There’s this phrase that always bugs me, and I find it all over wine bottles and web pages: “Winemaker XYZ believes that wine should be made in the vineyard…” Really? Then why’d you spend all that dough on the winery? So why pay attention to the “winemaker” when we could talk to the vineyard manager? Are they really denigrating their own profession?

No, they don’t mean that. They mean it’s preferable to have grape juice that’s already got all its elements in balance than it is to have grape juice that needs some “adjusting” in the winery–that having to “correct” your numbers in the laboratory isn’t the optimal approach to making great wine. When they write, “Great wine is made in the vineyard,” they’re saying the vineyard produces grapes so perfect that no fancy laboratory winemaking trickery is necessary.

Then you wonder: Surely, that is so uncontroversial it hardly needs mentioning, but it must warrant mentioning if so many do. And perhaps it is because the vast majority of wine made in the world is made the opposite way. With non-artisan wine, the grapes are just raw material that will be broken apart and adjusted as desired. If farming costs can be lowered, great; any shortcomings in the grapes can be corrected later. (The horror…) Industrial production may be necessary, but we should be very thankful that we have, and have access to, handmade wines from all over the world, including right nearby.

At PMW, we get to taste a lot of extremely fine syrah. We have many examples from the great sites of the Northern Rhone valley, the ancient terraced granitic slopes that produce Côte-Rôtie, Cornas, Saint-Joseph, and more. Against this standard, it’s a challenge for a Californian wine to stand out and make a claim for itself–in terms of excellence and value.

Right now, we have two local expressions of syrah that I’d like to highlight, wines that hold their own against any made elsewhere. They are beautifully ripe, “pop” with black fruit and earth aromatics, and coat the palate and linger. And both come in at less than 13 percent alcohol, which means they were farmed with intention and a sure hand. Neither relies on hidden sugar, or oak, or any “additions.” There’s no winemaking trick here, just really good fruit.

Jolie-Laide has established itself as one of California’s premier (tiny) wineries. Their wines are made in small quantities, and the demand for them is strong, so we don’t get much to sell. Their 2018 Halcón Vineyard syrah, from 2600 feet up in the Yorkville Highlands AVA in Mendocino, is a beauty. At 12.5 percent alcohol, it offers texture, flavor, and weight that would delight even a crusty Frenchman.

Jolie-Laide being excellent isn’t shocking; they’ve now got a 10-year track record. Newcomer Darling Wines, however, is a surprise. The 2019 Flocchini syrah, made in the southern portion of the Petaluma Gap AVA, not far from San Pablo Bay and in the path of constant winds, is a baffling wine. It’s one thing to get perfumed voluptuous fruit (that’s easy in this state); it’s another to have your wine come in at 11.9 percent alcohol, with all the virtues that brings. (That lightness encourages another glass.) It’s really a treat to get both in the same wine.

These two wines prove California can grow great grapes (syrah included) and put them in the hands of thoughtful winemakers.

An Exploration of California Wine Country With Chad Arnold

Day One

Bright sunlight over an endless vista of curling vines. Bright sunlight that lights further rays which in their turn light other fields of vision. So begins the day. For me, most days begin with doughnuts and questions, and not always in that order! Today’s doughnut was a chocolate stuffed oval with multi-colored jimmies on top. Today’s question was, “Why should we drink California wine?” George Mallory would quip, “Because it’s there.” But I would add, “Because it’s here.”

Last month, two dear deer-hunting friends of mine were married! In addition to reading a 39-page poem composed of 365 couplets of anoximetric bore-o-meter, I was asked to select the wines for the festivities. We drank both New World wines and European wines. Because they were married in Yountville, and because they love great wine, it seemed more than logical to serve some fine California juice.

So, today’s easy question of why we should drink California wine has many equally easy answers: because we were all there and because so much of it is so good! And because so much of it is so good, much of it will likely provide pleasure!

What are some of the other reasons? Terrific climate, microclimates, and diverse soil types. A range of altitudes and a range of attitudes from hundreds of talented winemakers. Varietal diversity and perhaps most importantly, exciting experimentation in the vineyards and wineries. But are there even more reasons to drink California wines? Sure. Full flavor, incredible richness, and a hefty alcohol content help. We could drink California wines “for political reasons,” or “to support the local economy,” or “because a friend made it, and I got it for free.” More good reasons methinks.

Still Growing

California winemaking is comparatively young, and in such a stage of development there is great excitement and great potential. Furthermore, because we often toast to the future, we should toast to the future of California by drinking the wonderful wines from diverse regions throughout the state! These seem like good reasons to me! How about you?

At the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the notables drank Madeira. However, they were to some vinous extent saying, “Viva Vitis Labrusca!” They soon realized the error of that way [Vitis labrusca is a native American grape species that has been all but replaced by the European species Vitis vinifera for winegrowing. -Ed.] but have never stopped trying new things or ways of doing old practiced things! Thank the gods for open-mindedness and free expression – not to mention fine soils and sunlight!

But let’s not avoid the truly great wines made here because there may be better wines made elsewhere. Great wines are made all over the world. For example if you were to pick one wine (say the Romanée St. Vivant from the Domaine de la Romanée Conti) as the only wine you would ever drink again, you would, I dare say, but will say, be shortchanging yourself of so much great wine. Ugh! What an awful thing to do to such a sublime wine. So, drink as much different quality wine as you can.

For example if you find yourself in a small town in France, say Montlouis, you might be lucky enough to happen upon François Chidaine, who makes a number of incredible Chenin Blancs that are very inexpensive. Furthermore, Chenin Blanc is not something most people would likely pick off the shelf at their local market without threats or assistance. But when in Rome (or Montlouis!) drink the local wines with the same relish that you enjoy the local cuisine. I think it is a policy worth exploring. Sound good?

While not drinking a particular wine is a legitimate un-engagement (assuming you have actually tasted it) of that wine, it is a much more tenuous position to dismiss an entire region or country or hemisphere. Furthermore, it is easier to dismiss something than it is to endorse it. So: There is a distinct relationship between how much you know and how much you like. Lesson: Like a lot and like it alot!

Day Two

On day 2 of what will be a long and rich marriage, I was asked to “make some calls” as the “wine guy” so that the remaining guests might go wine tasting. Clearly they wanted more wine. Poetry, even in its highest expressions, takes a rumble seat to alcohol. So, I made my first call. The winery I called said they would love to help us, though we weren’t asking for help, per say, but they were just too busy (selling wine I guess) to accommodate a group of a dozen or so genial folks with canes and sunglasses. Not an atypical response in my experience.

The second call met with a genial, professional voice. The call was to Miner Family Vineyards, and a gentleman named Villamor Zapata answered and said “Good morning, Miner Family Vineyards, can I help you?” I immediately apologized for my long and digressive poem (not remembering that the gentleman to whom I was speaking was not at the ceremony.) Anyway he paused, I imagine politely, and continued saying that they, too were busy, but that we could come by and taste some wines of our choice if I promised not to bring a copy of the poem. I should say at this point that Paul Marcus Wines sells wines from Miner Family Vineyards from time to time.

Well, we were well escorted through the fancily dressed crowds to a private, sun-lit balcony overlooking the vined valley. Rows of Reidel glasses were on the table. And then the bottles! Rows of them too! We drank the following wines in the following order and re-tasted them in another and then another:

1) 2001 Sauvignon Blanc

20% neutral oak, 80% stainless steel.
539 cases produced.
What a wine! No kidding, a Napa Sauvignon Blanc with nerve and richness, not oaky richness but richness from fruit picked at the perfect time. For those of you who are unsure about S.B., give this beauty a whirl or a swirl!

2) 1999 Oakville Ranch Chardonnay

90% new French oak, spending 10 months in those very barrels.
683 cases produced.
With so much oak, you might be expecting a clumsy, typical Napa Valley Chardonnay. But no. It was quite rich but not lacking in acid. To liken this to a Meursault would be silly; it may remind you of a wine from that town, but this was a Napa Chardonnay, which is one of the reasons it was so good. It was geographically accurate. For example, only wines from Corton Charlemagne remind me of wines from Corton Charlemagne. It should be this way.

3) 1999 “Wild Yeast” Chardonnay

100% Malolactic Fermentation, 100% Barrel Fermented.
14 months in new oak, 75% of it new. Total Acidity .60.
Wow! This was a world class Chardonnay! Rich and harmonious. Complex without being complicated. A complicated wine demands the sipper or swiller to force connections between ultimately discordant elements like oak and fruit. A complex wine shows with great beauty how these elements can come together for the taster. It takes the right understanding of the land and winemaking talent to end up with a great, complex glass of wine. Remember, there are only two kinds of wine in the whole world: Indoor & Outdoor. Sorry for the digression (this was part of the poem). Back to the wine in hand: an utterly fantastic Chardonnay! Available at Paul Marcus Wines for $50.00, it’s expensive but well worth it!

4) 1999 “Stagecoach” Merlot

95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.
20 months 80% new French oak, 20% new American oak.
Yes, there is a lot of new wood, but only because there is so much fruit. Balance, baby. This is a sensual, seductive wine that reminds me of an estate in Pomerol. But to its credit it is clearly from Napa. No kidding. Great varietal definition and length. Superlatives are often overused and often overextend the virtues of the wine itself. It is not the idea of the thing but the thing itself. So drink this wine!

5) 1998 “Oakville Ranch” Merlot

75% merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon.
20 months new oak, a mix of French and American.
This is a big boy. Or big girl. Whichever. This wine needs time to harmonize, but it’s all there. The marriage of great fruit, prime vineyard sites, and aesthetic insight is evident here. But it will be few years before the wood and grape tannins become integrated, and then the good times will roll. I would wait about 5 years to enjoy this fully. And then I would have a few extra bottles around to further the discussion of art and life! (Or at least the next bottle!)

These excellent wines were accentuated by being enjoyed in the Napa Valley, by being in the sun, hell, by the odd circles of birds. It was, however, the company and the conversation (which was not limited to wine!) that gave us the ability to fully appreciate the wines and gave the wines, I think, a fine venue! As birds to a cluster of perfectly ripe Chardonnay, we did continually circle back to the wines themselves.

Because art like love cannot exist in a vacuum and because these wines were art, they were lovely. And because we had walked through the vineyards and felt the sunlight and smelled the air that went into the grapes and into our glasses and into our bodies, we had come perhaps to a better understanding of what it means to enjoy the good life. Perhaps this is yet another aspect of terroir? Nice to think it is.

The Beginning of Edmunds St. John

In the early 1980s, Steve Edmunds was a mild-mannered postman, delivering mail in the Bay Area. But his friends knew that something was wrong. Steve’s dissatisfaction with the U.S. Postal Service was evident, and his wife, psychologist Cornelia St. John, suggested that he find a new line of work to maintain his sanity. Then, in 1985, it happened – that crazy, rash moment of terrifying impulsiveness that we all fear, especially in a loved one –Steve started a winery.

Steve’s version of going postal wasn’t entirely unexpected; he had long been a home brewer and winemaker, and before his stint with the U.S.P.S., he worked in the retail end of the wine trade. Over the years, a chorus of his friends, led by Cornelia, had encouraged him to make wine commercially. So, with Cornelia’s blessing and support, Steve founded Edmunds St. John winery.

Steve was one of the first California winemakers to focus on Rhône grape varietals like Syrah and Mourvèdre. He was one of the earliest and remains one of the most vocal proponents of terroir in California–of making wines that express as vividly as possible the place where the grapes are grown. In March and April, the crew at Paul Marcus Wines had the pleasure of getting together with Steve over meals to discuss his winemaking and enjoy many of his currently released wines.

Wine Made For Food

The fun began when Paul Courtright and I joined Steve for lunch at Grasshopper on College Avenue. When we asked Steve how he did things differently than many other California winemakers, he responded: “It’s about balance. The wine shouldn’t push the food off the table. Wine should invite you to eat – and to drink more!”

And so we did. Steve popped the corks on his 2000 Pinc Froid (a rosé made from Nebbiolo grapes) and 2001 Los Robles Viejos White (a blend of Rhône white varietals – Roussanne, Viogner, and Marsanne – all grown in the Rozet Vineyard near Paso Robles) as our waiter delivered fried calamari and peanut chicken salad.

Steve explained that the first thing he did when he decided to make wine commercially was to taste a lot of wine to find out what exactly he wanted to make. During this oenological odyssey, he found that the wines he kept coming back to were from southeastern France and northern Italy. At the same time, he read some articles about carbonic maceration, a traditional southern French winemaking technique that can yield wines with more distinctive aromas and delicate flavors. He also read an article by Robert Mayberry, author of the book Wines of the Rhône Valley: A Guide to Origins. Mayberry suggested that someone find some old-vine Mourvèdre, Carignan, and Grenache in California and make a Côtes-du-Rhône style wine using carbonic maceration and neutral (i.e., not oaky) aging vessels.

An “Aha” Moment

These enticing but discrete hints came together for Steve when he tasted a 1983 Qupé Syrah during a meal at Chez Panisse. (In those days, California Syrah was about as common as vineyard-designated California Cabernet.) Steve describes this as his “aha” moment: “I realized that someone could make good California wine from Rhône varietals. There were too many signs from the universe that I should do this.”

As our 12-spice pork ribs arrived, Steve paused to open his 2001 California Syrah and then continued his saga. Syrah was to play a large part in Steve’s future, and he, along with others like Bob Lindquist of Qupé and John Alban of Alban Vineyards, helped put Syrah on the map in California. But Steve was at least as captivated by Mourvèdre, the primary varietal in Bandol rouge and an important supporting player in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and other southern Rhône reds. The trick back in the mid 1980s was finding any Mourvèdre (or Mataro, as it was known to California grape growers).

Choosing a Vineyard

After much fruitless searching, in 1986 Steve discovered the Brandlin Ranch on Mt. Veeder above Napa Valley. Richard and Chester Brandlin were growing old-fashioned grape varietals using old-fashioned techniques that respected the soil and the plants. Steve snapped up the small amount of Mourvèdre that they were growing and used the grapes to make the best wine of his second vintage, in 1986. As Steve proudly points out, François Peyraud of the famous Bandol producer Domaine Tempier said of this wine when he tasted it, “la terre parle” (“the earth speaks”).

Since then, Steve has reprised this combination of serendipitous grape sourcing and skillful, minimalist winemaking many times. We asked him how he thinks about the process of making a great bottle of wine.

Steps To Producing Great Wine

First is the place – the fruit source. Steve described his job as “finding places that create distinctive grapes”. He’s concerned about the appropriateness of the grape varietal to the site, of course, but he’s looking for more than mere appropriateness; he wants sites that demonstrate a particular, unique character. Steve has managed repeatedly to unearth great, distinctive vineyards that are farmed by people who really know and care about their land.

Second is picking fruit at optimum ripeness rather than hyper-ripeness. As Steve said of winegrowing in the balmy California climate, “you’ve got power; you don’t need to do anything to generate power”. In fact, you need to ensure that you don’t let this natural advantage turn into a freakish caricature. Steve works with his growers throughout the season, tastes the grapes every week, and then leads the harvesting when he determines that the grapes have fully developed their flavors without losing their fresh acidity.

Letting Nature Take The Reigns

And finally, Steve says his job in the winery is to “get out of the way”. In other words, he ferments the grapes and lets them turn themselves into wine with as little additional manipulation as possible. His youngest barrels are 13 years old, so there’s no oak obscuring the distinctiveness of his grapes. He eschews high-tech gear and instead uses old-world winemaking techniques that preserve and accentuate terroir.

The most exciting manifestation of all of this theory at the moment is in Steve’s new Los Robles Viejos wines from the Rozet vineyard west of Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County. In addition to the white wine mentioned above, there’s Los Robles Viejos Red – a blend of Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, and Counoise from the Rozet vineyard. Some of the grapes also find their way into his ever-popular Rocks and Gravel – Grenache, Mourvèdre, and Syrah blended from vineyards in Mendocino, El Dorado, and San Luis Obispo Counties. Steve is particularly enthusiastic about the Mourvèdre from Rozet: “We’ve harvested grapes for three years now, and each year the Mourvèdre is the best. It makes a wine that has a distinct identity.”

The Châteauneuf challenge

Although Steve strives to make wines that speak of where they’re grown – which is to say, specific vineyards in California – his models are the wines of the northern and southern Rhône in France. While California wines have plenty of power and luscious fruitiness, many of them lack the specificity, subtlety, complexity, and food-friendliness of their European models. In a friendly challenge to the two best appellations in the Southern Rhône, Steve put his Rocks and Gravel and Los Robles Viejos Red up against several excellent wines from Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Most of the staff of Paul Marcus Wines got together with Steve for a tasting and dinner at my house in Oakland. We were joined by Keven Clancy, the representative from Estate Wines Ltd. who sells us Edmunds St. John wines, and Patrick Comiskey, Senior Editor of Wine and Spirits magazine and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine section.

All of us knew that we were tasting 2000 vintage Edmunds St. John, Gigondas, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, but we didn’t know the specific identities of the wines, and we carried out the tasting blind (that is, the bottles were covered up until after we’d tasted and discussed them). The “Gigondas flight” of wines comprised the Edmunds St. John Rocks and Gravel, Domaine de Font-Sane Gigondas, and Château du Trignon Gigondas. The “Châteauneuf flight” contained four wines: Edmunds St. John Los Robles Viejos Red and Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Clos des Papes, Vieux Télégraphe, and Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils.

Testing The Wines

In both flights, Steve’s wines showed themselves as worthy peers of their French brethren. Neither of his wines stuck out as being obviously Californian – our guesses about which wine in each flight came from California frequently were wrong. Nor did Steve’s wines seem simpler or less food-friendly than the others. (After the analytical phase of the tasting, we tucked into a big pile of grilled meats and sausages.)

As I look back over some of our notes from that evening, my central impression is that all of the wines sat comfortably at the table as peers. We quickly moved beyond the “spot the California wine” game to more interesting questions of how each wine distinguished itself in terms of floral, animal, spicy, sappy, tannic, and acidic qualities. All of these were wines worth drinking and cellaring, wines that invited us to eat (and to drink more!), wines that made our evening together a finer one.

But wait, there’s more!

Steve is a man of many talents. Besides making great wine, he’s an accomplished singer-songwriter and an inspired writer. To verify the latter claim, visit and check out any of his newsletters. Then subscribe to the organolepticians, which grants you the privilege of receiving his future newsletters via e-mail. You’ll hear about, among other useful things, the annual Edmunds St. John Post-Harvest, Pre-Holiday shindig in December, which is always fun and tasty. The Edmunds St. John Web site also describes Steve’s CD Lonesome on the Ground, which we have available for sale in the store.

Note: Steve is also the the object of an article by Patrick Comiskey that was published in the San Francisco Chronicle’s wine section on Thursday June 12, 2003.

PMW California Favorites

2000 Pinc Froid ($10.99)

This wine is almost too much fun. It’s rosé from Nebbiolo grapes, in the style of a northern Italian rosato from Piemonte. The wine is full-flavored, minerally, dry, and just a touch smoky. It’s a great aperitif and sit-out-on-the-deck-with-friends wine. It adds an increment of pleasure to any barbecue. And it goes perfectly with 1970s album-length rock songs.

2001 California Syrah ($18)

Here’s one of the great bargains in California wine – a sophisticated but friendly Syrah for under twenty bucks. It’s medium-bodied, supple, clean, and just fruity enough without being excessively grapey. Like all of Steve’s wines, the California Syrah plays well with a wide range of foods. We’ve enjoyed it with grilled meats and even not-too-sweet Asian dishes.

2000 Los Robles Viejos White and Red ($25 each)

If you want to know what terroir is about in California, then you’ll want to drink and cellar these Southern Rhône style wines from the Rozet Vineyard in San Luis Obispo County. And even if you don’t care about terroir, you’ll want to drink these wines because they’re just so damned delicious! Rich Roussane sings the main melody in the white wine, while meaty Mourvèdre forms the backbone of the red. It would be hard to find a better match than these wines for southern French cuisine and Mediterranean-inspired California dishes.

Sky Vineyards

1999 Zinfandel ($25)

Sky makes our favorite Zinfandels year in and year out. This is artisanal wine at its best. Winegrower Lore Olds and his daughter Maya tend their vines just below the crest of Mt. Veeder and make their wine by hand. Sky Zinfandel has plenty of lip-smackingly luscious fruit, but unlike a lot of other Zinfandels, this one is sophisticated, balanced, and a great complement to food. It also ages magnificently – we recently had the pleasure of drinking the 1989 and 1990 vintages up at Sky. So get a few bottles for now and a few more to stash in your basement or closet. You won’t regret it now or later.


Brian Babcock’s 2001 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($16.50) is one unbelievable wine for the money. It’s one of our biggest sellers – not too oaky, but with plenty of richness and length on the palate. This is a “go to” wine, meaning that it’s a wine for anyone just starting out and a screaming deal for everyone.


We don’t normally get excited about Italian-style wines made in California – the Italian originals usually are better wines and better values. But we are excited about the wines that we just started carrying from Palmina in Santa Barbara County. Steve Clifton, of Brewer-Clifton Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fame, is the owner and winemaker.

The 2002 Bianca ($21)

This is a blend of Traminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia, Tocai, and Pinot Grigio. Here’s Chad’s inimitable description: “Sumptuous honeyed notes revolving in perfect circles around further perfect circles of melon and fig. A spicy gasket of viscous cinnamon and nectarine all supported by vibrant acids and perfect balance! Wow. This is an intellectual’s entry back into the wonderful world of stuff. Wonderful stuff.”

The 2000 Nebbiolo ($32)

Coming from the Stolpman vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, this wine leans towards the floral side of Nebbiolo – violets, rose petals, cherries, and a little cedar – and displays that classic Nebbiolo combination of power and elegance. Serve it with braised or roasted meats or simply with a nice piece of aged Parmigiano Reggiano.