A Heart Laid Bare

Regular readers will know that I have high standards and fussy tendencies when it comes to writing about wine. Frankly there’s just not much out there that is any good. So when I come across a great piece, my heart leaps.

This happened recently as I was reading one of Kermit Lynch’s newsletters, which occasionally contain pieces of prose in addition to Kermits lovely wine notes and musings. In this case, it was a reflection on wine by Berkeley winemaker Steve Edmunds, of Edmunds St. John Winery, and it was so good that I sought him out and asked whether I could reprint it here on Vinography. To my great pleasure he said yes.

by Steve Edmunds

Back in the ’50s, way back nearly halfway through the last century, on live TV, I watched one of the very first open-heart surgeries ever performed. I must have been all of 10 or 11, and it seemed like a miracle to me; I’d never before imagined what it might really look like inside the human body, and here it was, right before my eyes! Of course, the only thing you could really see was the heart itself, beating away. It was pretty mesmerizing, though, even on a black-and-white set.

And there must have been eight or ten people gathered around this person, making sure everything was going according to plan. I kept wondering what it must be like to be that person, whose heart was laid open to the world in such a manner. For most of us, our bodies just automatically do what they need to do to operate properly, and we can live “outside” of our own skins and not have to consider all the meat and bone, all the blood and ganglia. All the everyday miracles.

When I got interested in wine, only about a quarter of the way back through the last century, I did so because of the way I found that wine could open up my heart. I’m not sure that’s the way I thought of it at the time; I just knew I’d had some kind of profound experience that changed the way all my molecules were arranged, the kind of experience that can’t be ignored. I knew, as well, that it might take the rest of my life to be able to find the explanation for what had occurred down at ground zero in my nervous system. I’ve been working on it ever since, and though I’m sure I still don’t have it all figured out yet, I regard the fact that I still feel so compelled to think about it as a good sign.

Part of the reason I’m still compelled to think about it is that the experience continues to occur; for example, when I taste a wine like Phillipe Faury’s St. Joseph, with it’s textbook rendition of suave Syrah fruit, and smoke, and that spine-tingling perfume of tender berries and violets, and feel the whisper of wildness in it, that presence of not just the human endeavor in that place, and that year, but of something elemental, behind those things, something inviting me to engage with it. Something very hard to name.

And it doesn’t have to be an earth-shattering kind of experience that shakes me down to my shoes; it can be something as simple and surprising as the smell of Autumn on the wind, sunlight on a white wall in North Beach at 8 am, the sound of my daughter’s laughter, beads of rain on a spiderweb as the clouds part, and the sun breaks through, an old man singing absent-mindedly as he carries his laundry home, up Walnut St. Just something quirky and peculiar that stands up like an Icelandic poppy just as your eyes sweep around to that very spot.

It doesn’t have to be an “important” wine to move me in this way. Too often I find that wines that are “important” are thought of that way for entirely different reasons. It’s only occasionally that they will have the impact on me that I’ve described above. Think of what we read. Does everything have to be War and Peace? Or Finnegan’s Wake? I read Marilynn Robinson’s new novel Gilead at Christmas last year and thought it was just about as fine a piece of writing as I’ve come across in a long time. Is it great? I don’t know, but it got under my skin, and made me think, and feel. I remember reading recently, over the internet, a discussion about whether any of the wines from Beaujolais are truly great wines. Now, I’ve done my share of coveting the great wines of the world, and I still remember vividly the way a few of them tasted. I don’t really care, though, if anybody thinks Chateau Thivin is great or not. When I smell that stuff, I feel blessed by the Universe. If I have the chance to eat a plate of sausages, or some rabbit fricassee with mushrooms and papardelle while I’m drinking it, I feel like Good King Wenceslas.

There’s a set of circuits in me that really light up when I smell a wine like the Bergeron that Kermit brings in from the Savoie, with it’s lovely bouquet of wildflowers and honey. Well, at least if there’s a light on, maybe there’s somebody home.

© 2005 Steve Edmunds. Do not reprint without permission.