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
“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