Organolepticians Number 79
Sycamore tree! I’ve seen the storms come tearing at you,
But I’ve never seen them catch you, and I wish I could bend that way…*
I almost called my album “Bend That Way,” but the fellow who was doing the liner art kept sending me these lewd drawings, and I succumbed to his insistence that such a name could only engender scorn; thus the name became “Lonesome On The Ground“. At such moments, a certain flexibility is called for, don’t you think?
It seems to be a recurring theme in my life, and, as well, in the life of Edmunds St. John. All the way back in 1987, when I bottled the first in our long line of red wines containing various proportions of Syrah, and/or Grenache, and/or Mourvedre, (not to mention Carignan, Cinsault, and Counoise) from the 1985 vintage, I chose a name for the wine that raised a certain number of eyebrows; I called it Les Côtes Sauvages. “What kind of name is that?” was the first question I got, followed by “what does it mean?,” and so on. Well, I had no perfect answers to those questions, but I had to call it something, so I stuck to the name long enough (12 vintages) to actually establish some name recognition.
So when I changed the name, with the ’97 vintage, to Rocks and Gravel, my New York distributor at the time, was a bit taken aback. “You’ve worked all this time to establish the name, and now you’re going to change it?” he wanted to know. I had what I felt to be an important reason, but now, all these years later, the reason is unimportant; it turned out to be a smart move. Brand recognition for Rocks and Gravel became so strong that I can’t even imagine a more successful name.
The last vintage of Rocks and Gravel we bottled was 2005. At the time we bottled it, in 2006, we were struggling through a period of personal and financial turmoil, and made some fundamental changes in our approach to operating the winery. And in attempting to re-define Edmunds St. John, one of the decisions that I made involved changing the name of our red blend. I’d been wanting to use the name That Old Black Magic for awhile, and this seemed like the time; we were making a smaller amount of wine, from a more reliable set of grape sources, aiming for a more sustainable approach, from a financial perspective, it’s a good name, it will create curiosity, sometimes you need to do something new just to get noticed, etc., etc., all reasons worthy of consideration.
My New York distributor, this time around, was none too sanguine. What’s in a name? What’s in the bottle? Which is more important? Did I blow it? Too early to tell, and in this market, too hard to figure out what’s working and what’s not. All the assumptions that seemed cut from stone two years ago, seem to be made out of Silly-Putty these days. Flexibility! That’s my motto! And, in my most flexible fashion, I’m thinking– maybe he’s right!
This is where the plot thickens. As mentioned in my last epistle, (see Organolepticians #78) I’m making a wine this year in a concrete vat, something I’ve been longing to do for 20 years. When I learned that it was possible to obtain this vat, I was ecstatic! At long last, in my 25th season I’d have the chance to make a wine in precisely the manner I felt would produce the result I was looking for! In talking with friends and colleagues about this new development, in my mind, the results were already a foregone conclusion, and I didn’t bother, at first, to imagine what would be required of me to make it work.
Things changed when, not too long after the vat was delivered, I got a call from the vineyard manager whose grapes were to ferment in this new vessel. Despite his assertion, this past Spring, that the grapes in question never ripen before the end of September, here it was, the end of the first week of that month, and the sugar in the Grenache was at 24.
To prepare a concrete vat for use in fermenting wine, one needs to wash the inside surface of the vat repeatedly with a strong solution of tartaric acid in water. Since the inside of this vat is only about four feet across, and about five feet from floor to ceiling, a certain flexibility is definitely called for, to climb inside through the small door on one side of the vat, and to sponge on the solution, floor, walls, and ceiling. At least four times. Especially if you’re six feet tall, and 62 years old.
I’d remarked, in my “Beauty In The Beast” report, about the interesting fact that such fine, tender, perfumed, lovely wines come into being inside of such hulking, beast-like containers. As I labored to prepare this container, I began to feel the intimacy of what I was engaged in, and to feel affection for this vessel on which I bestowed such responsibility! Shortly, I posted a note on Facebook, calling for suggestions for a name for this vat. There were lots of responses, most of them in jest. One French winemaker, though, from Burgundy, made the observation that anyone who knew about concrete wine vats knew they were female. He also attributed a Germanic nature to them, thus suggesting the name Hilma!
I thought for a while I might want to name her Ursula, because of the association with bears. Then I remembered a name that a friend made up in jest one time for no obvious reason other than to create a pun. The name was Roxanne Gravel (pronounced gruh-VELL). Which in turn reminded me of the several calls I’ve gotten over the years from people wanting to give bottles of Rocks and Gravel as gifts, for friends who worked in companies that produced concrete aggregate materials. Then I was reminded of something Marshall McLuhan had said many years ago, about how the old medium always ends up being contained by the new medium, or how the new always contains the old.
You can see where this is going; why fight it. It’s bigger than both of us, no?
And besides, we pressed the ’09 Rocks and Gravel yesterday. It’s a thing of beauty, yes siree!
(* Sycamore Tree, Steve Edmunds, copyright 2000.)