Sometimes, a simple question is enough to change the course of a life. For Steve Edmunds, that question, posed by his young wife was, “Are you going to be a mailman for the rest of your life?”
At the time, Edmunds was a mail carrier in San Anselmo—an honest-to-goodness, whistle-up-the-driveway-while-reading-the-postcards mailman with a not-so-secret love of wine.
“I worked briefly as a wine buyer for this shop in Sausalito in the Seventies,’ recalls Edmunds. “One of our suppliers had a bunch of Beaujolais, and I would open up the samples hed bring. At their best they would taste and smell so good I didn’t want to stop drinking them. I would finish a bottle without thinking and say, ‘Man that was good.’ The wines made me feel like taking off my clothes running around in the woods.”
Edmunds eventually moved on from being a store clerk, and by 1985 Edmunds’ wife, Cornelia St. John, wasn’t convinced that he was living up to his potential.
“She felt like I had talent in a bunch of different arenas and wanted to support me if I could only figure out something I wanted to do,’ says Edmunds. ‘Not really having any idea what I was getting myself into I said, ‘We should start a little winery.’”
Having recently hurt his back, Edmunds was able to scrape together six months of disability money from the Post Office, some unused vacation pay, and a modest investment from his wife to create a wine brand with no vineyards, winery, or previous commercial winemaking experience—a move that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in today’s world of rapidly proliferating wine brands, but that at the time was darn near radical.
What’s more, thanks in part to patronizing Kermit Lynch‘s burgeoning wine store down the street from his home, Edmunds’ love for Mourvedre, Syrah and the grapes of the Rhône Valley drove him to begin with those varieties, instead of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, which were just coming to dominate America’s understanding of California wine.
Edmund St. John‘s beginnings were modest, using borrowed equipment, begging help and instruction from friends and neighbors.
The only thing that made sense to me was to listen to the info I was getting from the grapes and to try to learn from that.
“I remember bringing home the grapes the first few times in those early years,” recalls Edmunds. “I had made my own wine at home for many years with what I thought was surprising success, and I had a certain amount of guidance from friends who walked me through the equipment they lent me, and through the processes of crushing, pressing, sanitation, et cetera. At first I was thinking to myself, ‘Here I am doing stuff that other people are telling me is going to work, but what kind of story can I tell about these wines?’ I didn’t know anything about the wine I was making. I thought, ‘I’m faking it ’til I make it here.’”
But Edmunds quickly found his own way.
“It was a process of being intuitive enough to understand that the strongest tool I had other than a good palate was my ability to pay attention,” says Edmunds. “I quickly learned I could recognize when there was a capacity in the raw materials to give me what I needed, and a sense of what to do with them and how to approach it. The only thing that made sense to me was to listen to the info I was getting from the grapes and to try to learn from that. It’s like dancing or playing music. You’re interacting with your companions, your raw materials. You’re exchanging information with them and seeing what the result is.”
“It has never failed me,” continues Edmunds. “It’s been reliable. That sense of being able to listen.”
For 34 vintages, Edmunds has applied himself to that act of translation, attempting to convey what he learns from the grapes into an expression consumable by others.
Along the way, Edmunds helped pioneer what became known as the Rhone Ranger movement, joining the likes of Randall Grahm, Bob Lindquist and Fred Cline in introducing grapes like Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Grenache Blanc to Americans. Making wine in an Emeryville warehouse for many years, Edmunds also helped pioneer the modern movement of urban wineries.
Edmunds at work in his winery in 2002
By 2000, he had even gotten someone to plant his beloved Gamay for him. “A friend in the wine business told me I had completely lost my mind,” laughs Edmunds.
I first met Edmunds through his writing (he’s an excellent writer of both prose and songs, and an accomplished musician with two albums to his name). Edmunds taught me the meaning of the word organoleptic.
Despite being early in my career as a wine blogger, I was taken with the lyricism of his writing about wine, and offered to publish some of his musings here on Vinography, which we did, off and on, for a little while.
Edmunds is notable, even venerable as a pioneer of California wine. But what makes him truly remarkable is the unswerving consistency of his winemaking vision. Edmunds St. John wines have always had a presence to them, a direction in which they are clearly headed. What they might seem to lack in flash (to some), they more than make up for in simply consistent deliciousness.
In many ways since his beginnings in 1985, the California wine industry traveled a long, circuitous journey right back to where Edmunds has always been. He has no assistant winemaker, no interns, and no salespeople. He works closely with farmers dedicated sites and grape varieties he believes in. He makes wine with ambient yeasts, and without much intervention or the flavor signature of expensive new oak. He picks grapes for a balance of sugar and acidity that results in the significantly lower alcohol levels found more commonly in European wines than Californian.
This kind of approach characterizes many of the hottest boutique wine labels in California. Yet Edmunds has been quietly churning out his old-school elegance, vintage after vintage since before many of these hot young winemakers could walk.
Most of these newer producers revere Edmunds, and many have actively sought his guidance through the years. This adoration prompted the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Esther Mobley to aptly describe Edmunds as the ultimate winemaker’s winemaker.
Edmunds has managed to support himself and his family as a winemaker for more than three decades but has never achieved the kind of commercial success seen by the very winemakers that hold him in such high regard. He has always sold his wines at what can only be described as unbelievably fair prices, and seemingly without a shred of marketing, let alone the modern principles of brand management.
Few people truly set out to labor in obscurity, and that’s not entirely a fair characterization of Edmunds’ situation, but like many intensely dedicated to their art, he seems far more interested in the making than the selling. And in that intense and deliberative focus, change has come slowly, if at all to the Edmunds St. John portfolio, which eventually arrived at a focus primarily on Syrah and Gamay Noir.
“I’ve become increasingly less impulsive over the years, to great effect,’ muses Edmunds.
In the late 90s, Edmunds started making white wines, dabbling with Viognier, Pinot Gris, and later a White Rhone blend before settling since 2007 on a white wine he calls “Heart of Gold,” a unique blend of Vermentino and Grenache Blanc that he sources from Gold Country in El Dorado County.
Apart from needing to change a vineyard source for his rosé in 2015, the only other change Edmunds has made to his lineup was the introduction of an entirely new wine in 2016. I first encountered it at a trade tasting in San Francisco, when the label’s sharply lit oil painting of a flamenco dancer all but leaped off the table to catch my eye. I gestured to the wine and raised an eyebrow at Edmunds, who responded with a typical quiet smile and a pour that proceeded to knock my socks off with juicy, red fruit with floral and herbal overtones.
“After tasting some Tempranillo from [Bob Linquist’s] Verdad label several years back I had this idea in my head that Tempranillo might be fun to work with,” says Edmunds. “When I first began with the grapes from Shake Ridge, it was the warmest site I had ever worked with, and I had no idea what to expect from the Tempranillo or the Graciano. I just picked them when they seemed ripe, destemmed them, and paid attention. It seemed to me that Graciano was the most dynamic grape in the group, and I thought it could be the organizing principle of the wine.”
After three vintages now, Edmunds has lowered the percentage of Tempranillo in the wine to let the Graciano take a more dominant role alongside the equally bright fruit of Grenache and the deeper tones of Mourvedre. The result is a wonderfully expressive, juicy wine that has quickly became one of my favorite California bottlings. Edmunds named the wine “El Jaleo” after the painting that graces the label by John Singer Sargent. Jaleo literally translates as “a ruckus” but also references a famous historical dance known as Jaleo de Jerez.
I realized for the first time that the wine wouldn’t be ready until after I am dead.
At 72, with his close-cropped hair and goatee gone entirely white for years now, Edmunds still clearly has enough vim left to cause his version of a ruckus, but only just. When I sat with him in his Berkeley dining room to taste through these releases last year, he was still very much recovering from being struck by a car as he made his way on foot through an intersection one morning. Though he has no plans for retirement, it’s clear that Edmunds St. John is in the twilight of its existence.
“Even as far back as 2003, when I had Syrah in the press from Bassetti Vineyard on the Central Coast, and I was tasting the wine I realized for the first time that the wine wouldn’t be ready until after I am dead,” says Edmunds wistfully. While his daughter at one time expressed interest in potentially getting into the business, her life and career have taken her elsewhere for now, and Edmunds seems resigned to the idea of not having a successor. “If she were going to do it, she’d have to come back now and start learning how to do what I do, and keep doing it until I stop,” says Edmunds.
“So if that doesn’t happen,” I ask, “are you going to just take down the shingle one day?”
Edmunds laughs and says, “We’ll put the shingle in a museum when we’re done.”
Until then, Edmunds St. John abides.
2018 Edmunds St. John “Heart of Gold” White Blend, El Dorado County, Sierra Foothills, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of freshly cut apples, Asian pear and chamomile. In the mouth, bright pear and apple flavors are shot through with grapefruit and a touch of chamomile. Gorgeously expressive acidity makes this wine positively mouthwatering. A blend of 67% Vermentino, 33% Grenache Blanc. 11.4% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. A little more than 300 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $25 click to buy.
2018 Edmunds St. John “Bone-Jolly” Rosé of Gamay Noir, El Dorado County, Sierra Foothills, California
Palest baby pink with a hint of peach to it, this wine smells of rosehips and raspberries. In the mouth, silky-textured bright rosehip and redcurrant fruit has a citrus zest brightness with fantastic acidity. Notes of watermelon linger in the finish along with citrus zest and berries. 12.5% alcohol. 600 cases made. Closed with a screwcap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25 click to buy.
2017 Edmunds St. John “Bone-Jolly” Gamay Noir, El Dorado County, Sierra Foothills, California
Light garnet in color, this wine smells of mulberry and raspberry and spices. In the mouth, mulberry and herbal flavors mix with a deeper leafy earthiness that is quite nice. Juicy with excellent acidity, the wine finishes with a slight note of dried leaves and a deep, stony minerality. Faint, tight tannins add texture. 12.9% alcohol. Closed with a screwcap. 585 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $25 click to buy.
2017 Edmunds St. John “El Jaleo – Shake Ridge Ranch” Red Blend, Amador County, Sierra Foothills, California
Medium ruby in the glass with a touch of purple remaining, this wine has a slightly shy nose of plum and dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously juicy notes of plum and boysenberry mix with the zingy brightness of alpine strawberry. Floated on top of this frothy fruit concoction are notes of dried flower petals and herbs. Faint tannins buff the edges of the mouth, as the wine kicks the salivary glands into overdrive. A blend of 14% Tempranillo, 26% Graciano, 32% Mourvedre and 28% Grenache. 13% alcohol. 270 cases. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30 click to buy.
2013 Edmunds St. John “Rocks and Gravel” Red Blend, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of strawberry jam and blackberries. In the mouth, tight powdery tannins grip a core of strawberry jam and cherry fruit mixed with a hint o darker meatier flavors. Notes of olive and herbs blend with the fruit as a stony note rumbles through the background of the wine. A blend of 50% Grenache, 25% Mourvedre, and 25% Syrah. Raised entirely in concrete. 13.1% alcohol. 275 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30 click to buy.
2014 Edmunds St. John “Barsotti Ranch” Syrah, El Dorado County, Sierra Foothills, California
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of violets and wet iron. In the mouth, incredibly juicy flavors of cassis and blueberries are backed by a deep stony minerality and wonderful dried-herb savoriness. Powdery tannins gain strength to leave a felt-like feeling on the tongue as notes of dried flowers and cassis linger on the tongue. Excellent acidity and quite lean in its 11.96% alcohol. 220 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35 click to buy.