Day 16: America! (Or at least, California!)

Cory Cartwright is the author of saignee and he is writing this post with a very bad back, so if it doesn’t make any sense, grab a glass of wine and at least enjoy the pictures. Thanks to the three winemakers who let me interview them or their staff.

“I’m not very good with the science part of this” –Steve Edmunds on why he makes wine naturally.

Steve Edmunds makes a 12.2% alc. Gamay in the Sierra Foothills of California. Seeing a bottle of 12.2 wine from California is a bit like seeing Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness monster. You’re pretty sure you saw them, but nobody will believe you because your pictures are blurry and you were drinking at the time.
I like Steve Edmunds’ wines. I could go the cheap route and say they taste European or whatever, but they really don’t. They have a uniquely California taste to them, just not the taste that so many people associate with California right now.

The large wood fermenter at Donkey and Goat

When I first conceived this post, setting up interviews with Steve Edmunds and Jared Brandt, as well as visiting Kevin Kelley’s Natural Process Alliance for the second year, it was meant to be a sort of “hey look here are some California winemakers doing some cool European style stuff.” As it went however that didn’t work out because a quick look through my memory reminded that, yes, Europe makes some ghastly wines. Industrial wines masquerading as charming country wines, high alcohol hobo wines masquerading as Southern Rhone gems, lambic beers masquerading as natural muscadet.

Hardy Wallace mans the kegs at The NPA

But Cory, you protest, isn’t blogging all about making sweeping generalizations without supporting evidence? I sheepishly reply, yes, of course it is. But in this case I just couldn’t do it. What I found instead of cardboard cutouts of flag waving natural wine terroiristes declaring war on the California wine establishment, I found three soft spoken vignerons who made good wine. They reminded me of European vignerons in the fact that at laughed questions about dogma, questions about the larger philosophical implications of natural. They had their wines. Like it? Good. Don’t like it? Ok. That’s the proof.

Notes on wine

Here was Jared Brandt, telling me that he had once tried to yeast his wine and failed miserably because he never learned how to do it (we can blame Eric Texier for that one). Here was Steve Edmunds telling me about hunting down old growth vines in California based on a note scrawled on a paper bag advertising “sauvignon vert.” Here was Hardy Wallace, newly employed by the Natural Process Alliance pouring wine from a beer tap, bleary eyed telling us that he had figured out that, yes, making wine is hard work. All three winemakers make some good wine, and all three winemakers make some wine I don’t care for. Steve Edmund’s gamay is a mindbender on trying to figure out how he made it so light. A few of Jared and Steve’s syrahs can make you believe in California syrah. And this year’s NPA sauvignon blanc was, well, a sauvignon blanc that leaves the parts of sauvignon I hate behind. I could drink bottles of the stuff.

Hiking supplies

The way Jared Brandt and Steve Edmunds tell it, their introduction into natural winemaking was entirely by accident. Jared was a tech guy who gave it up for winemaking, going to work with Eric Texier before starting his own winery in Berkeley, A Donkey and Goat. He made the choice of Eric for purely aesthetic reasons. “I liked the wines” he told me “the philosophy wasn’t a factor at that point.” He learned how to make wines with Eric and that is what he carried home. For Steve Edmunds it was even simpler. When he started out he was coming from a job selling home brewing and home winemaking kits, a job that required him to make both beer and wine from the products he sold. When he started to make wines from real grapes instead of the concentrate he was using before, he simply applied the same techniques, keep everything clean and precise. It worked, and he never looked back (this is where the science quote comes from). Kevin Kelley just wanted to find a style of winemaking that fit his dream of making wines that were better consumed young and fresh, something his UC Davis education had only half prepared him for (coincidentally his is the most experimental operation. He is even trying out an Acacia barrel just to see if it brings something to the table when it mellows a bit, because right now it has an anesthetic effect in the mouth).

Brand new acacia barrel

So here were these three vignerons making cool wines in California and I was trying to figure a narrative for this post. But there really isn’t one. Natural wines like this are a series of islands, an indigenous yeast archipelago if you will, that spans several continents. It is because people make their wine that way. People digging in and deciding to make wine like this, or people making wine this way because they always have, or their families always have, or because they simply didn’t know any better. There aren’t industries that depend on the existence of natural wines (just think of manufactured yeast producers if the whole world went indigenous and you can see why hackles are raised when people question their products). Will these guys change things? Will people realize that carignane is good in California and maybe all that old growth is worth saving? Who knows?

But seriously, 12.2%.

I’ve seen it.

Picking crates

My dog Gus guards the NPA barrels

Follow day by day here:

Up next: Hardy Wallace brings the funk out west, or; Holidaze reading

~ by Cory Cartwright on July 4, 2010.

3 Responses to “Day 16: America! (Or at least, California!)”

  1. Great seeing you at The NPA Cory! Gus is welcome anytime!

  2. Hardy, your Thunderbird is the best!

  3. Didn’t know you had a dog. Tracey’s dog has a vineyard nose – won’t get out of the car if he doesn’t like what he smells.

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