Ridin’ Six White Horses (Welcome to Peoria!)
There was a time in the mid-nineties when things seemed to run pretty smoothly in the operation of Edmunds St. John. Our wines seemed to be only getting better and better, the wine writers that knew about us all seemed to have nice things to say. We’d bottle up a vintage, send out the allocations, and sell most everything in pretty short order. Like a Swiss watch, this little enterprise.
We’d succeeded in generating, from thin air, apparently, a market for something that had seemed completely unimaginable, just a few short years before. It hadn’t been easy, but it seemed that by merely following my nose, the way had opened before me. (I chalked it up to blind luck, and intuition; that line on our label isn’t merely as funny as it reads.) So, somewhere along the way it sank in; this baby is up and running! It has a life of its own!
Then, abruptly, it was quiet out there in the marketplace. Too quiet… But you know, the marketplace has its own ideas, and though for awhile it seemed easy to imagine that we’d found a way to fill a niche that had been begging to be discovered, the idea that we could just keep doing what we’d been doing for as long as we cared to seemed unlikely to be a sound option. I remembered reading how Moctezuma dreamed of Quetzlcoatl’s reappearance right before Cortez showed up. And out of perhaps the same thin air I mentioned earlier, the thought came to me: Something has to change. There was that intuition, again. Now I just had to figure out what the heck it meant.
Agriculture is a particularly unreliable line of work, and winemaking depends, completely, on what happens in the fields, in the sky, in the marketplace, in the banks, whether it happens to us or to the farmers. Things change, whether we do or not. In the space of a few months in ’96, a couple of vineyards I’d counted on for years stopped being such a slam-dunk. Since the success we’d had was so inseparable from the raw materials we used, we needed to find a way to ensure we could get the raw materials we needed on an ongoing basis.
We seemed to have succeeded with our supply problem when we found a vineyard to grow Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne and Counoise for us in Paso Robles, and another source a ways west to grow cool-climate Syrah as well. The first wines from these sources were really exciting to me; I felt that at last, after 15 years, I’d finally become able to produce the wines I’d first imagined making when we started out.
Yet, that pesky marketplace kept rearing its ugly head, in new ways, ways I don’t even want to think about any more, because I feel like I’ve been thinking about them endlessly now, for far too long. People I’ve known in the business for nearly thirty years told me a long time ago that just because a wine is good (or even really good) doesn’t mean it will sell. “Sure it’s good,” the old saying goes, “but will it play in Peoria?” I think that when they first told me that I believed them. Sort of. I insisted to myself, after awhile, though, that if you could just get a wine in the glass, in front of the customer, that if the wine was really good, all resistance would melt and fade away. (My mother was right; sometimes I’m just too damn stubborn.) Lately I’m thinking it’s just not quite so simple.
The people who buy wines for retail shops and for restaurants are absolutely overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of wines they are offered. Same with wine writers. The ability to command the attention of one of these folks for a long enough period of time to comprehend what you’re saying, and to allow the nature of the wine you’re pouring to penetrate one’s consciousness, to the point that one’s memory can be engaged, is being called into serious question. I spoke with a writer a few weeks ago who also buys for an important retail chain in California, who says he tastes more than 8,000 wines each year. That’s an average of nearly two dozen wines every day! (And as far as I know, this guy does take weekends off, and some vacation time each year as well.) And the most influential critics taste many times more wines than that. And the results of all these voluminous tastings are that from the very narrow perspective of what amounts to a snapshot from a very precise instant in the life of a wine that may, in fact, live for a few years or a few decades, a judgement is rendered that becomes, for all practical purposes, a permanent one that can determine the ultimate success or failure of a wine in the marketplace. I’m not sure that’s what anyone had in mind as this phenomenon began to emerge, but, like it or not, that’s become the fundamental dynamic at work.
It took longer than it should have for me to recognize what the meaning of this dynamic is for Edmunds St. John, but it’s become clear that we can’t just keep making all the wines we’ve been making just because we like them.
So we’re cutting our production back for the 2006 vintage; we’ll be crushing somewhat less than half the number of tons we crushed in ’05, and making fewer wines. The focus will narrow and intensify; quality will be paramount. This seems to me to be the only path that might lead toward sustainability.
Edmunds St. John is one of a very small handful of producers that believed in the virtues of the Rhone varieties in California, back when nobody else did, (There are now a couple of hundred wineries producing Syrah, and many others producing Viognier, and various blends that include several varieties that we’ve always worked with; this dramatic proliferation has, of course, had a big impact on our position in the market.) and we’ll continue to produce wines from those varieties. And we’ve gained some real fans for the wines we’ve made from Pinot Gris and Gamay that Bob Witters and Ron Mansfield planted for us six years ago, and they will continue to be important wines for us.
Our winemaking approach has long been to vinify wines that emphasize structure, balance, grace and elegance. That approach has always distinguished Edmunds St. John from most of the producers in the state, and that approach won’t change. We think those kinds of wines are more fun to drink, and when wine makes your heart glad, it’s a reminder of the wondrous gifts life has to offer us.