A Case of The Vapors: Labor Day

[Editors note: This piece was written by Steve Edmunds in 2001, but since harvest is taking place at this very moment, it couldn’t be more appropriate.]

These are the days when I wake up of a morning, and remember what time of year it is because I can smell the fermenting of dark grapes on my skin. Just beneath the surface of me, where I’m pulling on a clean T-shirt and wondering how many more clean T-shirts I can pull on before they’re all smeared with the skins of Mourvèdre, drenched with the juice of Syrah, or the pressings of Marsanne (and I must either launder or go naked), beneath the surface where I’m ambling at 7am down to Peet’s for a triple-shot espresso and a croissant (“now there’s a man who knows how to have breakfast,” smiles the tall cheerful pigtailed blonde at the register.), where I’m remembering to leave food and water for the cat before I disappear for the day, just out of conscious awareness there’s a stupefying hum of adrenaline that keeps me upright and moving as the hours pile up like stems, stripped and spat out by the destemmer, from a load of El Dorado County Syrah on a full-moon Saturday night when it’s become impossible to tell where one day ends and another slides in to take its place. I think breathing a lot of CO2 has something to do with it. I get so stupid. I call John “Frank”, and Steve “Bob.” I tell a friend I’ll meet him at a wine shop to deliver a special bottle for a dinner, and then tell him maybe I’ll slip into his hot-tub while I’m over there, because my back is killing me; and after I hang up I realize I made no sense at all, and he’s probably thinking “whoa — let me smoke some of that!”

It’s the time of year when everything else mostly just gets relegated to a kind of periphery of attention; I’ve just gotta be there for my grapes! It’s been said a lot of times, at least that I’ve heard, that harvest is like having babies, (lots of them) and sometimes it’s all you can do to remember to brush your teeth and tie your shoes.

Well, those babies have been coming fast and furious this time around; it’s just 3 September, and we’ve taken in more than 25% of our grapes! The list so far includes Viognier, Marsanne, Syrah and (2/3 of the) Mourvèdre from Rozet Vineyard in Paso Robles, Syrah from Wylie Vineyard, and a tiny bit of Syrah and Grenache from a musical friend up at the Northern end of the Mt. Veeder appellation in Napa (an experimental block which will eventually include Mourvèdre also, that won’t really be in full production for a few more years).

I’m pretty pleased, thus far, with the apparent quality of everything. The Viognier and Marsanne begged me shamelessly to put them together to commingle their juices in fermentation, and I didn’t have the heart to say no. They’re so happy together, and the result is so delicious. (Wait till they find out what’s in store for them when the Rozet Roussanne arrives in a week or so — Ooooh la-la!!!) The Syrah from Rozet is brawny and wild, like some great dark racehorse. The Wylie Syrah, on the other hand, is so pretty and voluptuous by comparison. But once again, at least up to this point, the grapes that have stolen my heart are the Mourvèdre from Rozet. They carry the secrets of the ages in each cell, in each tiny droplet. It’s completely beyond me how this magnificent variety can have been such a humble wallflower in California for practically all its history here.

This regal grape, when planted in the place where it feels truly at home, gives wine of stunning loveliness. Its color is a vibrant, almost luminescent purple-red. The aroma, in the fermenter, is unmistakable. I know that the popular conception of Mourvèdre is that it smells like leather, plums, meat, etc. There’s also a perception that it is innately funky, earthy, “gamey” and so forth. Let’s get the story straight, here — there are wines made from this grape that exhibit some of those characteristics, there’s no question about it. But… Mourvèdre, at the places where the grape shows all its jewels, is not much at all like the previously stated descriptors. It is, at its best, astonishingly pretty to smell; it’s expressive in the direction of wildflowers, thyme and lavender, bright berry aromas (Mulberry is the named fruit that appears next to Mourvèdre in notes from the most seasoned, and knowledgeable tasters), pepper, and if there’s a meat smell, it is neither smoked nor gamey — it is the pulse-quickening fresh (bloody) smell of raw beef, fresh enough to be disorienting, and to cause salivation. It’s the only variety for which I’ve ever heard the (very accurate) descriptor “desalterant,” which translates to thirst-quenching. It’s also the only variety I’ve tasted that strikes me as having an aromatic and taste profile that is decidedly PURPLE from start to finish.

I’m up on my high horse, here, and the view is pretty clear, so while I’m at it, let me just say that if you’ve had wines labelled “Mourvèdre” from California, and they were made in the currently fashionable manner, (e.g.: highly “extracted,” jammy, rich and tasting of any kind of oak) I cannot say with any certainty that there is anything wrong with those wines, nor any reason that you shouldn’t like them. But if you really want to know what Mourvèdre tastes like — THAT AIN’T IT!!!! The identity has been hijacked. Real Mourvèdre is among the most elegant, graceful wines on earth, and the reverent — dare we say — hushed, tones in which its name is spoken in places where its true nature has been revealed, are testament to its nearly mythical stature. (Needless to say, you are dealing with a complete fanatic here. But don’t take my word for it. Devote yourself to this grape for a year or two. Drink St. Gervais. Drink Rasteau from Corinne Couturrier. Drink Bandol from Gros Nore, Moulin des Costes, Bastide Blanche. Beaucastel “Hommage a Jacques Perrin,” Château Simone, from Palette. Yecla [!] from Southern Spain, made by Castaño — non-oaked, produced by carbonic maceration [only nine bucks!]. Forget Coca-Cola; this is the Real Thing! Drink Jade Mountain Mourvèdre. Tablas Creek Rouge. Los Robles Viejos from Edmunds St. John. [I know; you haven’t heard of that yet. Don’t worry — you will.] Leave that jammy oaky, “extracted” stuff alone for awhile; it’ll still be there if you need to go back to it.)

There are crickets singing tonight. Their song is so familiar, it’s like the song of our blood, passing through the universe of our bodies, like the beating of our hearts — it’s always there, so it’s a surprise when we finally hear it. It’s a sound, these crickets make, here in Berkeley, that signals the shift from summer to autumn. Two nights ago there was a heavy dew on the cars outside the winery when I left to drive home, the first of the season.

Perhaps it is the nature of harvest, the likening to the arrival of newborns, that gave this day its name, the day summer ends, and the real season of Labor commences.

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