What an excellent tasting tonight at Storyteller Wine Company in Portland with Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John. After all these years, I finally connect IRL with Steve, maker of some of my favorite California wines and something of an inspiration for my own winemaking.
I arrived hoping not to monopolize Steve with my geeky wine questions and fawning. Turns out I did monopolize his time, but without asking too many questions. He seemed delighted to talk shop and I know enough of his history to chime in with comments that only opened the door to more knowledge. You often hear of people being "great guys" but Steve really is.
We talked about old Brandlin Ranch mourvedre and how Steve lucked out to work with old vines and wise old farmers early in his career who taught him so much about grapes. We talked about his making wine in Alameda, CA, and up in the Sierra foothills where he's sourcing a good quanity of obviously terrific grapes. We talked about not owning vineyards, how even an established guy doesn't always get to call picking times if he's not a significant buyer at a particular site (not common for Steve, but still an issue once in a while). Most memorably, we talked about energy.
No, not hippie crystal energy. Rather, we talked about how, as wine grapes mature, they slowly creep up in pH to a point after which they tend to shoot up in pH rather quickly. Steve wants to pick generally right before the big jump, when flavors have developed but before the flavors loose their energy because of low acidity. I'd never thought about it that way. I know that acidity carries flavor, that low acid wines can have tons of up front flavor but tend to fade quickly. Higher acid wines with lower pHs have the acid structure to carry flavors through to a long finish. That effect is what Steve attributes to energy. I think that's exactly right and exactly what makes Edmunds St. John wines so delicious and, in California at least, unique. (Posting on Twitter in the past hour, I wrote about Steve's wines having "energy" and Randall Graham of Bonny Doon commented that Steve's wines have "life force." Yes, that too!)
For the geeky, Steve said that he likes to pick fruit with pH below 3.5, otherwise the energy falls apart and there's no life. I've picked grapes on both sides of 3.5 and I have to say I'm leaning to the short side of 3.5 from here on out. That's not absolute, but even in a hot year like 2009 where we waited to pick so flavors could develop, I see that I could have picked earlier and had ripe flavors without degradation of acidity.
Ok, how were the Edmunds St. John wines? Wow, really good. Really full of energy, so that I'm feeling the energy and life force to write about them. We started with the 2008 Heart of Gold, a 59% Vermentino (Rolle) and 41% Grenache Blanc blend from the Sierra Foothills. This was indeed golden, minerally and full of life. I sensed a bit of alcohol that detracted but these were quick tastes and I'd gladly try this again. Then the 2009 Bone-Jolly Gamay Rose from the Witters Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills that was crisp with minerally strawberry, pretty nice. Steve isn't one to toot his own horn, but he's really happy with this and I won't argue.
The first red was the 2008 Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir Witters Vineyard, the red version of the rose. This is classic gamay, worthy of cru Beaujolais with what must be Sierra terroir. Bright and perfumed, with great soil notes and juicy gamay spice. I would have bought any of these, but I did buy this. Then the 2006 That Old Black Magic, a blend of sources that used to go into my old favorite Rocks and Gravel. This was darker and more dense than I remember any Rocks and Gravel, usually more bright red and peppery. Still, I like.
Finally, two syrah that again completely turn the notion of California syrah (or pretty much any new world syrah) on end. First, the 2005 Syrah Parmelee-Hill Vineyard from the Sonoma Valley that made me think of Cornas or Hermitage. Lots of olive and game notes that I love in syrah, with excellent tannic texture and full, juicy flavors. I also bought this. At the mid-$20s, this is ridiculous value in ageworthy but already delicious syrah. Then the 2005 Syrah Bassetti Vineyard, with intense floral notes that made me think Cote Rotie and a saline scent that reminded me these grapes came from just a few miles off the central California coast. I asked if this is on limestone soil, but Steve says basalt, something we know well here in the northwest. Sometimes locals say basalt is a country cousin to granite and limestone, but this wine alone reminds me that basalt is an excellent growing medium. What intensity and density, again lots of olive notes and rich flavors that are still bright and energetic.
I've written before about how Robert Parker has taken Steve to task for trying to make French wines in California. More than ever, I think that's simply wrong. What Steve's making is all California, just full of energy that can't help but connect to his French inspiration. There are no French wines that taste like this, and no California wines that taste like there. These wines are unique. It's no knock that they're so different from most of what you get from my home, the Golden State, nor that in a line up of top French wines, they'd more than hold their own. All that and these are all, with the exception of the $45 Bassetti, priced under $30 with most under $20. That's even more absurd than Parker's comments.