LIKE A COMPLETE UNKNOWN
How does it feel? You’ve spent close to half your life in the wine business, and established yourself as a vintner in California, working with some grape varieties almost no one else in the neighborhood has heard of, and it works, in its way; you’ve begun to carve out what will become known as a niche. And the context in which that niche appears is, seemingly, still in place, i.e., the assumption that there is an established hierarchy of the grapes that make the best wines in California: Cabernet at the top, for reds, Chardonnay for whites. Then, purely by chance, you encounter something completely unexpected, and, quite suddenly, nothing is ever quite the same again.
And who will believe you? And how can you possibly keep it to yourself?
The scene is around Easter in 1990, on the Ligurian coast of Italy, in a hamlet known as Levanto, just a train-stop from the impossibly steep, wild slopes of Cinque Terre, where the quickest way between the five little fishing villages on that part of the Mediterranean coast is on foot, on trails laid out by the Romans, centuries ago. We’re staying at a B&B just across the alley from a pasta joint that becomes our main dining spot, because they serve a local dish, called Pansotti, that is heavenly, and we can’t get enough of it. The best wine choice for this meal is a Ligurian white from a local co-op, made from Vermentino grapes.
(How can it be that I’ve been waiting, and wanting to taste a wine from Vermentino for such a long time that I’ve essentially forgotten about it, and then—Voila! It falls into my lap!?! I’d asked Francois Peyraud, on a honeymoon visit to Domaine Tempier, in Bandol, in 1986, what white variety he liked best for white wine in Bandol, given his choice. He named a variety that was not permitted in the Bandol A.O.C., the grape known as Rolle. “In Italy, and Corsica,” Francois told me, “it’s called Vermentino.” Immediately I wanted to know what it tasted like, though subsequently I had no success finding an example.)
The first sip, that night in Levanto, was all it took: “my God!,” I said out loud, to no one in particular, “this would be the perfect grape for California! But what in the world, I thought to myself, could it all possibly mean?"
And what to make of this? Earlier on the same trip we’d been in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, at the domaine known as Beaucastel, on the very day they’d shipped the plant material they’d chosen to propagate at their new estate in the Central Coast area in California, a few miles west of the little town of Paso Robles. And as it happened, (something I only learned nearly five years later) among the varieties they sent was –Vermentino. The first Vermentino ever to grow on these shores.
It was a full ten years after that discovery before the opportunity presented itself to establish a planting of Vermentino for Edmunds St. John, in a promising site, and only then with the absolutely essential assistance of my Sierra foothills co-conspirator, the man with whom I’ve worked on innumerable efforts to find out what the best grapes for California really are (with, I might add, some success!) His name, you must know, is Ron Mansfield (see Organolepticians #27 #28 and #29