Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

St. Pepin, Farewell

Two Mondays ago I opened the last bottle of St. Pepin in our basement -- quite possibly the last bottle of Vernon Vineyards St. Pepin in existence. This batch resulted from the year Luke, my predecessor at Vernon Vineyards, worked as winemaker. He came to the winery with considerably more winemaking experience than I did, and undoubtedly made better wine than I did.

For a few weeks in 2010 I worked with him, doing so for a payment that at the time seemed princely: a bottle an hour. I gained some introduction to the early stages of small-winery winemaking, thanks to him -- until the day came when Bob, the winery owner, told me I should stop coming in and leave Luke to work on his own. Bob wore an expression with a slightly averted gaze which I would learn to read, the next year. I suspect he planned already in that hour to usher Luke back out of the door he so recently had entered. That, anyhow, is how I came to understand that exchange of ours, that day when Bob in his smoothing-over way saw me temporarily out that same door. At the time I was busy with Organic Maple Co-op -- almost any day I was not at the winery I was at work at the co-op -- and thought events would transpire such that I would see Luke again and perhaps learn more from him of the later stages of winery procedures, in the next season. Instead, I received a phone call in the spring from Bob, saying Luke was leaving. Bob expressed his wish that I not come out to the winery before Luke's last day. Although this seemed a bit manipulative -- of either my situation or Luke's; I was not sure -- I complied, partly because the winery sits at a far enough remove from Cashton that even a simple visit requires having ample time at hand.

Martha and I came into the last few cases of Luke's St. Pepin because during much of 2011 she was my assistant in the vineyard and winery work -- working for that bottle of wine per hour. She banked her hours and emerged, as autumn was giving way to fall, with the last cases of St. Pepin, since the stack had dwindled through the late summer to only a few; she took what was left just as earlier she had taken the last cases of Marechal Foch, an excellent red that Luke's predecessor and the founding winemaker, Loren, had made by a process that involved a modified carbonic maceration. The Foch was the most densely interesting, most satisfying wine Vernon Vineyards produced, in our estimate. As might be expected it ranked among the slower sellers. As I understood the situation, all the Foch the winery sold arose from that single year's effort on Loren's part.

The St. Pepin unlike the Foch lacked complex character but had pleasing freshness: lightweight vitality, I might call it. When Martha and I were having it too frequently, that winter of 2011-12, it came to seem too acid -- so that it bit at the corners of the mouth, or the throat. This quality arose naturally from the emphasis at Vernon Vineyards, an emphasis presumably shared by other Northern-grape wineries: an emphasis on using green grapes -- green not in the sense of color but in the sense of ripeness. Since the growers here in the north feel a farmerly dread of rots and blights brought on by damps and chills, they harvest when the chemical changes of grape-ripening have run their course only partially -- when compounds yet remain that will have no chance to become the flavorful components that they should, during the winemaking process. A situation that would be rare event in California appears to be the norm in Wisconsin-Minnesota. This has a number of repercussions -- which I will need to explore some other day.

That Monday night when I first sipped the wine I greatly enjoyed those early sips -- redolent of the green table grape in flavor, with some sweetness. Luke having bottled it as a stable wine, the acidity present on Martha's and my tongues a year ago remained there to bite again at the corners of my mouth. After the first glass the green-grape flavor merged into the more typical white wine flavors. A nice bottle. I know Luke's many cases of Edelweiss long ago sold down to nothing; I believe ample stores of his North Fork remain at the winery, made of La Crescent, from quite a number of different batches. Farewell, though, to his St. Pepin. Luke's wines emerged out of a less than ideal situation, both in terms of the worker-employer relationship and the growing season. He did well, all the same.

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