The View from Here
What follows here is the (edited) text of an essay I wrote back in 1995, as the result of an invitation to address a dinner gathering at Manhattan’s Savoy restaurant, on the subject of whether it’s possible, in an era dominated by mass-production and homogenization, to produce “soulful” wines. The impetus for the dinner had come from a wine I’d produced from the Mourvèdre grapes grown at the Brandlin ranch on Mt. Veeder in 1986. Peter Hoffman, owner-chef (and mensch) at Savoy had found himself in possession of some of the wine, and wanted to build a meal, and a conversation around it. I felt privileged to participate.
The essay has just been published in a collection from Traveler’s Tales, titled: Adventures in Wine, available from their website: www.travelerstales.com, and probably in bookstores, as well. Other contributors include: Gerald Asher, Karen MacNeil-Fife, Kermit Lynch, David Darlington, Jim Harrison. It’s comfortable reading, over a glass or two of something tasty.
The Angle And The Voice
I operate a small winery in California called Edmunds St. John. We produce a few thousand cases each year, and through my struggles and experiences as a winemaker I’ve begun, I think, to understand a little of what wine is, what place it has in our lives, what it means to us.
I’d been a home winemaker for a number of years before starting Edmunds St. John, but I still felt an uneasy lack of expertise when we made our first commercial wines in 1985. When the wines seemed to turn out quite nicely, I didn’t feel that I’d had much to do with it. To be fair, I was following the guidance of another vintner, whose own approach had always been pretty laissez-faire (he characterized it as benign neglect). But somehow I felt that if the wines were successful, I should be able to take some credit for that.
Yet when friends and other vintners tasted the wines and complimented me for how enjoyable they were, I was perplexed by how little of the credit I felt I deserved. I had done only the most rudimentary winemaking. I had an assemblage of what I thought of as non-equipment. All our grapes that first year had been crushed by foot! I tried reassuring myself that merely ushering the wine attentively from grape to bottle demonstrated a form of oenological wisdom, and that conscious manipulation of the process was superfluous, possibly even arrogant. Beginner’s luck was another possibility. And, of course, some of the grapes I’d managed to find were exceptionally good; maybe I was, unbeknownst to myself, an especially astute judge of grapes. This last explanation was no more convincing than the others; I threw up my hands and began to wonder if what I was doing with my commercial winery was so different from what I did as a home winemaker.
The best of the wines that first year came from some Mourvèdre grapes grown in Napa. It had been obvious to me, despite my lack of confidence in my ability to even discern one grape from another in a vineyard, that those grapes had been vastly superior to the others. The bunches were small, the grapes were in beautiful condition when I picked them up at the vineyard, the taste of the fruit had been wonderfully distinctive. Even the way the grapes felt against my skin as I worked with them in the fermenters had seemed special. Shortly after I pressed the wine off into barrels, I told my friend Kermit Lynch, a prominent local wine importer, that I was making wine from Mourvèdre grapes. I knew from his love for the wines of Provence that he’d be interested, and we arranged a date to taste.
He liked the wine a good deal, and asked if he might take a sample to the renowned Domaine Tempier in Bandol, to taste with the Peyraud family when he went there in January of 1986. I was glad to oblige, and it turned out that doing so provided me with an entree when I visited the Domaine a couple of months later, at which time Francois Peyraud hosted a tasting for me.
Finding those Mourvèdre grapes in our first year had been a bigger challenge than I’d expected. From the contacts I’d made during my retail wine selling days, I was confident that I’d be able to track down some old plantings of Mataro (as Mourvèdre was known in those days to most of the growers in California). Yet again and again I seemed to be just a little too late. Each grower seemed to have one of two responses when asked if he was growing any Mataro he might want to sell. Either he would say “What do you want with Mataro?” or he would say “Gee, it’s too bad you didn’t call sooner; we just tore it out.” This latter response usually ended with a time frame: last year, last month, last week, a few days ago; there was one “yesterday.”
After making the same inquiries and receiving the same responses for two or three months, I began to wonder if I was on a fool’s errand. I’d chosen to pursue grape varieties from the South of France — Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah — that were not in fashion, that didn’t go into the wines for which the market seemed to clamor, more or less endlessly. I chose them because over the previous dozen years or so, I’d drunk the wines they produced and they never failed to bring forth some happy response in me, always made me feel glad for the chance to taste them. So, in spite of all the setbacks, I persisted, and one afternoon while I was looking at equipment in a Berkeley store that sold supplies to home winemakers, I noticed a sign written on brown paper that had once been part of a shopping bag. It read, “SAUVIGNON VERT, an old Napa Valley favorite. $400 a ton. Other varieties available.” It also included a phone number.
Because of the nonprofessional look of the sign, I almost ignored it. But something made me read it again, some little hunch, some insistent little inner voice. When I did I began to think of it differently. They led with Sauvignon Vert, which, in current wine circles, has an abysmal reputation. They probably thought the Sauvignon in the name gave it some kinship with the popular variety called Sauvignon Blanc, that might make it more attractive. Since I couldn’t think of a less attractive grape than Sauvignon Vert at that moment, I thought there might be a good chance that the “other varieties” might include something of interest. I wrote the number down and called that evening.
An older man’s voice answered, slightly musical and dreamy-sounding. I said I’d seen his notice, and wanted to know what he might have to offer, besides, of course, Sauvignon Vert.
“You don’t want any Sauvignon Vert, huh?” In the sound of his voice I could feel myself being sized up.
“No,” I said, trying to sound polite.
“Well, how about some Palomino? We’ve got some nice Palomino.” I began to be more interested; Palomino produces one of southern Spain’s most famous wines.
“No, I’m more interested in reds,” I said. “You got any reds?”
“Well,” he said, “we’ve got a little Charbono. Are you interested in some Charbono?” This was getting good. “Gee, that sounds neat,” I said, “but actually — ” He cut me off. “We had some Zinfandel, but I”m afraid it’s all sold.”
I interrupted him this time, beginning to feel just a tiny bit hopeful in spite of myself. “Let me tell you what I’m looking for: I’m trying to find some Mataro.”
“Aw, hell,” he said, with a vague hint of disappointment in his voice, I’ve got some of that.”
A short silence, stunned on my part. “You do?”
“How much do you have?”
“Oh,” he said, sounding like a cat beginning to stretch, “probably a ton, ton and a half. Maybe two tons.”
“Can I buy it?” I said, ready to burst, trying not to let on.
He said, “Well, yeah. But, say — what do you want with Mataro?”
I told him I thought it might make pretty good wine, and that I’d like to come look at his vines, and I asked him where the vineyard was. He said, “Did you ever hear of Mt. Veeder?”
If I had to choose the one place in California at that time where I thought I could produce the finest red wine, Mt. Veeder would probably have been my first choice. From the wines I’d drunk that had been grown there, it occupied a near-mythic position in the geography of my imagination. I’d heard of the men whose vineyard I was going to visit, too, though I didn’t realize it just yet.
I drove to their property the next afternoon. When I arrived, I was greeted by two men in their sixties who seemed to have the energy and strength of four or five normal men. The brothers Richard and Chester Brandlin had been farming wine grapes on Mt. Veeder their whole lives. Their father, Henry Brandlin, had been born on Mt. Veeder in 1888, and had bought the property known as Mayacamas during the Prohibition era. I’d known about the Brandlins’ grapes, as I recalled some months later, from gathering information for an article back in 1976. The Brandlins were practically legends. It seemed to me that they felt I was a curiosity in some way, but it was clear they liked me, and were glad to sell me some grapes. A few weeks later, when their Mourvèdre grapes began to ferment in my cellar, there could be no doubt; I was witnessing something quite special here, and I was captivated by it.
One morning the next January, just as the eastern sky began to grow light above the Berkeley hills, Rich Brandlin called me to ask how I’d liked the grapes. “I love em,” I said. “I want to buy them every year, as long as you’ll sell them to me.”
“So, you liked them, huh?” He paused. “Gee, Steve, it’s too bad you didn’t call us a year earlier. We had another four and a half acres, but we tore them out about a year ago.”
Despite that bit of news I felt quite lucky. They were such tremendous grapes, and somehow I’d stumbled onto them. Then, in 1986, they made a wine that was so lovely, so breathtaking, that when Kermit Lynch brought Francois Peyraud to my winery to taste, Francois sniffed this wine, lowered his glass, rolled his eyes back in reverie, and whispered, “la terre parle.” The earth speaks.
Even to someone largely unfamiliar with California wines, here was a wine that expressed, clearly and forcefully, the identity of its origin. I’ve never felt more complimented by a response to any wine I’ve made than I felt hearing Francois’s words. I was reminded, in that moment, of times early in my wine career, tasting wines that had stopped me in my tracks. With a friend who had a job delivering wines, I’d drunk some of the very greatest wines from France, Germany, Italy, and California, through which the earth ‘spoke’ again and again, though each time, to be sure, with a different voice. I found, in tasting them, a kind of recognition, as though, without having encountered them before, I had already known what they would taste like, and, tasting them, found it to be so.
This recognition is similar, I think, to the experience I’ve had (and probably everyone else has had) of hearing a melody for the first time, some wonderful song, and having a vague sense of having always known the tune, though I cannot, try as I might, recall any other tune that’s anything like it. There’s some way I respond to it, the way I might respond to a smile, or the touch of a dear friend or family member.
It feels as though there is some part of me “out there” in that melody, some song my soul has always sung to itself, that I’ve never heard with my ears, and suddenly, there it is, “out there” in the world, and from “in here” I recognize it and respond. Perhaps, too, there is some part of me “out there” in a painting by Cezanne, or in the passing of a dozen Canada geese across the face of Mt. St. Helena on a late October morning, or in a glass of Mourvèdre from the old vines at the Brandlin ranch.
Or, to look at it from a slightly different angle, when, as Francois said, “the earth speaks,” perhaps when I respond it’s because it is I who am “out there,” recognizing my place of origin, feeling called by some old, familiar voice, long since forgotten. Could it be that I am some part of this earth that speaks, and when I respond it is because I recognize, at last, my home?
There was also, of course, a less cosmic side to what Francois had said when he tasted the Mourvèdre wine from 1986. Each place on the earth is unique, each vineyard has its own singular personality to express. That’s why Chateauneuf-du-Pape tastes different at Beaucastel than it does at Vieux Telegraphe. It’s why Syrah grown at Cornas is so different from Syrah grown in the Coteaux les Baronnies.
It is possible to manipulate the winemaking process through a variety of means, including technological innovation, and through what has become the increasingly prevalent use of brand new oak barrels, in a way that can all but obliterate those differences. What is currently referred to as the “International Style” has begun to inundate the marketplace in recent years, particularly in California, but increasingly in Europe as well. The wines are sleek, they’re oozing with the perfume and vanilla flavors of the most expensive barrels, and they’re becoming harder and harder to distinguish, one from another. Why is this happening? Why would anyone want to do this? Marketing speaks. The bottom line speaks.
God knows it can be tough to balance the interests of paying the bills and feeding the soul; I can’t imagine what it must be like to run a large winery. But the true gift of wine, I would now suggest, is revealed not on one’s palate, but in one’s soul, and it requires a certain devotion. If the wine makes money, so much the better. If it doesn’t make money, (and here I have some expertise) there is still this gift, and it is measureless.
The technological advances in winemaking in the last thirty years of the twentieth century have made it possible, in the words of one vintner from Chateauneuf-du-Pape, to make wines “in the old way.” There are hundreds of examples of wines that are much better, that are much more capable of expressing their origin than they’ve ever been, because of the improvements in technology. But not just because of those improvements. The winemaker had to make a conscious decision about what he or she wished to accomplish, and how that was best done. If the wines are better, if they are true to their places of origin, the technology made it easier, but the devotion of the winemaker made it happen.
So in 1985, when I wondered for the first time how it was that the wines I’d produced turned out so well, what I really wanted to know was this: What was my role? What is the appropriate way for me to influence the development of the wine I’m going to bottle? And my thoughts about grapes, and the wisdom of using good ones, were perhaps not so simple-minded as they may once have seemed. In fact, I had inadvertently found, in the case of the Brandlin Mourvèdre, grapes from a truly great vineyard.
One of the most positive signs I see today in California is the tremendous amount of thought and effort that are going into planting new vineyards, and growing them in ways that make much more sense than the ways so many earlier vineyards had been grown. This trend bodes well for the future, particularly if, after the grapes from these new vineyards are grown and picked, the winemakers can be attentive enough to hear the “earth speak” through those grapes, and to devote themselves to the gift in that voice.