A Chat with Steve Edmunds

7/27/11 -

(Actions speak louder than words)

Steve Edmunds is one of our favorite wine producers and possibly one of the sweetest guys in the industry. His wine, under the label Edmunds St. John, defies preconceived notions. It is un-spoofulated Calfornian wine and it is a négociant wine with integrity. The wines are balanced, delicious and offer an unadorned taste of place. On the homepage of his website, Edmunds says, “As a winemaker, I've deliberately chosen not to court the market, i.e., the commercial context out of which so much modern wine is being formulated. Our wines may or may not receive the highest numerical ratings bestowed by the most popular wine journals. At the moment when the wine is in the glass, and the glass is placed before the taster, the numbers are meaningless; if I can offer someone a wine that is thrilling to smell, that is unforgettable to taste, that taster, being only human, cannot help but respond. If that response is forthcoming, I will have done my job.” 

The Berkley-based winemaker resonates much of CSW’s own philosophy. Earlier this past spring, between Edmunds’ travels along the West Coast and bottling the 2010 Rocks and Gravel, which he describes as “really kind of electrifying”, we got on gmail and the good old-fashioned telephone to talk about vineyards sites, wild yeast fermentation, and a certain cement tank named Roxanne Gravel. – PG

CSW: When did you start making wine?

EDMUNDS: In 1972, as a home winemaker.

CSW: Do you grow your own grapes?

EDMUNDS: I buy all the grapes I use. Many of the grapes are from vineyards that were planted at my request.

CSW: Can you tell me about the location of the vines?

EDMUNDS: Rocks and Gravel comes from Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre grown at Unti Vineyard in Dry Creek Valley [Sonoma County].  Bone-Jolly grapes are from Witters’ Vineyard and Barsotti Ranch, both are above 3,000 feet elevation in the Sierra Foothills. Heart of Gold is also Sierra Foothills, as are the Wylie and Fenaughty Syrah grapes I’ve used.

CSW: Do you allow your wines to ferment on their native yeasts?

EDMUNDS: I do not generally inoculate any ferments, in order to give the organisms, that are naturally present on the grape skins, a chance to exert their influence on the aromatic and flavor development of the wines they produce. It seems to produce a more interesting, subtle kind of wine.

CSW: Can you tell us a bit about your Gamay vines? Whatever possessed you to make wine from Gamay grown in northern California?

EDMUNDS: The only true Gamay Noir au Jus Blanc in California, at the moment, is being grown at Witters and Barsotti, and both plantings were initiated at my request. Witters is at 3,400 feet elevation on volcanic clay-loam, while Barsotti is a couple hundred feet lower and features a lot of decomposed granite, the same kind of soil found in the northern part of Beaujolais. How could anyone not want to make wine from Gamay? I don’t think there’s a more joyous or seductive red grape in the universe. 

CSW: You also make wine from Rhône varieties. Can you tell us a bit about the terroir where your those vines grow?

EDMUNDS: These days Unti, and Fenaughty are my Syrah sources, and the Unti source includes Grenache and Mourvedre, and is blended. The Fenaughty fruit grows in volcanic clay-loam soil at 2,800 feet elevation. 

CSW: I've always enjoyed your incredibly affordable and delicious Rocks and Gravel wine. I shared this bottle with non-industry friends last winter. A whisky drinker in the group tried it and described the wine as “tasting like dirt.” He had it spot on. He wasn't even aware of the name, which hints at what is to come.

EDMUNDS: It’s funny, back in 1987, after I’d just made my first vintage of Syrah from Durell Vineyard, Steve Hill, the Durell vineyard foreman came to visit and taste, and almost the first thing he said was  “I like it; it tastes like dirt!”

CSW: Tell us about your 2010 Bone Jolly Rosé? I adore this wine.

EDMUNDS: I visited Jean-Paul Brun back in March of 2002. It was before the Witters’ Gamay vines produced their first wine and we became friends. When he was here in the Spring of 2006 he mentioned that he was making a rosé from a bit of his fruit. A bright light went on in my brain! All the things I’d want in a rosé Gamay does so beautifully: freshness, delicacy, perfume, structure, charm, seductiveness… so in 2006 I began making one too. It took a few tries to figure out the best handling of the fruit. For the 2010 vintage, we de-stemmed into the press, let it macerate for one and a half hours, and pressed it into stainless, fermented it at 58 degrees, let it rest on primary lees until February, and bottled it in early March.

CSW: I recently tasted a 2004 Roussanne. It was a pretty amazing experience. The wine started off so tight but hours after opening it gave way a little. I wondered about the élevage (how the wine was raised) for this wine and whether you had held the wine back for several years before releasing it.

EDMUNDS: The grapes are from Tablas Creek, grown in limestone and in 2004 the vintage was fairly cool and slow, so there was such great flavor with exceptional structure, and, with very low pH, a tremendous amount of energy. It seems like this wine will live for thirty or forty years! It was fermented in 22 year-old puncheons, no inoculation, and racked into stainless in December of 2004, bottled in February of 2005. If it seemed tight recently, you should have tried it five years ago! I released it in September of ’05, but it sold slowly, because wines with that much structure were definitely not well-regarded in the market at that time. Thank goodness things have changed a bit.

CSW: In 2009 you purchased a concrete tank. And you named her…

EDMUNDS: Roxanne Gravel!

CSW: Which wines do you ferment in concrete and why?

EDMUNDS: The 2009 and, now, 2010 Rocks and Gravel were birthed from Roxanne. Both fermentation and élévage occurred in her dark recesses. Concrete breathes, much the same as oak, but imparts no flavor of its own, so what you end up with is so much closer to what you started with. 

CSW: That sums up why we enjoy your wines — they are as close (in taste) to the raw source itself. Thanks Steve!

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