Organolepticians Number 81
When I moved Edmunds St. John out of our Emeryville facility, in the late ‘90s, there were a few items I didn’t know what to do with: things there weren’t room for in the Audubon winery, where we moved, and no place else to keep them. Small pieces of equipment, some lab stuff, lots of odds and ends of paperwork. And so forth. So I rented a storage space, filled up my van a couple of times, unloaded the stuff, locked the door. Signed up for automatic payments. And forgot about it, for the most part. Isn’t that the way it works?
You leave one phase of your history, and it takes so much energy and time getting re-established, re-incarnated, re-situated, and re-equilibrated, that whole chunks of the story you’ve told yourself (and everyone else) about who you are just vanish, as though snatched by gypsies. Along with all the stuff.
At a certain point, I started to take seriously the idea that if we could go ten years without any of the stuff we’d stashed away in that 5X10 space back in 1999, we didn’t need to pay not to think about it (which was no longer working, anyway); we needed to get rid of it, and move the heck out. It didn’t take long, though I’m still trying to figure out the final disposition of certain things. But, of course, there were some things I found that stirred my memory; one in particular seemed to be especially relevant to where we find ourselves today. I’ll try to explain:
From our very first year (1985) we’d made a blended red wine from some combination of three varieties: Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah. The name we’d given it was Les Côtes Sauvages. The raison d’etre for producing such a blend, from my point of view, was that I hoped to find that it was possible, here, in Northern California, to use those grapes to produce a wine that gave me the same kinds of pleasurable tasting and drinking experiences as the wines blended from those varieties in the Southern Rhône area in France, most especially the ones that grow in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The effort to produce such a wine was at the very core of what Edmunds St. John was all about.
For the first several years whatever sense of success I experienced in this endeavor felt largely counter-balanced by a nagging sense of uncertainty. I’d found a couple of pretty decent fruit sources, I’d made wines that were generally quite well-received, but I wasn’t particularly satisfied; I knew I didn’t really feel like I had a handle on the fundamental nature of the process.
In a certain way I was inventing this kind of wine for California, and some might argue that, because I was an inventor, there was no right or wrong way involved in thinking about what I was doing, or how I was doing it. (There were a few other California vintners engaged in the same quest in those days; I wonder if they struggled with that same uncertainty.) But it’s precisely because there were no antecedent wines to use as models, that I was struggling so.
As for the models I had, all of which were French, it’s one thing to taste a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape three or four years after the vintage that spawned it; it’s something else altogether to have the same grape varieties in my fermenters, or coming out of my press, going into cask, and wonder: is what I’m smelling and tasting something I can recognize? Will it develop into the kind of wine I’m hoping for, or daring to expect? Without that recognition, at the outset, it’s all flying blind. After four vintages I felt, about half the time, like I wasn’t sure I’d even found the runway.
Then, in 1989 (the year we moved into the Emeryville facility), an opportunity arose to look at what I was doing from a slightly different angle. I was invited, almost immediately after harvest, to travel to the Chicago area to taste through an extensive grouping of wines from small estates in the Southern Rhône, wines ranging in age from only one year up to more than fifteen years. Nearly all of them were wines I’d never encountered, many of them imported by the man who would be our host. One of the other attendees was Professor Robert Mayberry, who had written a book on the wines of the Rhône that I would eventually discover to be an invaluable tool in my effort to unlock the secrets of what I was trying to do.
I arrived on a Friday evening with another winemaker who was also working with Rhône grapes for another winery. We met our host at a small French restaurant in Evanston, and enjoyed a quiet meal. The red wine we drank with dinner was a modest Côtes-du-Rhone-Villages wine from the village of Valréas, in the Northern Vaucluse. It was from the 1988 vintage, from a producer whose name is Romain Bouchard.
This Valréas was, as one would expect of a wine barely a year old, quite youthful, slightly bumptious for that, and utterly charming. But, more importantly, I felt I was smelling and tasting some things that were recognizable! I had a cellar full of 1989 wines, just-pressed and tucked into cask for their winter slumber after the tumult of fermentation, and I felt, from the freshness of this ’88, the remnants of that same just-fermented, just pressed quality. It was a big surprise that such a young wine was in bottle so soon!
Over the course of the weekend I tasted a few other vintages of Bouchard’s Valréas, and in comparison to the memory of tasting the ’88, I began to get a feel for the way the wines change as time passes. And, in tasting other producers’ wines from similar vintages, (and same grape varieties) I felt I could begin to recognize the aromatic and flavor elements that I encountered in the wines I was making back home in California. I became increasingly excited as the tastings proceeded. I was anxious to get back to my cellar, to have a look at what I had. How differently I felt I would now experience it!
My naive assumption, before the Chicago weekend, had been that the important factors, those that would transform my wines in the way I hoped, would come not from the innate quality of the fruit, which I felt was quite good, but from extended aging in cask before bottling. Yet nearly every wine we’d tasted during this Chicago weekend had been bottled when it was several months short of being even one year old. Thus a common theme, that was prominent in the taste of each of them, was uncommon freshness!
When I returned to the winery to taste anew, my ‘89 wines were still murky, and gassy, from malolactic fermentation as well as the initial, alcoholic ferment. They were not showing their true nature clearly, though there was much to like. So I decided to wait until early March, by which time they’d have fallen clear, to begin my blending trials, and to see whether my new sense of things would hold up.
I began from the intuitive sense that the blend should be built around whichever component wine I intended to include that seemed, on its own, to be the most distinctive or compelling wine. I suppose there’s a way that approach might seem counter-intuitive; many vintners might be more inclined to bottle that wine separately, and make the blend from the leftovers. But if the most distinctive wine will also be the one that people will notice at the center of a blend, as the organizing principle, shouldn’t that center be something pretty distinctive, not to mention compelling? So that the energy of that compelling nature can drive the blend? (Otherwise, perhaps, there won’t be so much to notice, at all.)
Picking the center was easy in those years when I worked with the old Mourvèdre from Brandlin Ranch on Mt. Veeder. And in ’89 it was spectacularly good (though if I’d bottled it on its own there would have been less than 150 cases ). Then it was merely a matter of a few trials to get the right amount from the best casks of Grenache, which came from some fairly old vines in McDowell Valley that season, and some of the Syrah from both Fenaughty and Durell Vineyards, along with the tiny amount of old Carignan from Brandlin, (and a couple of gallons of Cinsault from about 8 or 9 vines grown there, as well) to find the right balance and harmony. It might have taken 20 minutes.
I could hardly believe what was in my glass! I felt like I’d discovered how to turn straw into gold! The wine had such freshness! Such lovely aromas, so much energy, such clear detail! Perhaps I had finally gotten my winemaking feet under me!
Two years later I put on a tasting in New York featuring the 1989 wines from five of the best estates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (one of which, the Beaucastel, would become the Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year) next to this 1989 Les Côtes Sauvages. The wines were served blind to a couple dozen of New York’s most prominent sommeliers and wine merchants, and a few writers as well, all experienced tasters, many skeptical of the idea that these wines all belonged on the same table.
When the bag came off the first bottle, and the label became visible, gasping could be heard, from quite a number of mouths. The bottle was Les Côtes Sauvages. At least two tasters whispered that they’d thought it was the Beaucastel.
I decided, at about that time, to make a poster of the label of this wine to use at tastings, and winery events. It’s about four feet long, and a couple feet high. And I’d resurrected a text I’d written to describe how I thought about the kind of wine I was attempting to produce, to become part of this label:
1989 Les Côtes Sauvages
Good vineyard land often means poor soil, full of rocks
and scrub vegetation, perhaps more wild than merely
rural. In Southern France, amid the stark landscape of
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, grows red wine noteworthy for
the wildness in its taste. The three most prominent
grape varieties of that region grow in California as well,
planted among hills studded with scrub oak and chaparral,
land of mad jays, coyotes, and red-tailed hawks.
Thus Grenache and Syrah, from vineyards in the hills of
Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, and Mourvèdre from
old plantings in Napa County, and the sandy banks of the
San Joaquin River in Contra Costa County, are combined
to fashion this spicy, full-flavored wine. As the Southern
French tradition lies behind “Les Côtes Sauvages,” the
wild hills of California lie at its heart.
It was this poster, standing on end between an old, bright-yellow file cabinet, and a stack of banker’s boxes, in the storage unit I was vacating, that commanded my attention, and brought back memories of that special weekend in Chicago, and the marvelous wines that taught me so much about what I do. (Those wines, I’d learned, during the course of that weekend, were nearly all made entirely in vats made of concrete. And, of course, it’s only in 2009 that I finally acquired such a vat in which to vinify the grapes that produced what will be our 2009 blend of the three grape varieties: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre.) Seeing the poster again brought back, too, the excitement I’d felt, in what seemed like a galvanizing moment in the evolution of Edmunds St. John, and in my understanding of making wine. And here I am, 20 years later, still finding my way, maybe even headed back, in time.
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First it was Les Côtes Sauvages, then it became Rocks And Gravel, and most recently, That Old Black Magic. Speaking of which, we’re now selling our second version of That Old Black Magic, the 2007 vintage, all from grapes grown in the upper reaches of the Sierra Nevada foothills. It’s approximately 2/3 Syrah, from Wylie and Fenaughty vineyards, and the rest Grenache from Fenaughty. All grapes were vinified whole-cluster, the wine pressed onto primary lees in 25(+) year old demi-muids. We bottled late Summer ’08, and released for sale February 1st. It’s spicy, just like the ’06, but a little brawnier, little more muscular. It’s graceful, balanced, and flavorful, and should improve for quite a few years. Only 250 cases produced. $20.00/btl. $216.00/cs.
And our second vintage, 2008 Porphyry Gamay Noir, from the decomposed granite soil at Barsotti Ranch is now officially rolled out. We de-stemmed in ’08, (’07 was whole-cluster, pigéage a pied); because it was a cooler season, I wanted to get a look at the tannins from a skin-only perspective. As in ’07, there was no wood involved. The results are delicious. Lithe, high-spirited Gamay, not so simple as its jolly cousin.
280 cases produced. $20.00/btl. $216.00/cs.
In 2008 we also worked, for the very first time, with grapes grown in adherence with bio-dynamic principles, from the Fairbairn Ranch, in the Hopland area in Mendocino County.I’d been interested for quite some time in working with grapes grown in this manner, which are thought to be especially expressive in comparison with grapes not grown the same way.
Our 2008 Syrah “Cuvée Fairbairn” is definitely expressive, and very nicely put together. It’s one of the smokiest Syrahs we’ve ever bottled, with really lovely pure fruit, very juicy tannins, and terrific depth of flavor. As with so many of the Syrah wines we’ve produced, a little patience should bring ample rewards. I’m betting on this as my go-to choice when I turn 70, and that’s a few years down the road.
200 cases produced $25.00/btl. $270.00/cs.
And coming April 1: 2009 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir Rosé !!! Get ready; it’s my favorite of the first 4 vintages, and I think you’re going to like it!
(If something looks intriguing here, drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 510 981-1510. I enjoy saying hello to my friends out there.)