s wines, because of a climatic situation that lends itself to ferocity, need to find that tender, pretty, surprising, delight-provoking side.
So, after the exchange with my colleague, vis a vis my wines in comparison to others from California, I was barrel-tasting from the 2001 vintage, and was appropriately, astonished and delighted, while tasting one of our Syrah wines from a vineyard in the Central Coast, and thought to myself, as I stood outside, next to the winery building, that the comparison in question was like comparing a wildebeest to a butterfly; that what is called for is to find the butterfly within each wildebeest (because neither is complete without the other, of course), and as I stood there, like Don Quixote, a swallowtail suddenly appeared, and flew directly to me, and hovered, ever so briefly at the edge of my glass, and then flew off, into eternity.