The King of Luckytown

There are 16 apricots in a blue and grey bowl on the kitchen counter this evening, in varying states of ripeness. Three more rest near the kitchen sink, where they’ll soon be trimmed around the spots where the birds and squirrels and bugs went after them before I could pick them. There’s only one left on the tree, now.

The full crop this year was something like 55. (Coincidentally, the age I’ll be in another seven weeks or so. Also a famous speed limit during the era of Richard Nixon, and a few other notorious characters from the recent past.) This tree has never before produced 55 apricots in one season. I remember one year with almost three dozen, but that was definitely an unusual year; I think the average, in the 20 years I’ve known this tree, has been maybe six or seven. There was at least one year with none at all. And a year with only one, but, oh my — what an apricot it was! (And how quickly it was gone…)

Why were there so many this year? (I ask myself) I’ve made the observations that provide the first level of an explanation; it was cold enough in late November and December last year (and early January this year) that bloom was delayed until nearly mid-February. By then the coldest, rainiest part of this past winter seemed to have played itself out, and during what seemed to be an extremely long period of bloom, the weather was generally mild and dry, with little wind. In other words, perfectly inviting for the activities of pollinating insects, and perfect for the successful setting of lots of fruit. Hallelujah!

I’ve really tended this tree only for the past ten years. I appointed myself its keeper (along with the apple tree beside the house) during the winter of my younger daughter’s senior year in high school. (Perhaps at that time I needed to feel that I could exert some influence in a life I cared about without meeting quite so much resistance.) Being the keeper of this tree has meant, mostly, pruning the trees when they’re dormant, and trying, in the case of the apricots, to get the fruit before the marauding wild things do. And watching the tree grow. Watching the leaves lose color, watching the tree shut down. Watching the leaves drop. The beads of rain on the branches the morning after a storm. The winter light changing the color of the bark. Finding the natural, graceful shape of the tree at the first pruning, and finding it again, each succeeding year, through many seasons. Inspecting the blossoms as the tree awakens early in the year. Counting the nascent fruits. Feeling the skins, as they turn from green to yellow for the first signs of texture and fuzz. Then, weeks later, for the tenderness that comes as they sweeten up.

And when the fruit is in the bowl, even when it’s not altogether fully ripe, inhaling the fragrance of the apricots. Ah, such perfume! How my soul opens before that smell! It has such a potency that, even in a year when there is only one apricot and it is gone in mere seconds, the smell of that perfume is enough to live on, for as long as it takes! Even in a year when not a single fruit grows on the tree, the secret knowledge of that perfume in this beating heart is enough to live on until the fruit is in the bowl before me, once again.

How can such a thing be? Where does this perfume come from? And this year, with so many apricots! It must be a very special year, don’t you think? How have I come to be so blessed?

This year marks 30 years since I became involved in the wine business. (Funny how these numbers keep echoing; this is Organolepticians #30. My father had been alive 30 years, by the time I was born. Maybe I should have played the numbers.) It was 1972. Richard Nixon was running for re-election. (The Watergate break-in was barely beginning to smolder.) George Wallace had been shot. My first child was on the way. I was unemployed, again. I’d had a string of jobs since high school, none of which had interested me much. (I’d dropped out of college three times for lack of funds.) I’d spent a couple of months working with a cabinet-maker and had greatly enjoyed it, but he’d begun to run out of work for me, and I needed an income.

My first wife had taught me her method for making beer at home, shortly after we’d met, so I’d been a home brewer for a couple of years. It was cheap, and easy, to make really decent, palatable ale, and we always had some in process. We lived in a small one-bedroom flat in the Richmond District, in San Francisco, and it was about a five minute walk to the store where we bought our brewing supplies. On a visit there to gather ingredients for a fresh batch I noticed a Help Wanted sign in the front window. Before I walked out of the store, I’d talked my way into a job. My newfound employer emphasized to me that I would need to learn about wine, too.

I had a friend, a fellow named Mark, who drove a delivery truck for a wine importer. Mark was a starving artist, a really soulful guy, and he loved good wine, and knew something about it. But during the time I’d spent with him we usually drank home-made beer, or occasionally really cheap wine (Paisano was my brand.). We’d get together on a Saturday night, eat a little supper, drink, and play music — Mark on harmonica, me on guitar. I’d sing, mostly. When he found out I’d gotten this new job, and needed some instruction, he volunteered to set up a tasting for me, and to share what knowledge he had. It sounded good to me.

I had no idea what to expect. My understanding of alcoholic beverages at that time was that you put them in your mouth and quickly swallowed. If you could tolerate the taste you did it again. Certain beverages were more tolerable than others. After a certain number of swallows you became more or less inebriated, at which point the choice became when to stop.

Mark had assembled seven or eight wines, each from a different grape variety, all produced by a fairly large winery in Sonoma. I was instructed to swirl the glasses, to observe visual characteristics, to smell. It was the smelling that changed everything. Each of the wines was so different! One had an aroma like apples, another like wet stones, a third like grapefruit. Then, as I drew each wine into my mouth, instead of merely swallowing, I held the wine there and began to explore the flavors each contained. The more I explored, the more I seemed to discover! Mark urged me to draw in a bit of air over the wine to stir it up. The resulting release of aroma and flavor was astonishing. Then, on swallowing, the flavors fanned out in my mouth, and lingered in a tremendously pleasurable way. I was beside myself! I felt a great rush of excitement, and a powerful need to know what it was all about. I made Mark recite practically everything he knew about wines over and over, until I could begin to keep some of it straight. I borrowed a couple of books from him. I read all the books my employer had, cover to cover. When I was assigned to a store in Sausalito that was located a hundred yards or so from a nifty new wine shop, and almost no one came into my store, I’d put a note on the door that read “back in 15 minutes,” then I’d disappear into the back room of the wine shop to talk to the staff there, and to taste, to learn everything I could. I couldn’t taste enough wines, I couldn’t get enough information. It was as though something alive in each of these glasses had reached inside me and thrown a switch; I lit up like a pinball machine.

As the evening of that first tasting unfolded, I think what I felt must be similar to the way it might feel if, after spending the first twenty five years of my life living in a darkened room, wearing sunglasses, I was suddenly given the opportunity to walk out into a sunny Spring morning. Amazing, Grace.

Mark cooked dinner for me on the night my daughter Heather was born, back there in 1972, right after Nixon got himself re-elected. The company Mark delivered wine for had just gotten a new shipment of Burgundies from some older vintages. We picked a wine to celebrate, from that shipment: a 1945 Beaune Premiere Cru. We ate lamb and drank that beautiful old red wine that night, and I felt like I’d become the King of Luckytown.

Now, in just a couple of months, Heather’s getting married!

And I got an email from Mark a couple of weeks ago. I hadn’t been in contact with him for a long time, though I’d thought of him often. (He’s not a starving artist anymore; hasn’t been for a long time. He’s bringin’ home the bacon teaching computers how to act right.) We’re going to see the Giants and the Rockies at PacBell park next week, after an early dinner at the Slanted Door. Probably drink a little wine, maybe some Los Robles Viejos Red.

The leaves at the tips of the apricot branches have begun turning red, as they do each year after the fruit ripens. It’s almost pretty enough to make you cry.

Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St. John Winery is a regular contributor to Vinography.

[editors note: this piece originally appeared in Organolepticians, the Edmunds St. John e-mail newsletter]