I've been a drinker of Steve Edmunds' wine ever since New World Red in the 80's. I didn't know it was Steve's wines back then, it was just wine that spoke to me. Only later when I got into this wine writing biz did I realize the man behind the bottle. I deeply respect that he has always held on to his style of winemaking never bowing to fashion. His goal was to be true to himself and California. His wines to me always had a freshness and blend between earth, sea and sun. And so I asked him whether he could talk to us a little about how he thinks about wine and his place in the wine world. Thanks for everything, Steve.
I think I can only speak in terms of what I do, and why. I’m not a farmer, though I love to plant and tend my garden, and seem to have a decent feel for that, and the garden does nicely. I let the bugs and critters have a little more of it than I’d like, and I can feel my murderous side emerge on occasion, mainly in response to the depredations of squirrels.
I’ve learned enough, after nearly three decades of countless visits to vineyards, at all times of the year, to size up what’s going on in most vineyards I visit these days, to know how happy, or not, the vines are, and the rest of the things that grow in the vicinity, both animal and vegetable. It’s important, of course, because the grapes I work with are always better if they come from a place where the farming is done with a light hand, and the farmer loves her vines, and the ground they grow in. The very best grapes I’ve worked with have been farmed organically, (Roussanne from Tablas, Mourvedre from Brandlin, Unti’s grapes), and the ones from old vines, from dry-farmed grapes, even better (see Brandlin Mourvedre, above). And it’s also true that some or all of those variables aren’t always possible, yet the vines may produce stunningly good wines (Wylie-Fenaughty Syrah, Durell Vineyard Syrah, Barsotti Gamay, etc.), and still, they’re grown by farmers who love their vines and the ground they grow in. The farmers do what they do because they’ve done it for a long time, and it works, and the vines thrive, and change happens slowly.
The very most important single act I perform, as a winemaker, is to determine the time to pick. I base that decision on the taste of the grapes, and the sense that taste gives me of the level of ripeness, balance, vibrancy, and energy present in the grapes. After a few seasons practicing, I can begin to feel like the vineyard and I are not strangers. Measuring the Brix and pH is helpful, up to a point. Since this tasting is done again and again in each vineyard, with each lot of fruit, the assessment is gradual, and cumulative; there’s a chance to see and track a progression. My goal, these days, is to pick when the pH is relatively low (between 3.3 and 3.45, generally). One advantage there is that acidulation becomes completely unnecessary. I think acidulation has a taste of its own, and it is a big turnoff for me. (Then again, so is inadequate acidity, or high pH.)
I have to factor in the various occurrences that give the particular growing season in question its distinctive personality, and calculate against the weather forecast every few days. It’s different every year, and it’s not always perfect. If it’s a good year, I do a better job than I did the year before, and the one before that. If a storm blows in, I have to call Nature’s bluff, place the bet, and lay the cards face up, and hold my breath.
I learned, at the outset of my time in the winemaking end of things, that I must keep scrupulously clean anything that will come into contact with either my grapes or my wine; that’s rule #1. Rule #2 is to keep the containers FULL when the fermentation is finished. After that, when the malo’s done (if I’m letting the malo happen--I block with white and pink wine, these days) add a little SO2. I may add a bit more SO2 at bottling, if it seems low (below 15ppm free).
For me, the approach to what I do has been an evolution. I’ve learned to be pro-active, starting with trying to source grape varieties from places which I feel are appropriate for optimal ripeness. In numerous cases that has meant establishing new plantings. From the standpoint of vinification, if I make a proper picking decision, and the weather cooperates, making the wine is like child’s play.
For the past 11 vintages my wines have fermented almost entirely without inoculation of any commercial yeasts. I'd not thought much about the question before that, though I'd had a few things ferment without inoculation previously, out of occasional forgetfulness, and once or twice to observe comparisons between inoculated and not.
In 2000 I had my first chance to produce a single-vineyard blend (Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah) from Paso fruit grown in limestone, and I wanted to give it every chance to find its own personality, so I began with that. In a sense, I suppose, it's made me more watchful; there've been occasional instances when I've intervened to prevent some expensive batch of grapes from going South, but really, it's been most infrequent, and I've been pretty happy with the results. (I don't think it's about reaching a conclusion though; I'm trying to keep a collaboration going between me and the grapes!)
Pick the grapes, dump them in the fermenter, say hello to them a couple of times each day, with your hands, while they ferment, squeeze them gently in the press, tuck them in for the long winter’s nap, get them into the bottle fresh, then visit them every now and then to see how they’re doing.
We have such young vineyards, here, for the most part, that I'm leery of attributing too much of my experience to one thing or another. Performance art, in a way.To me it's all a work in progress, a practice, a chance to learn. --Steve Edmunds