Edmunds St. John - The Controversy over California

Posted by CrushWine

Steve Edmunds is one of our favorite traditional California producers and his 2005 Syrah from the Wylie-Fenaughty Vineyards is superb.

It has also become somewhat of a lightning rod, illustrating the divide that exists between traditionalists and modernists on the battlefield that is California wine. To one group, the Edmunds St. John wines are the epitome of what California should be: Well balanced, nuanced and elegant with a profile that nods to the great wines of Europe. To the other group, the wines are not only underripe and insubstantial, but more importantly they violate the truth of California's "terroir" in their comparable lack of size, fruit and power.

We think the 2005 Wylie-Fenaughty is a classic California Syrah. We also think at about $25 it's an exceptional value and beautifully suited to tame the spoils of a summer's worth of BBQs!

But what do you think?

Steve Edmunds' 2005 Syrah Wylie-Fenaughty (named after the two vineyards in El Dorado County from which the fruit is sourced) most definitely tips its hat to the great reds of the Northern Rhone though we think it has a charming, burly forthrightness that screams California. Think black olives, smoke, game, bramble, blackberries and raspberries - a profile that is hearty without being heavy or unctuous. Ripe, boulder-sized tannins give the wine structure and balance.

While the wine is not lush with the dark sweet fruits of its modern counterparts, or incredibly smooth and silky, it is a complex Syrah that begs on its hands and knees for food! On the dinner table this bottle excels! The wine will evolve deliciously over the next 5+ years so consider buying some for the cellar - and do so soon because only 320 cases were produced and this is the last of it!

Now, although Steve has been making beautifully pure, terroir-driven reds and whites (we've discounted his wonderful Pinot Gris below as well - a sub-$20 steal) from California for over 20 years, his lineup for 2005 has sparked some sharp words and polarized parts of the wine community.

While it may seem a bit silly to squabble over grape juice, there is something more important at the core of the bickering. What is the true or 'appropriate' style of California wine?

As stated above, one side are believes that California, with its famously fertile valleys and monstrous sun, is suited to wines of heroic fruit, power and concentration. These are the rich, statuesque wines (largely Cabernets) that took the world by storm through much of the 1990s. Their muscle, depth and vigor is hard to argue with and they are considered a testament to what the top producers and the greatest vineyards of California can achieve.

At a sharp contrast to all this velvety hedonism, the other party favors quieter, leaner wines; those that showcase scents of earth, forest floor, leather, game and minerals as much as the enticements of fruit. While many people who enjoy this style tend to stick with European selections, a few "rogue" winemakers in the U.S. using more traditional methods still speak to their sensibilities. Steve Edmunds is a favorite of this group, though 20 years of great winemaking has made him lot of friends on both sides of the divide. (See below for more on Steve's winemaking history, as well as for more info. on the Wylie and Fenaughty Vineyards.)

Robert Parker, the most famous advocate for the wines of "heroic fruit," had written great things about the winery. In a 1995 review Mr. Parker declared, "Edmunds St. John can be relied on to turn out gorgeously rich, personality-filled wines that are a treat to taste and drink." But something changed in the 1990s. Mr. Parker began to review fewer Edmunds' wines; the scores, never exactly blockbuster, began to shrink. (Let's not get started on the value of point scores - that's a whole different philosophical argument.) By 2005, he seemed to have singled out the wines as not only lacking, but as something even worse: California attempting to produce French wine. This, for Parker and many others, seems to have been the worst crime.

In his review of the 2004 Edmunds St. John "Rocks and Gravel", Parker wrote: "This is a low brow version of a French Cotes-du-Rhone." On the other hand, Steven Tanzer glowed about the 04 "Rocks and Gravel." He wrote: "Peppery, mineral-accented raspberry and cherry aromas, complicated by a subtle florality. Silky in texture, with deep red berry flavors and complicating herb and smoky meat tones. This is very southern Rhone in style. Finishes sweet and juicy, with excellent length. When I mentioned to Edmunds that this is a great value he said 'I guess I'm just not a born marketer.'"

Could these respected critics be talking about the same wine? Indeed they are - it just demonstrates the beauty of differing palates and the pitfalls of ignoring wines that are panned by the critics without experiencing them personally.

When it came to the 2005 Syrah Wylie-Fenaughty, Mr. Parker was again decidedly unflattering: "The 2005 Syrah Wylie-Fenaughty Vineyard (14.6% alcohol) is a mid-weight effort that tastes like a declassified Syrah from the northern Rhone. It is medium-bodied and peppery, with notions of dark currants and plums, but little weight or depth, and virtually no finish." Eeeks! The score, as you can imagine, is low.

Though Mr. Tanzer did not review the 2005 Wylie-Fenaughty (perhaps to quell some of the online bulletin board arguments, which have been beyond animated), in past vintages he has found the wine to be "subdued...sweet and juicy...sharply delineated and subtle."

Clearly, everyone has the right to their own likes and dislikes - this is what gives the world texture and diversity, isn't it? Obviously, we believe in this wine greatly; now is your chance to decide for yourself.

See below for more information on Steve Edmunds, his winemaking styles and the Wylie and Fenaughty Vineyards.

Click button below to see our real-time online inventory of Edmunds St. John wines.

Steve Edmunds and the Wines of Edmunds St. John
Steve Edmunds started Edmunds St John in 1985, focusing on Rhone varietals like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre when growing anything but Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay was unheard of in California. He was one of the first winemakers to be part of the group later dubbed the "Rhone Rangers" - alluding to the fact they cultivated the grapes traditional to France's Rhone Valley.

Up to this day, Steve Edmunds does not own any vineyards (or even a winery!). Rather, he combs large parts of Northern California looking for sites suitable to his interests.

Production is tiny as you'd expect. In 1985 he produced his first 675 cases creating what he describes as a more European style of wine. This first wine was made in a small rented out a warehouse in Berkley. Today Edmunds' crafts his wine in the Audubon Cellars facility in Berkley. It is a humble operation, but Steve is not about impressing anyone and the big scores (and high prices) of the wine-world celebrities just don't interest him. As he writes on his website, his goal is to "offer someone a wine that is thrilling to smell, that is unforgettable to taste... If that response is forthcoming, I will have done my job."

Wylie & Fenaughty Vineyards
Only 320 cases of the 2005 Syrah from the Wylie and Fenaughty Vineyards was produced. Both the Wylie and the Fenaughty Vineyards are situated in El Dorado County, far to the East of Sonoma and Nape, in the foothills of the Sierra mountains.

The Wylie vineyard is probably the more dramatic of the two sites - it is steep and terraced in many sections. The elevation is high - about 2800 feet - and the earth is very rocky with thin soils. The Syrah this vineyard produces is dark, robust and brooding, though the high elevation and cooler nights give the fruit good acidity as well.

The Fenaughty site also enjoys an elevation of about 2800 feet. Interestingly, the site enjoys a North and slightly Western exposure; soils are volcanic (known as Aiken Loam) and the Syrah this site produces is dark, with spicy aromatics, lean and graceful with good acidity. The grapes here can ripe up to two weeks before the fruit in the Wylie Vineyard.

All the fruit here was hand-picked (obviously in certain parcels of the Wylie Vineyard, there is no other option because of the severity of the terrain) and de-stemmed before being put into open-top fermenters. Steve uses only natural yeasts and manual punchdowns were used to integrate skins and juice. No new oak was used for this wine - instead Steve utilized French barrels with ages of between 18 and 22 years. The wine was racked twice before being bottled in September of 2006. The wine spent another year in bottle before being released late in 2007.