Organolepticians Number 84
The sun seems, so quickly, low in the sky, as I raise the collar on my jacket, the breezes no longer soothingly cool, so late in October. The season is running out of steam, its great work nearly complete. Two last bins of Mourvedre grapes receive my hands, twice each day, now, to plunge the skins, pushed up by the fermentation, back down into the bubbling liquid below, refreshing both, releasing a bit more CO2, and enough perfume to remind me why I first began to do this work, such a long time back.
There are other winemakers’ bins of grapes in the winery where I’m working, and they require similar attention, though my hands seem to be the only ones being plunged into fermenting wine; the others favor a stainless steel tool. It’s probably not a coincidence that my hands are also the oldest ones here, doing this work. I used the soles of my bare feet to break open enough of these Mourvedre grapes to get a fermentation started. In a place that’s equipped with all the state-of-the-art gadgets for making wine that can be found here, sometimes I feel like a dinosaur, or a ghost.
I picked these Mourvedre grapes on October 12th, formerly hailed as the day Columbus discovered America. Now I think it’s White Flower Day at Macy’s or something. The grapes are from the Unti Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley, just a ways out of town, heading west, from Healdsburg. They’re beautifully farmed, not using any chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides, grown using organic compost, and homeopathic preparations, integrated pest management, trying to do everything right. Just being in the presence of these grapes, I feel oddly buoyant.
On the morning of the 13th, the day after I’d trodden the grapes, there was a smell to the juice and skins that shocked me by the way it could set loose memories. No longer moored to the present moment, I seemed to have found myself back in our first harvest, in 1985, smelling Mourvedre for the first time,the strangeness of it. I never tasted a mulberry until nineteen years later, but mulberry was, unbeknownst to me in ‘85, the aromatic note coming from those Mourvedre grapes, and clinging to the skin on my hands, even after I’d washed them, following the manual punchdown work I performed so happily. Mulberry, and a whisper of the bloody smell of fresh, raw beef. The effect of that combination of smells on my nervous system was nearly incantatory; I was under a spell, once again!
It’s the same each year; the cold mornings, the low sky, the feeling of being unstuck in time, and, too, the mournfulness at the passing of another year, a small grief that starts somewhere in the bones and works its way through the muscles, through the heart, and on up into the mind, which toils to know the words that can hold it, for another time.
This Mourvedre will be pressed in a few days, and, when a tank becomes available to accomplish it, it will be blended with Syrah and Grenache from the same vineyard, then the blend will be returned to the concrete vat in which the other two varieties were fermented, and the 2010 Rocks And Gravel will begin its long winter’s nap, and the 26th harvest for Edmunds St. John will be complete.
As much as any year, 2010 has had its ups and downs. We finally got enough rain to ease the worries about water supply. We had a very cool Spring and Summer (some would say no Summer at all) that provided what I felt were ideal conditions for ripening the grapes in a way that makes for wines with exceptional structure, balance, liveliness, and very modest alcohol levels; put simply, the wines from 2010 will be fun to drink. The very cool Spring, however, also produced such a severe frost at Witters Vineyard (our main source of Gamay), that the harvest there was down, from 2009, by 75%!
We made a Syrah from Wylie and Fenaughty Vineyards in 2010, the first since ’05, and I expect it will be quite lovely. (The ’05 was the subject of a very nice write-up in The Art of Eating this past Winter, which was especially satisfying, considering the highly thoughtful nature of that journal, and the company it put us in.) We also made a bit more of the afore-mentioned Rocks and Gravel, and, thus far, it promises to be beguiling, and delicious.
After the few flurries of rain we’ve seen this Fall, the garden is in disarray; it’s time to yank out the sad-looking tomato plants, the gargantuan, wasted-looking zucchini, the withering cucumbers, turn under the haricots verts, the weeds, and put in more kale, maybe chard, maybe some fava beans. Let the Winter come, let it do its slow and quiet work. Make some tea, build a fire. Snooze…
Peace to you, in this dark season, turning…
Steve and Cornelia
2007 Pinot Gris (redux) This is one of those wines that never seems to shout for attention, that’s just a pleasure to drink, yet utterly devoid of bells and whistles. So a portion of it just kind of languished in the background for a couple of years, and, not so surprisingly, got better and better. It’s the last Pinot Gris we produced from Witters Vineyard, and it’s really singing these days.
The nose is fresh, a little smoky, showing pear and apple, a background note of lemon and spearmint. On the palate it’s lean and lively, yet the flavors are persistent and persuasive, lingering for some time after the wine slides gracefully down the gullet.
We’ve served this with hors d’oeuvres, fruits de mer, fowl and fromage, pork, pesto, and pumpkin risotto, and it’s been delicious every time. Formerly $16.00, specially priced at:
$12.00 per bottle, $120 by the case
2009 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir The 2009 growing season in the upper elevations of the Sierra Foothills made me feel like I’d done a great job of finding just the right places to plant Gamay in California. To give wine with the kind of exuberance, and prettiness, and aromatic precision for which this variety is known, there can’t be too much alcohol, and because California tends to have such a long, and warm growing season, finding a spot where one might expect the grapes to be able to hang long enough to develop perfume and flavor without a lot of alcohol is a tricky proposition. In 2009 we harvested beautifully ripe Gamay from our two foothill plantings, Witters Vineyard and Barsotti Vineyard, that gave us a wine topping out at all of 12.3%!
2009 was vintage #8 for Gamay from Witters, and #3 from Barsotti, so we’re still in the steep part of the learning curve, but it seems like we’ve begun to get a pretty good feel for what these vineyards want to do, and the wine’s really beginning to bear that out. This is the first year we blended the wine from the two sites, and I’m thrilled with the result.
The color is a light, very vibrant purply-red. The nose is high-toned, fresh and full of bright raspberry. Behind the raspberry, some mulberry, a little blood, a bit of cracked pepper. The wonderful natural acidity of Gamay electrifies the flavors, and the finish, as ever, is both thirst-quenchingly refreshing, and thirst-inspiring (not to mention hunger-provoking—as in grilled something, or maybe salumi, or sheep-milk cheese, or—too many good things to recount!) . If your bones aren’t jolly after a taste of this, I’ll eat my hat!
$16.00 per bottle, $170 by the case
2008 Porphyry Gamay Noir, Barsotti Ranch 2008 is the second vintage for Barsotti Vineyard, and, as with the first, there’s such a distinct difference to the fruit from this granite-based site in comparison to the Witters Vineyard, our original Gamay planting. The color is deeper, the wine shows, aromatically, a different coloration: more purple to the red, more black raspberry, not so much mulberry. And there’s more tannin, a more insistent texture to give shape to all the pretty fruit.
In 2007 we didn’t de-stem; there was so little fruit, and it made pressing much simpler to leave the grapes on the stems. In ’08, to get a clearer picture of the differences in the two vineyards, we de-stemmed it all (as we did the Witters grapes), and it brings the fruit character forward a bit more.
It’s a gorgeous purple-red, medium-deep. Lovely nose, raspberries, a little iodine, some earth-tones, tremendous depth. Suave and soft in the mouth, yet quite shapely from tender tannins, and vibrant acidity. Really long raspberry-toned flavors, great texture. Quite refreshing, and absolutely shouting for something tasty to munch on! The taste lingers, invitingly, for quite some time.
The last bottling of Porphyry for awhile, and one not to miss!
$20.00 per bottle, $200.00 by the case
2009 Rocks And Gravel, Dry Creek Valley Rocks and Gravel has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts, and like any metamorphosis worth its salt, there needs to be a period spent gestating, which, at least partially, explains the gap between the last Rocks and Gravel, from 2005 vintage, and this one. The ’05 was a really good wine that was put together from more than a dozen separate lots of fruit, from eleven different vineyards. To be able to produce something that cohesive and integrated from so many different sources and situations was like getting monkeys to write Midsummernight’s Dream in Pig-Latin, on the hubcaps of a taxicab barreling down 7th Avenue (Stop That Metaphor!); if you saw it happen with your own eyes you’d never believe it! We didn’t want to push our luck, so we stepped back, took a deep breath, and waited for a sign.
In the meantime, in Spring of ’09 we were offered some marvelous Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre grapes from Unti Vineyard in Healdsburg for the ’09 harvest, not too long after which we acquired a concrete tank in which to ferment and age just such a wine. Unti farms their grapes adhering to organic and biodynamic practices; they deservedly have a reputation for the highest quality and integrity. I think their Grenache grapes may be as good as any grown in California, and their Mourvedre, also, really seems quite exceptional. Lo and behold! What was old becomes new again!
This baby is dark, in the blue and purple end of red; it has a deep and penetrating, slightly feral nose, fresh, bloody, spicy, and very mineral. It coats the palate, on entry, with lovely gripping tannins, then opens up into intense dark fruit enlivened by refreshing acidity. Finishes long and firm. A keeper, needing a few seasons to gestate, I’d say. It has its youthful charms, oh yeah, but there are glory days ahead for the ’09 Rocks, down the road a piece.
$24.00 per bottle, $259.20 by the case
2009 Wylie Syrah, El Dorado County In 1998 when I first worked with Syrah from the property planted near Georgetown two years earlier by Butch Wylie, there was such a small amount of fruit that I considered blending the wine it produced with the wine from the Fenaughty Vineyard, a few miles away, at the same elevation in Placerville. The Wylie was big and dark, smoky and redolent of olives and dark cherries; the Fenaughty was prettier, more elegant, finer, giving off aromas of violets, cracked pepper, raspberry. The attraction of opposites seemed like the proverbial match-made-in-heaven. Thus began the great collaboration known as “Wylie-Fenaughty,” one that has begun to have, seemingly, a life of its own.
I bottled a Fenaughty Syrah from the ’97 vintage, but had never bottled a separate wine just from Wylie. In ’09 I had my hands pretty full, so I limited production of Syrah to a few bins from the steepest terraced section at Wylie, which I usually like the best. The grapes were not de-stemmed; I used my feet on this one! We pressed at dryness, and filled four six-year old barrels with the wine. It got racked in the Spring, and again before bottling, in July. There are just under 100 cases.
It’s quite dark, lots of blue and purple in the red. The nose is smoky, deep and opulent, with olives and some pepper, a dash of iodine. In the mouth there’s tremendous grip, though the tannins have a charming predisposition to melt nicely. Flavors tight-knit, with bacon, some spice, some iron. Still settling down in bottle (after only a few months); can use a good deal of patience, and seems likely to sail gracefully along for a minimum of 25-30 years, perhaps much more than that.
$28.00 per bottle, $300 by the case
(if you’re interested in purchasing the wines listed above, please contact us at:
email@example.com or by phoning (510) 981-1510.)
You dress up in silver…
Celebrating a 25th Anniversary takes some getting used to, so I’m still trying to get the hang of it. It’s good practice; next March Cornelia and I will mark 25 years as wife and husband! Hallelujah!!!!!
We were in New York over the Hallowe’en/All Saints’ Day/Day of the Dead transition, and had occasion to eat and drink in celebration of many good things. At the wonderful restaurant called Trestle-On-Tenth, on November 2, el Día de los Muertos, a group of like-minded wine and food lovers toasted the living and the dead with a meal that featured, among other treats, our 1987 Syrah, which I’d overnighted from California especially for the occasion.
I remember the ’87 harvest most vividly for the following issues: I had a pinched nerve in my neck, forcing me to wear a cervical collar for most of the harvest. I had an infection in my knee (called “housemaids’ knee”) for much of the harvest. Our press burst into flames when we turned it on after loading it for the first time that season. The press we borrowed to get us through while our press was being repaired also broke down. Etc., etc., etc.,….
But the Syrah we received in ’87 from Durell Vineyard in Sonoma Valley seemed really marvelous; I was really impressed by how the aromatics brought to mind the better wines from Syrah grown in the Northern Rhône. We also worked with a small amount of fruit from old vines in McDowell Valley in Mendocino County, and it added a bit of meatiness to the wine from the Sonoma fruit. When we bottled the wine, near the end of 1988, I never imagined what it might taste like more than two decades later.
If I remember correctly, this ’87 Syrah was poured with a truffled pork loin, and the wine brought the group of us, some 15 or 16 people (sadly, not including Cornelia, who’d flown back home that morning), to near silence, as we dipped our noses into our glasses. It was really quite magnificent, and still youthful, vigorous, fresh! Years ahead of it!
Seems like sometimes we just roll along through the years like water running downhill. And other times we can’t take more than a couple of steps without stumbling, and bumping up against everything, and nearly every other step has to be hammered out, and retrenched. I think we’ve come to know both of those kinds of navigating the passage of years, and I’m just glad they both count. Come raise a glass with us December 5, and be of good cheer!
Please join us to celebrate!
EDMUNDS ST. JOHN
25th Anniversary Fete du Vin Extravaganza
Sunday, December 5th 2010 From Noon -5pm
at Emmett Eilands’s, 1326 Ninth St., in Berkeley
(also featuring Eno and Broc Cellars)
RSVP: (510) 981-1510 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org