One reason people like Ted Lemon's wines so much is that they like Ted Lemon. And his wines are a lot like him.
He is one of the most agreeable and thoughtful winemakers in California. He's a hero, too, these days, for many young winemakers. They aspire to what he's accomplished since arriving in California in the early 1980s from Burgundy, where he worked and learned his trade.
Time jades some, yet Lemon, 55, still exudes a youthful, boyish charm, right down to his laugh, a high-pitched giggle. He can also strike a contemplative professorial air that is refreshing, as he did at a recent tasting of his wines at the restaurant Jardinière in San Francisco.
Years ago I wrote a column about Lemon as he and his wife, Heidi, were launching their own brand, Littorai, Latin for "coasts." In their case, it's the Sonoma Coast where they buy about half their grapes, a split between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; the other half comes from Mendocino's Anderson Valley.
On Monday, the couple celebrated their winery's 20th anniversary, and Ted's 30th as a winemaker, by hosting a blind tasting of the wines Ted's had a hand in making. Much remains the same about the couple. Despite that they're older, they're parents, they have a mortgage and own a winery, they show little for wear and tear. Ted might well be the short-haired guy in your 11th grade geography class; the guy who sat in the front row, took notes and always raised his hand.
During the tasting of some 45 wines (in addition to Littorai, there were bottles from Domaines Dujac and Roulot, Reverie, Archery Summit and more), Lemon reflected on the basics that have driven him throughout his career, beginning in Burgundy, where he learned winemaking. Whether with vineyards he buys grapes from or the clients he has advised, his focal point is the site: Plant the right grapes and get the most from them.
He made his approach to farming and terroir sound simple, though that's also a product of his modesty. "You do as little as you can until it's time to do something," he said lightheartedly of coping with a drought year. When someone asked him about farming, he quipped: "About the hardest thing to do is convince a grower to install a shut-off valve for a water line." Yet as we move ahead in the 21st century, he predicted that the biology of terroir will be one of the greatest discoveries, yet in the same breath wondered why that will be so hard? "Because it's so bloody complex," he answered himself.
He actually puts a lot of care into grapegrowing. Years ago he embraced biodynamic farming, a practice that forces him to focus on the soil and site. But he's hardly a fan of "natural" winemaking. "I'm not interested in brown Pinot Noir," he said, as if to drive home where his boundaries lie.
Because he was schooled and lived in Burgundy and drank its wines, he is intrigued by how well they age. Ageworthiness is but one measure of a wine's quality, and a test of its terroir. Wines show more of their personality with age, he believes, but of course when it comes to the voice of an individual site, two questions arise: Is the expression unique and, more important, is the wine any good? One cannot lose sight of that in the quest to assess individuality.
Tasting through his wines, some had held up well or gained; others, for whatever reason, hadn't. It's hard to tell why some wines age well and others don't, each bottle being slightly different. The best indicator of ageability has always been a good track record.
Lemon's thoughts on balance, so big a topic in some circles, were measured. Given the choice of picking underripe or overripe, Lemon said he'd always favor the latter. Ripeness gives wines generosity and graciousness, he said, and if the grapes aren't ripe when they're picked, the wine is doomed. While there are those who are making wines he considers excessively ripe, there is also the danger of, in his words, "enthusiasm for making wines that are mean." By that, he means underripe, high in acidity and shrill. And Lemon's wines, like the man himself, most certainly aren't mean.