IN THE BLEAK MIDWINTER:
One thing that happened, without my planning for it, back in 1985 when I first started Edmunds St. John, was that I began to pay a lot more attention to the weather. Of course it makes sense that I would do that, but I imagine most people might think of that as something that only matters around harvest time. As I mentioned last Spring, it also, of course, applies to the rest of the season, from the time the vines begin to push open their buds and send out new growth each year, and there is, early in the season, the worry about frost. But really, there isn’t any time when the weather doesn’t have some impact, either long or short term.
This has been the coldest season we’ve had in a number of years in the Northern part of the state, (I spoke with Steve Hill, from Durell and Parmelee-Hill, a few days ago, and he said he’d never known so many mornings when the temperature had dropped down to 26 degrees Fahrenheit — “it’s gotta be a record” was the way he put it.) and I’ve noticed it by how large a portion of our firewood stack I’ve burned through this year, and by the fact that it wasn’t until the 2nd or 3rd of February that the apricot tree in our backyard began to push open a few buds (and that only after about 4 or 5 days of very balmy weather featuring temperatures above 70 degrees.) approximately two and a half to three weeks later than it’s done for the past eight or nine years. It’s snowing on Mt. Diablo as I write this, and it feels cold enough here in Berkeley, I’m not so sure it isn’t snowing on Grizzly Peak.
People often ask me, when there’s been a really severe winter, especially when there’s flooding, what it means for the grapes. This cold winter has to be good, especially after so many really mild ones. The vines have been getting what amounts to a good rest, for a change, and should be healthier and more vigorous because of it. Another benefit is the probability of the delayed onset of budbreak, which shortens the frost season, once the vines do begin to grow.
Partly because it’s been so cold, it’s rained quite a bit less than in recent years, so if there’s a downside to the cold it would be that the already high demand on the water supply to an ever-increasing multitude of thirsty vines is being exacerbated by the diminished renewal of that supply. I’ve been hearing from a lot of farmers that they’re worried, and it’s interesting to me to hear that kind of talk so early in the year, because back between ’86 and ’93 there were six consecutive years of scarce rain, and nobody was that worried. I don’t know about you, but my first thought is that maybe there’s too many grapevines. Funny thing for a winemaker to say, perhaps, but that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Organolepticians — Phone Home!
If you’re receiving this missive, you’ve probably already whiled away some small (or large) parcel of your time exploring our website, but chances are you haven’t seen all the new marvels we’ve engineered therein, recently. There’s lots of new information, a bunch of new pictures, a more easily digestible tour of Edmunds St. John that probably answers a lot more questions. So — pour yourself a glass of something appropriate, and log on for a new visit. I’ll be the designated driver!
It’s hard to imagine, at the outset of the 21st Century, what it might have been like when the first few vintages came in at St. Joseph, or Hermitage (how many hundreds of years ago?). By now what we realistically think of (in California) as the “potential” a site may have for producing wine of significantly compelling character, is so well established and documented in those areas that the really extraordinary vintages are taken in stride, as part of the ebb and flow of things, the normal rhythm of Nature’s processes.
I’ve been working with Syrah, now for 16 years, which makes me one of California’s (quote-unquote) “elder statesmen” with the variety. Yet, for me, the appearance of something akin to what Europeans experience as the extraordinary vintage (in the Great Ebb and Flow) feels more like what the natives of the Western Hemisphere might have experienced upon first sighting the Europeans’ sudden appearance, in sailing ships, on the Eastern horizon more than 500 years ago. Or maybe what it was like for some old prospector in the Sierra Foothills 152 or 3 years ago to suddenly find that his pans kept coming up full of gleaming yellow nuggets.
I can only speak for my own experience; I never knew, when I began this enterprise in 1985, what the first wine might be like about which I could say “this is something like what I set out to do,” but I knew that I would recognize it when it came. And, at last, come it has! It didn’t come from vineyards I hadn’t worked with before(though one of them, admittedly, is almost new, contributing for this wine the fruit from only its 2nd year of production). It’s not from what is generally thought of as one of California’s “premier” vineyard areas (meaning ONLY that it’s not from Napa or Sonoma). It does, I believe, represent the conjunction of exceptional matches of site and grape variety with an exceptional vintage, and a very attentive performance in the vineyard, and in the cellar, (ONE TRANSLATION that applies: produced and bottled by Intuition and Blind Luck), which conjunction, I am more convinced than ever, is what it takes to produce great wine.
So, without further fanfare, may I introduce:
1999 Syrah “Wylie-Fenaughty” which I believe will dazzle, from start to finish.
1999 was, in many respects, the perfect kind of harvest, at least for us. Very cool growing season, but essentially dry and mild, after April, and virtually rain-free through harvest, with sufficient warmth to give good ripeness and balance. (Ripening was, also, quite gradual and orderly, so the winemaker sailed through with a smile on his face.) If this wine looks good, now, (and it does — believe me — it looks great!) just wait, say five years. Its going to be scary.
Odd as it may seem, we’re also releasing our 1999 Durell Vineyard Syrah at this same time. It’s certainly still a young wine, (as is the Wylie-Fenaughty) but the days of the BIG meaty, powerhouse wines from Durell seem to have passed, and I think it’s because all the fruit is now coming from the Carneros section of the ranch where it’s cooler and the result is leaner, prettier, finer wines that still, distinctively say Sonoma (not El Dorado), that say Durell, (not Parmelee-Hill), but offer a bit more, earlier on, than some of their predecessors from the warmer part of the property. (I’m tasting the wine as I’m writing this, and it’s smoky, and velvety, and weighty as it needs to be, and it’s been open 26 hours, or so, by now. It’s still real serious wine.)
These wines will be available after March 1st, 2001. They will both be poured, along with an older Viognier, the new Rocks and Gravel, and an older Les Côtes Sauvages. (Ahhh… remember Les Côtes Sauvages?) at the Rhone Ranger tasting at Fort Mason March 31.
YOU GONNA BE THERE? Phone (707) 939-8014 for more info. Or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org You don’t want to miss it.
I discovered, by accident, a post on a wine chat board (marksquires.com) about the March, 2001 Sunset magazine, the theme for which is “Best Of The West.” There’s a section on wine, written, I believe (though I haven’t yet seen it.), by Karen MacNeil, who I happen to think is one of the very best wine writers in this country. There’s a list of 10 bests in the wine section, the first of which is Best Winemaker.
Lucky for me, the name of this esteemed practitioner of vinous devotions is none other than Steve Edmunds. As Casey Stengel once said: “You could look it up.” (Or maybe it was Yogi Berra)
Adios for now.
FLASH!!! A report has come in regarding a cafe in the vicinity of Los Alamos, New Mexico that plays contemporary music, and sells Cds. The cafe had obtained a copy of the CD “Lonesome On The Ground” by the winemaker Steve Edmunds, and had begun playing it with some frequency for their patrons, when they abruptly discovered that someone had stolen it. There were apparently no witnesses.
Reached at his home in Berkeley, California, the artist commented that it was the second copy he knew of that had been stolen (the first was apparently pilfered from the front porch of Laurie Lewis, the album’s producer), and that he hoped this sort of activity wouldn’t “become too trendy.” (Esoterica Wire Service)