Fall 1999 Newsletter
Out Standing in His Field
October 6, 1999: Steve Hill, who farms Syrah vines at two properties in Sonoma Valley that produce a couple of our best wines, left me a message a few days ago, alerting me to the approach of ripeness in his Parmelee-Hill vineyard. Steve, who is an outstanding grapegrower, is also a good communicator, and he likes to walk you through his own thought process so that when he reaches his conclusion, you’re right there with him. “I think the fruit is probably pretty close … we really saw things move over the last few days … the vines have lost quite a few leaves, and the grapes have been out there a long time; the vines really look like they know it’s October.” It was those last nine words that really got my attention.
Steve knows I like to pick when I’m convinced, after tasting the grapes, that the field is really ripe. We both have good equipment and techniques for determining the percentage of sugar in the grape juice (which will determine the amount of alcohol the wine will have), for measuring the pH and titrating the acidity levels in the grapes, even for breaking down the levels among different kinds of acidity (malic, tartaric) and assessing phenolic content. But the flavors, the ripeness of tannins, the real maturity of the grapes can only be evaluated by taking a slow walk among the grapevines, up and down a number of rows, tasting fruit. At first this tasting is very focussed, and attentive. Then, after awhile, the experience of being in the vineyard (away from the highway, away from the stereo and the computer screen, the telephone, the stack of bills, the answering machine, the schedules,and the salesmen), and of feeling the ground under your shoes, the wind on your face,the sun on your back, of hearing the sound of birds in the surrounding trees and sky, then the silence, carries you into a kind of absent-mindedness, an empty-ness that lets the fruit, and the vineyard tell you if it’s ripe, or not.
In his message Steve urged me to come up soon. And of course in doing so, I couldn’t help noticing the lost leaves, the leaves turned yellow. The bunches here and there marked by the absence of grapes that had been pecked away by birds. The scat of deer and raccoon littered with grape seeds. The vines really did look like they knew it was October.
In this world besieged by information, it feels like we have precious few opportunities to experience that kind of knowing, here at the end of the second millennium. If we can buy tomatoes in New York in March, if we can drive through the Mojave desert in July, and the temperature inside the car is 68 degrees Fahrenheit, if we can jog through Golden Gate Park with headphones and never hear the wind or the song of birds, can we ever know it’s October?
I’m a Baby-Boomer, born in ’47, and though I’ve finally begun to use a computer in the past year (and even to enjoy it), I often feel the world has just rocketed right by me in the last 15 or 20 years, so that I sometimes wonder just what I really know. I know that wine speaks to me, sings sometimes, of the place where it grows, the season when it grew, the attentiveness of the grower, the sensibility of the ones who vinified it. The love they have (or don’t) for what they do, for the vines and the grapes they tend. And when it is very, very good, it sings as well, I think, of the possibility life can offer us for connection to all that surrounds us, to each other, and to the earth. And of what a measureless gift that is.
So, each Fall, out in the fields, there we are, me and the grapevines in conversation, getting to know one another, and I’ve come to cherish the company.
2000 Years Later
We’ve been small a long time now. There are still tons of people who’ve never heard of us, even in Berkeley. We’ve been small for a simple reason; there haven’t been a lot of really, really good Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache and Viognier grapes available for us to purchase. There have been some fairly good ones, some merely OK ones, some pretty mediocre ones. We could have bought lots of those and probably quadrupled our size. (That would, by the way, still make us pretty small. In fact, we’re not really just small right now, we’re WAY TINY) But then, how would we sell the wine if I didn’t even like it? Sure, somebody might buy it. Once.
After the 1997 harvest I began to get really worried about my grape supply when Ed Durell told me he was going to sell his vineyard. The Syrah wine grown at Durell vineyard was responsible for much of the good reputation we have, despite producing only a few hundred cases each year. We’d already lost access to our best Mourvèdre source the prior year; for a dozen years that fruit had anchored another of our best-known wines:”Les Cotes Sauvages”. When we blended Grenache and Syrah from the 1997 vintage without that Mourvèdre, the wine no longer tasted like “Les Cotes Sauvages”, necessitating suspension of the use of that name, for the time being. (Rocks and Gravel was the name we gave to the Mourvèdre-less blend; it’s a delicious wine, and has sold briskly)
We’d been lucky over the years to find some extraordinarily good sources of first-quality fruit, often stumbling onto them at just the moment they happened to become available. It probably helped to be looking long before anyone else had begun. Yet, I’d begun to think my luck had run out after my conversation with Ed Durell. The prospect of developing new fruit sources that might (or might not) give me the same level of quality, and that would be unfamiliar to my customers, was daunting.
Now, I’d have to say I underestimated the nature and scope of my good fortune (then again, perhaps we all do, much of the time.); I feel like I’ve got new, exciting grape sources coming out of my ears. If all goes according to plan (OK, if it just gets sort of close), by 2005 our production will rise from under 4000 cases per year, currently, to somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 cases. The best part is, I think the new sources may permit Edmunds St. John to produce the best wines we’ve ever made.
What are the new sources? Where are they? You know that old saying about teaching an old dog new tricks. If I think it’s hard to get around to all the different places I get grapes from now (Ukiah, Sonoma, Placerville, Omo Ranch, Lotus,Georgetown) how the hell am I going to add Annapolis, Cambria and Paso Robles to the list, and still have time to tie my shoes and cook breakfast? That’s a good question, and one of just a few I’ll be working on as this new millennium unfolds. (For those of you who might be a little fuzzy on the whereabouts of some of the towns listed above, Ukiah’s over here, Placerville’s over there, Annapolis is way to hell and gone west from Healdsburg, Cambria’s about halfway to Australia, and Paso Robles? That’s where the millennial Hospice du Rhône event occurs next June (see below).
Summer on the Horizon!
You can get an early start on planning a great June getaway by marking these dates in your 2000 calendars; June 15,16, and 17 in Paso Robles, California the vintners of the cepages du Rhône from all over the world will gather again for a series of exciting tastings, informative and entertaining seminars, delicious meals and a splendid auction of several dozen very special and unique wines produced for that auction, which benefits the Hospice of San Luis Obispo County. This year’s event was a huge success, and the 2000 event figures to be even better. If you really like wine, especially wine made from Rhône grapes, if you really like the beautiful California countryside in June, and like the feel of an old, charming small California farm town, this event is the place to be. We will be pouring wine there again , and, of course auctioning off a wine for the Hospice. This year I led a seminar on Mourvèdre that attracted a crowd; next year? If you want to find out, call (805) 239-1205, or check out www.HospiceDuRhone.com on the web. Hope to see you there.
And Now for Something Completely Different …
Last year I wrote a newsletter for the first time since 1990; this year, trying to write one again, I’m beginning, perhaps, to understand a bit about the reasons for the interval. When I finished writing last year’s version, and the holiday season came and went, the hustle and bustle died down and the dust settled, I finally sat down and reread it, and I could hardly believe how UNCOMMERCIAL it was! I don’t think I said buy or save or any of those other B(or)S words that usually accompany holiday season mail, even once. No product lists. No price lists. No suggestions for what to pour with turkey or plum pudding. No pairings of Zinfandel with Jolly Old St. Nicholas and Pinot Grigio with It Came Upon A Midnight Clear. And some part of me began shouting at some other part of me, “You’re a failure! You call yourself a businessman? You didn’t even try to sell one of your products! Not one!” So, you can imagine how much I’ve been looking forward to writing this newsletter.
All right, look. We have wine to sell. You should try it. Come to a tasting. We’ll talk about it. How’s that? Did I mention we’re going to have a web-site? which brings us…
Back to the Future!!!
Yes, it’s true. EdmundsStJohn.com is a registered domaine; the site is under construction, and should be online early in twentydoublenaught. Bringing you more information than you know what to do with to help you decide which Edmunds St. John wine you should serve tonight! (shameless, no?) You’ll find photos of each of our vineyard sources, and some of the growers, action shots from the vinification process, discussion of vineyard sites, grape varieties, winemaking techniques, tasting notes, harvest reports, soup to nuts.
For the wine geek with aplomb, it’s gotta be EdmundsStJohn.com!
Need a nightcap after the prom? Click EdmundsStJohn.com.
Time to butter up your Mom? Go to Edmunds StJohn.com.
C’est l’heure pour separer les garcons des hommes? Vous avez besoin d’EdmundsStJohn.com.
Can’t tell the Reform party candidates from Sadaam? Neither can we.
See you on the web. Our best wishes for the season to you.
The Oral Tradition
I’m not an accomplished (much less trained) cook, but I enjoy cooking a lot, probably because smelling and tasting give me so much pleasure. In late Summer and early Fall, when I shop for dinner, fresh cranberry beans always catch my eye. The color of the pods never fails to both shock and delight, and I’m completely seduced by it, and know at once that I’ll have to build the evening’s dinner around these brash legumes. In sorting through the bin for the best ones to take home, there’s some real pleasure, too, in testing each of the pods against the skin of one’s fingers for the size of the beans and the soundness of their texture. I pick out a pound and a half, maybe two pounds. Yikes! What am I going to do with them? Let’s see; … garlic, fennel, radicchio, some onion. Some arugula. There’s still just a few beautiful heirloom tomatoes in the market (an array of colors). Some Calamata olives. A couple of small pieces of swordfish. (I hope my doctor’s reading this; it sounds pretty healthy.)
My wife will kill me. She left a message saying she had to work late, and when she comes home, she’d really like to have just a really simple, quick supper, because she’s got a million things to do. It could take me a couple of hours to do this. Because I’m SLOW. And DISORGANIZED. No problem. Just start NOW, it’s still early (only 5:00PM). First things first: open up a bottle of wine — a nice little Cotes-du-Rhône (Edmunds St. John ROCKS AND GRAVEL works pretty well with this menu, by the way), or some youthful dry, fruity red that’s a bit spicy, too. Put on some music — say Bach Cello Suites, The Buena Vista Social Club, maybe Bonnie Rideout. Something soulful that reminds you where your wiring is. Sit down with a glass of the wine and the sound, and shell the beans, as you feel the afternoon fade into evening, feel the Summer fade into Autumn.
Rinse the beans and drain. Finely chop a couple of nice, plump cloves of garlic. Finely chop half a firm red onion. Heat two tablespoons or so of olive oil in a large skillet, toss in first the garlic (I always add the garlic first because the smell when it begins to heat up in the olive oil is so lovely), then the onion, and cook, stirring more or less constantly until they are soft, but not brown. Add in a couple of loosely chopped bulbs of fennel (you already chopped them, right? I told you I was disorganized), and cook over low to moderate heat for a few minutes, until the fennel is tender, adding oil, if necessary, and stirring frequently. Turn off burner. Pour a second glass of wine (a glass of wine, in my house, is three to four ounces), and sit down again for a few more minutes, to chop the radicchio. I love sauteed radicchio, particularly with fennel. The texture and the slight bitterness have a kind of soul-soothing effect, that feels both relaxing and energizing at the same time. It doesn’t take long to chop the radicchio, but it’s so much more like pleasure sitting, with wine and music, than standing. Place the drained beans in a small enamel pot, with water enough to cover them. Cook at a slow boil for a while, (15-20 minutes or so) until tender. Drain immediately, and set aside in a bowl.
Wash and drain (spin) one and a half to two cups arugula, first picking out wilted leaves and long stems. Slice, or cut into 1/6ths (wedges) two or three of the heirloom tomatoes, preferably of different colors. Set aside on a plate.
Turn on the broiler. Grind a little black pepper over one side of the swordfish. Broil a few minutes, close to the flame, pepper side up, till skin just begins to crisp. While the first side of the swordfish is in broiler, add the radicchio to the skillet with the fennel, and cook over medium heat, stirring often. When radicchio is wilted, and its color has changed, stir in beans, and toss in roughly half a cup of pitted and halved Calamata olives. Stir briefly and remove from heat. Turn swordfish and grind pepper on the uncooked side, then broil a few minutes longer. I like the fish just barely cooked in the middle, and still moist and sizzling.
Serve the swordfish on a small bed of arugula with the fennel/radicchio mixture and the tomatoes on either side. If you like, it’s nice to drizzle some really good Tuscan olive oil on the tomatoes, or even on all three dishes, and grind a bit of fresh pepper on the tomatoes. (You may have noticed I’ve made no mention of salt. Mostly I don’t use any, but you may want some.) Pour wine. Kiss the one you love, who’s just gotten home from working late, and can’t resist the smell of what you’ve prepared. Light the candles, sit down. Eat. Remember what dinner is for. (Serves two.)