Dunne on Wine: Edmunds St. John

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3D

"Gamay noir à jus blanc" is the long, formal and traditional name for a variety of grape that yields a popular but largely underappreciated style of wine, Beaujolais.

Underappreciated in the United States, that is. In France, Beaujolais remains popular, relished for its cheery fruitiness, reserved tannins and ready accessibility. It's light in color, wiry in build, fresh in flavor and snappy in finish. It's a wine meant to be drunk young rather than tucked away in the far reaches of a dark cellar.

In California, the variety commonly is called gamay noir or simply gamay. It isn't extensively cultivated here, and often is confused with the similarly named and interpreted varieties gamay Beaujolais (a clone of pinot noir) and Napa gamay (actually valdiguie).

Berkeley winemaker Steve Edmunds long ago became smitten with the vivid and buoyant wines of Beaujolais. Unable to find a California source of gamay noir à jus blanc, he prevailed upon progressive El Dorado County fruit farmer and vineyard developer Ron Mansfield to lobby fellow grape growers to start cultivating experimental plots of the variety.

At the start of the century, Bob Witters agreed to put some gamay noir in his vineyard more than 3,000 feet up the Sierra foothills, and within three years Edmunds began to squeeze the grapes into a wine he calls "Bone-Jolly," a name that evokes both Beaujolais (just say Bone-Jolly fast and repeatedly) and the sort of fun and frisky wine most closely identified with the region.

For his newest version of the wine, the Edmunds St. John 2011 El Dorado County Gamay Noir Bone-Jolly, Edmunds chose fruit from another El Dorado County stand of the variety, the Barsotti Ranch on Apple Hill. It is a few hundred feet lower than the Witters vineyard and has soils with more weathered and decomposed granite, thereby being closer to the profile of places in France where the more impressive interpretations of Beaujolais tend to be grown.

This is the fifth vintage of Bone-Jolly to come from Barsotti Ranch, and Edmunds feels it is his best interpretation yet. He credits the elevation of the vineyard for the wine's fresh-fruit flavor and the granite soils for its "backbone, nerve and perfume."

"We liked the wine we'd made from Witters, but I wanted to see what the gamay would be like in the granite soil that Barsotti has," Edmunds said. "I still take the gamay from Witters, and am currently using that fruit for my Bone-Jolly rosé."

Neither in vineyard nor cellar is the El Dorado gamay noir modeled after the techniques used in Beaujolais, but the resulting wine is similarly vivid and refreshing. The 2011 Bone-Jolly is youthful and spry, with an athleticism that brings to mind the bounce and agility of the trampoline more than the muscle and weight of the football field. It's youthful in its directness and vigor, with a spiciness that makes it pleasant to drink entirely on its own.

On the other hand, it has the spine and acidity to make it an amiable companion with the sorts of foods moving from the heft of winter to the lightness of spring.

Edmunds likes to convey the spunky and joyous attitude of the wine not only by its name but with playful label art. The sketch, by fellow musician and artist Tom Rozum, comes off as what could be interpreted as a jaunty salute to Mexico's Dia de los Muertos, with one calavera playing a guitar, another an accordion as they dance about a vineyard table set with wine.

Edmunds indicates that in name and style he wants Bone-Jolly to recognize the cycle of growth and death as represented by the gradual development of grapes followed by their quick dispatch and transformation into something else uplifting and joyous.

"In perfect balance, a man with life's weight on his shoulders (Gravitas) smells a bouquet of violets and his spirit soars out over this weary world. A jolly-ness (la Jouissance) ignites in his bones. He laughs in the face of death, and the dead laugh, too; it's a joke shared across the abyss," Edmunds writes on the back label.

Edmunds St. John 2011 El Dorado County Gamay Noir Bone-Jolly

By the numbers: 13.3 percent alcohol, 365 cases, $20.

Context: Edmunds says he especially enjoys Bone-Jolly with turkey, ham, salumi and roast fowl. "I love it with sheep's milk cheese, mushroom dishes, mushroom pizza, rabbit with pappardelle and omelets. With some age it will pair nicely with salmon," he added.

Availability: In Sacramento, Corti Brothers carries Bone-Jolly.

More information: Edmunds, a songwriter and singer as well as winemaker, posts extensive commentaries on the winery's website, www.edmundsstjohn.com.

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