Edmunds St. John

By Ryan Snyder on March 1, 2006

Category: Winery of the Month

In 1987, winemaker François Peyraud from the great Domaine Tempier of Bandol visited Edmunds St. John and tasted their Mourvèdre. When Peyraud placed his nose in the glass, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, he sighed and whispered, “la terre parle.” Steve Edmunds had only been making wine professionally for two years, but this was exactly the validation he needed to know he was on the right path. Rarely will you hear someone state, “the earth speaks,” when tasting American wine, but Edmunds’ wines have proven to us time and time again that New World wines can indeed showcase the terroir in which the grapes were grown.

Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, Edmunds worked as a wine buyer for various stores around the San Francisco Bay area. A former home-brewer, he wanted to utilize his artistic side and became determined to make wines that wouldn’t get lost in the sea of Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay flooding the market. Instead, he began a ravenous search across the state of California in search of Rhône varietals to produce wines in the style of Southern France. In 1985, Edmunds and his wife Cornelia St. John combined their names and passions by founding Edmunds St. John in a warehouse formerly used by Fretter’s Wine Cellars in west Berkeley.

Now, Berkeley isn’t exactly located in the middle of wine country – a more valid description is that it is located in between wine country. The fact is, Edmunds doesn’t own a single vineyard. Nor does he need to. Edmunds hand selects vineyards from around California, including sites in Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, San Luis Obispo and even El Dorado counties, sourcing only from vineyards that are producing grapes appropriate for that location. These grapes are the foundation for his earth-driven wines, of which he produces roughly 4,000 cases per year.

Edmunds makes his presence known in each of the vineyards from which he sources grapes. He consults with vignerons and recommends which grapes to grow according to the vineyard’s climate and subsoil, and gives confidence to farmers who want to convert their orchards to vine. When harvest nears, he’ll travel out to the vineyards and taste the grapes daily until they reach a point when they are vibrant, balanced and focused. In addition, because he produces such small batches of wine that range from 300 to 1,000 cases, Edmunds can maintain the wine’s focus on a specific plot or vineyard. This allows the terroir to remain intact with the wine, rather than becoming lost in a blend coming from many different vineyards.

When you read an Edmunds St. John label, what immediately stands out is the statement at the bottom, which reads, “Produced and Bottled by Intuition and Blind Luck.” While humorous, Edmunds humbly acknowledges that he doesn’t have any formal training in winemaking. Instead, he relies on 2 decades of experimentation, during which time he has developed rules he stands by when producing his beloved juice.

Edmunds uses an open-top fermentation system and racks the wine in used oak barrels. He explained, “In the first year I used a lot of Fretter’s old wine barrels, which were used to make Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and some Chardonnay. They provided a great look at naked Mourvèdre, Syrah and Grenache. There’s a lot of neat stuff going with these grapes that I just don’t want to cover up with oak.”

He continued, “Most California winemakers let the wine settle in tanks before barreling, and rack the wine into barrels clean, without the lees and sediment. But the lees have solids that feed the wine, keep it fresh and protect it from oxidation. When you leave them intact, it creates a much more substantial kind of wine – wine that has a marvelous mouth feel and texture, with a mid-palate fullness.”

While using his nose and palate for analyzation, Edmunds excels as a winemaker through studious observation of each of his wines. “My winemaking approach came together piece by piece. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that it’s a cooperative venture. I let the wine tell me what it wants to be.”

After tasting a number of his wines, I know exactly what the wines have been whispering to Edmunds over the years. A great wine wants the consumer to know where it came from – it wants to speak of the earth. And what you’ll find in every glass of Edmunds St. John is a wine that resonates of the place from which it was derived – The Pinot Grigio from Witter’s Vineyard in El Dorado County displays a subtle clay that smoothes over the typical brunt of acidity shown by most Pinot Grigios. The Shell and Bone from Paso Robles, which is a combination of Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, shows a limestone characteristic that accentuates its citrus fruit and floral notes. The California Syrah makes you wonder if your fingernails are full of loam and the Southern Rhône blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre titled Rocks and Gravel is certainly a wine worthy of its name.

But the most profound wine is the Los Robles Viejos from Rozet Vineyard, which is a little plot of land surrounded by rolling hills in Paso Robles. By midday, the blazing sun creates an unbearably hot environment until the Pacific Ocean’s cooling winds come trickling, then blasting through the Templeton gap in the afternoon. The cooling maritime influence causes temperature variations of up to 50ºF from day to night, which provides optimum growing conditions to the grape varieties indigenous of the Côtes du Rhône. Tasting this wine made me question aloud, “Where the hell am I? France?” I’m not kidding. The aromas that waft out of this glass include char and wet hay, loam and rose petals. The fruits were murky, yet the body was smooth as silk. The Winegeeks tasting panel was gabbing away until this combination of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah and Counoise introduced itself to our palates. “This is the wine I set out to make in 1985,” Edmunds reflected.

Edmunds new experiment is to bring one of the least represented French grapes to the limelight. He stated, “I love Cru Beaujolais, and wanted to find a source of Gamay in the Sierra Foothills, but no one would touch it with a 10-foot pole.” In 2002, Edmunds was able to coerce Ron Mansfield, who farms the Wylie and Fenaughty Vineyards, into planting Gamay in Witter’s Vineyard in El Dorado county. Residing at 3400 ft. elevation, the vineyard’s high altitude allows the grapes to develop slowly, which Edmunds believes is critical for developing the aromatic qualities of the Gamay grapes that he uses in his Bone Jolly Gamay. Why the name? “It’s a play on the name Beaujolais,” he chuckled. “Gamay just makes you happy.”

From the light and joyous Gamay and Pinot Grigio to the meaty California Syrah and earthy Los Robles Viejos, Edmunds continues to eschew the modern practice of manipulating grapes to create high-alcohol fruit bombs. Instead, Edmunds St. John wines are an ode to dust, to gravel, to limestone and to prehistoric shells. You know, the good stuff. It’s exactly what wine was intended to be.