A Vintner’s Revival

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in: People

Earlier this year winemaker Steve Edmunds of the Bay Area winery Edmunds St. John described a sales trip to New York that was, for him, nothing short of spectacular. At nearly every potential account, he was met with enthusiastic buyers likes of whom he’d never encountered in his 25 years in business. He sold wine hand over fist — this, on the heels of one of the country’s worst recessions, which hit the wine industry hard. In particular, he got an over-the-moon response for his charming 100 percent Gamay Noir, called “Bone Jolly” in a loose play on the word “Beaujolais,” the ancestral French home of that grape variety. “I don’t know what’s going on,” Edmunds told me with a mixture of excitement and genuine bewilderment.

Edmunds’ triumphs have been echoed in Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles where restaurateurs and retailers appear to have tired of the cookie-cutter stylings of American wine, typified by The Ripe and The Powerful. Edmunds’ successes suggest a shift in what Americans are looking for, and may even signify that balance, in the glass and in the market, is being restored, a welcome sign in an age defined by excess.

Influential critics change the winemaking landscape

Just a few short years ago in the economic crater of 9/11, Edmunds was struggling to find East Coast distribution. Edmunds’ terroir-driven “European-style” winemaking, both in style and philosophy, seemed utterly out of vogue with the rest of the American market, a market now dominated by the critical tastes of a few very influential critics, notably Robert M. Parker Jr. of the Wine Advocate and James Laube of the Wine Spectator. Indeed, Edmunds started to wonder whether he could stay in business. Here is what I wrote about Edmunds’s dilemma in the spring of 2003 for the San Francisco Chronicle:
“Edmunds wants to make wines that you ponder, that move you like a poem, that have grace and balance and feel a little mysterious. That’s not an easy thing to nail, but in his own way, Edmunds is doing this more consistently than many of his colleagues in the business. And that’s just the problem. He might be hitting the hard targets, but there are thousands of wines crowding the market that aim for much, much less, and have a lot more success in the marketplace.

“Moreover, the world’s tastes in wine have shifted, and Edmunds finds himself somewhat adrift in their wake. The fact is, big, fat and jammy makes it to more American tables than subtle, nuanced and elusive.”

For the next half decade, Edmunds struggled to stay relevant in a market that seemed largely dismissive of his hard-won aesthetic. Big, fat and jammy continued to crowd out quieter wines. The critics’ influence on the market seemed boundless, and more and more wines parroted the big styles preferred by Laube and Parker. Laube bestowed abysmal scores on wines or wineries out of his favor, while Parker, having shifted the goalposts of taste, seemed to relish calling out winemakers who chose to follow a different path.

One of these was Edmunds. In August 2007, Parker wrote that Edmunds had fallen out of step with the rest of California’s winemaking, and used words like “lowbrow” and “superficial” to describe Edmunds’ wines; in one instance, he described the wine “a medium-weight, innocuous effort.”  It seemed unduly harsh, and not long after it was published a thread on erobertparker.com was created to discuss it, which led some to question the motives of the critic in singling out a producer in this manner (those voices included my own). In short order the administrator, Mark Squires, terminated the thread, calling it “insulting beyond belief.”

A sense of balance returns to the marketplace

And then, something happened. The market got a little less monochromatic. Modest, balanced wines from Spain, France and Austria carved out a niche not because they were big fat and jammy, but because they were honest, authentic and unspoofulated. Sommeliers and retailers said “enough” to excessive alcohol levels, candied oak flavoring and food-unfriendly levels of ripeness. Sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming practices started to accrue meaning and weight in the marketplace, and, in perhaps the most unlikely development, the term “natural wine” — describing wines that hadn’t been manipulated, made with commercial yeasts or additives like acid, nutrients, and minimal sulfur inputs — became significant among consumers.

“It has a grassroots feel to it,” says Edmunds. “People aren’t letting themselves be steered in a particular direction anymore. Suddenly people are interested in something other than prestige and size and points and the things that make one wine somehow more qualified than another wine — it’s more like ‘this is a really interesting fun thing to drink.’ ”

The 2009 Bone-Jolly completely over-delivers on charm at less than $20, and, like French Gamay, doesn’t require a lot of thought or effort. It just needs to be chilled down a bit and enjoyed. And it has what so few other wines have at its price — authenticity. And so in the most unlikely circumstances, Edmunds, the perennial underdog, with his little portfolio of little wines, is relevant again – and we should all be grateful.


Zester Daily contributor Patrick Comiskey is a senior contributor for Wine & Spirits Magazine, where he serves as chief critic for non-California domestic wines and contributes articles on the wines of California, Oregon and Washington.

 

Photo: Steve Edmunds

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Comments

Justin Gallen
on: 10/26/12
Great article. I have always found these wines to get more delicious with age and many of the "spoofalated" wines to get worse. Good for him.

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