(Ed. Note: This blog has been updated with a link to the featured song.)
By Bob Johnson
I’m probably the only person in the audience who remembers what Tom Russell said just before he opened his second set at Austin’s cherished Cactus Café on the University of Texas campus a few years ago.
I describe the café as “cherished” because, not long after that concert, university officials began considering ideas for the space occupied by the café for more “lucrative” endeavors. As if that area of the campus needed one more fast-food option for the school’s students.
Once word got out, artists who had played the venue, including Russell, helped the café’s management mount a campaign that ultimately saved the space for live music. You can buy a hamburger anywhere, but a well-crafted lyric is a precious thing.
So what was it that Russell said into the microphone as he returned to the Cactus Café’s small stage after about a 20-minute intermission?
“Hey, Andy, could you please get me a glass of Chardonnay?”
Andy is Andrew Hardin, a guitarist extraordinaire who accompanied Russell on the road for the better part of 20 years. Russell was going to perform the first song of the second set solo, so Hardin stayed in the back of the room, near the concession area, where Chardonnay, Merlot and White Zinfandel were among the beverage offerings.
Obviously, the only reason I remember Russell’s request is that I’m a “wine guy,” and it was fun to learn that one of my favorite musicians — one of the great singer-songwriters ever — was a wine drinker.
Last month, Russell released his most ambitious album in a career that includes several records that could be described similarly. It’s called “The Rose of Roscrae,” a two-CD package that Russell describes as a “frontier musical” and includes 25 original songs.
Among those songs is one called, “Midnight Wine (White Lies and Cold Chardonnay).” In it, Russell demonstrates more than a passing knowledge of the topic, thanking God “for the vineyards near that wild Russian River,” a prime Chardonnay growing area of Sonoma County. He even references what makes that area so special for grape growing, noting how “the breezes off the ocean kissed those grapes.”
Russell, who possesses a rather dark sense of humor and disdain for commercial music (the kind manufactured by Nashville, in particular), has written only a handful of love songs over 30 albums, and “Midnight Wine” is one of them, albeit of the wistful variety.
Lord can you tell me where love goes
When it slips away?
Leaving nothing behind
But white lies and cold Chardonnay?
Here’s a toast to survival
To all those that love’s left behind
In the bars and back alleys… and bedrooms
We’re just partners in crime.
But we stole a moment of bliss
from this ol’ midnight wine.
Here’s a link to “Midnight Wine” on YouTube. And this YouTube video provides a wonderful description of “The Rose of Roscrae” project and album — one I highly recommend buying and listening to with a glass of your favorite Chardonnay.
By Bob Johnson
Being a California native, I love songs about my home state. And, as you know, I also love songs about wine.
Of course, my definitions of “California songs” and “wine songs” are quite broad. The songs don’t have to actually be about California or wine; they just need to mention them in some way.
Near the turn of the millennium, Nora Guthrie, the daughter of legendary folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, was sharing some of her dad’s uncovered and never recorded songs and lyrics with Billy Bragg and Wilco. That resulted in an album called “Mermaid Avenue,” which included a real gem: “California Stars.”
Looking back, at the time, I did not recognize it for what it was: that most rare combination of a California song and a wine song. It’s quite likely I didn’t even listen to the lyrics. I just liked the music and the easy, toe-tapping beat.
It was only a couple years ago, when I saw Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band in concert, that I started putting 2 and 2 together and actually getting 4. For an acoustic interlude during his otherwise straight-ahead-rock-and-roll concert, Seger sang “California Stars.” He introduced it as “an old Woody Guthrie song,” which didn’t strike a chord with me, but once I heard the first few notes, I knew exactly what song he was starting to play… and I’m pretty sure a big smile must have crossed my face.
Here was one of my favorite singers ever singing one of my favorite songs ever.
For the first time, I actually listened to the lyrics:
I’d like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars
Jump up from my starbed and make another day
Underneath my California stars
They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers’ glass like friendly wine
So, I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars
And only then did I realize that this was a wine song in addition to a California song.
Hey, I never claimed to be the smartest bulb in the light standard… or the brightest star in the California night sky.
– – – – – – – – – –
Check out the first version of “California Stars” that caught most of our ears — by Billy Bragg and Wilco — here.
Then see what you think of Bob Seger’s rendition, performed live, here.
By Bob Johnson
Sad news just in from one of our favorite concert venues in the Pacific Northwest — Maryville Winery. Here is the text of the letter that just went out from the winery to concert patrons…
– – – – –
By Bob Johnson
Often, the best experiences in wine country are serendipitous.
I just happened to be in northern California in June of 1987 when Ferrari-Carano Vineyard & Winery opened its doors on the outskirts of Healdsburg in Sonoma County. I’d seen a brief listing in the local arts and entertainment paper, the Sonoma County Independent, and decided to check it out.
I got there shortly after the announced opening time, and there were no other cars around. When I walked inside the tasting room, the only people there were two women stationed behind the tasting bar. I didn’t ask, but it’s possible I was their very first customer.
The “winery” wasn’t much to look at. The two-story, Italian-style villa that has become a Sonoma County landmark was still a decade in the future. Ditto for the spectacular gardens that surround the villa.
Inside the “tasting room,” a temporary bar had been set up. That’s about all I can remember about the place because, frankly, there wasn’t a whole lot to remember.
What I do recall vividly is that the wines I tasted that day were outstanding.
A few months later, I was in Reno on a work assignment, and after wrapping up for the day, I decided to play a little poker on a machine at one of the casino bars at the Eldorado. As was the custom, customers could drink for free at the bar as long as they were “feeding a machine.”
“What do you have for white wine?” I asked the bartender.
“We have a nice Chardonnay,” the bartender replied.
“Okay, that sounds good,” I said, crossing my fingers because I wasn’t really expecting much. The “house wines” at most bars and restaurants are inexpensive jug wines that don’t hurt the bottom line much if they’re given away, and can be big profit items if sold for just a few bucks per glass.
The bartender fetched my glass, and the first thing I noticed was that he had not filled it almost to the rim, as is the custom with house wines. It was two-thirds full, if that. I remember thinking something like, “Oh, well, it’s free — you really shouldn’t complain.”
I started to swirl the wine in the glass with my left hand while I saved a pair of jacks on the poker machine with my right. I swirled not for the usual reason — to help the wine open up and release its full aroma spectrum — but just out of pure habit.
Then, also out of pure habit, I stuck my nose deep into the glass. I was surprised. Very surprised. And pleasantly so. The wine smelled… good. Really good.
It also smelled… familiar.
I took a sip. It tasted good. Really good.
It also tasted… familiar.
I asked the bartender if I could see the bottle.
“Sure,” he said, and brought it over.
The label read: “Ferrari-Carano 1985 Alexander Valley Chardonnay.”
It was the very same wine I’d tasted at the winery a few months earlier. In a word, I was stunned. Why would a casino be using a wine that good for its “house white”? How could it afford to do so? I concluded that the poker machines must be set really, really “tight.”
A moment later, I hit a straight flush. I was in the “Twilight Zone,” fully expecting Rod Serling to tap me on the shoulder at any moment.
After a few more sips, I mentioned to the bartender that I had been to the Ferrari-Carano winery, and really liked the wine. Then I asked him how Eldorado could afford to pour the Ferrari-Carano Chardonnay as its house white.
“The people who own Eldorado also own the winery,” he answered.
I’ve been a Ferrari-Carano fan ever since, following the construction of the winery, the planting of the gardens, the introduction of new wine lines and, most recently, the opening of the winery’s Seasons of the Vineyard Tasting Bar & Boutique on the historic Healdsburg Plaza, which now is home to a number of tasting bars for local wineries.
This summer and into the fall, Seasons will be hosting a free “Jazz It Up” concert series on selected Saturdays from 4 p.m. (the time many winery tasting rooms close for the day) until 6 p.m. (when visitors typically head for one of Healdsburg’s outstanding restaurants).
The series will kick off on July 20 with the Greg Hester Quartet, playing classic jazz, bebop and Latin tunes, along with some originals. Guests can sip Ferrari-Carano and Lazy Creek Vineyards wines, and sample Scharffen Berger chocolates, while enjoying the music.
It may not be a serendipitous approach to wine country touring, but a visit to the Seasons of the Vineyard Tasting Bar & Boutique on one of the concert days certainly would make for an unforgettable experience.
By Bob Johnson
Whether you prefer red, white, blush or bubbly… and whether you listen to rock, jazz, blues or country… two of the great joys of life are wine and music.
And when you can find a way to combine the two, well, that’s about as good as it gets.
Fortunately, the proprietors of a number of wineries understand this, and bring in talented musicians so that we can enjoy some songs with our Syrah… some tunes with our Tempranillo… some Albariño with our a cappella.
Some of the larger wineries, such as Chateau Ste. Michelle near Seattle and Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley, host national touring acts. The Mountain Winery in Saratoga, Calif., while still producing wine, is actually better defined as a concert venue — and an excellent one. Smaller wineries, with smaller budgets, typically bring in local bands or esteemed singer-songwriters. Regardless of the performers’ fame, the music just seems to sound better when you have a glass of your favorite wine in hand.
The big news on the wine-and-music scene this year is the opening of a new concert venue at the Vina Robles estate in Paso Robles, Calif. Tickets for the amphitheater’s debut season went on sale last week.
All across the country, wineries are gearing up for their summer seasons. At some, you can simply drop in, sit down and soak in the sounds. At others, tickets are required, and often sell out far in advance.
To help you plan a memorable wine-and-music experience, we’ve put together a handy, dandy guide to some of the wineries that host concerts during the summer months (and, in some cases, beyond). Check in on the winery websites (we’ve included links) every so often for updates.
Meanwhile, check out the seven tunes we’ve just added to our “Wine Songs” library — all featuring musicians who will be performing at wineries in the coming months.
ADAMS COUNTY WINERY, Orrtanna, Pennsylvania
ARBOR CREST WINE CELLARS, Spokane, Washington
BERNHARDT WINERY, Plantersville, Texas
BOORDY VINEYARDS, Hydes, Maryland
B.R. COHN WINERY & OLIVE OIL COMPANY, Glen Ellen, California
Bruce Cohn is the long-time manager of the Doobie Brothers, and the Doobies have become an important part of the B.R. Cohn Charity Events Fall Music Festival at B.R. Cohn Winery. The 2013 edition is set for September 20-23. “Mamaloi” is from the Doobies’ second album, “Toulouse Street,” and demonstrates that a talented rock band also can perform reggae-style. Preview it here.
CASTORO CELLARS, Templeton, California
On May 25, 2013, David Olney, who has been called “the Leonard Cohen of the Americana movement,” will be appearing with Anne McCue as part of the SLO (San Luis Obispo) Folks concert series. “Jerusalem Tomorrow” is from Olney’s album, “The Stone.” Preview it here.
CHATEAU STE. MICHELLE, Woodinville, Washington
ELK CREEK VINEYARDS, Owenton, Kentucky
HELWIG WINERY, Plymouth, California
Lee Rocker’s name appears not only on Stray Cats albums, but also on bottles of wine. Specifically: Rockabilly Red (http://www.artistwine.com/rocker.html), a 100% Syrah from the Napa Valley. Rocker will kick off Helwig’s 2013 Summer Concert Series on June 22. “Lost Highway” is from Rocker’s “Black Cat Bone” album. Preview it here.
ICICLE RIDGE WINERY, Peshastin, Washington
IRONSTONE VINEYARDS, Murphys, California
MARYHILL WINERY, Goldendale, Washington
McCONNELL ESTATES WINERY, Elk Grove, California
On October 5, a band called Renegade will cover many of the songs of Styx to conclude McConnell’s 2013 Summer Concerts Series. “Light Up” kicks off the fifth album by Styx, called “Equinox.” Preview it here.
MT. VERNON WINERY, Auburn, California
MUSIC IN THE VINEYARDS, Multiple Locations in Napa Valley, California
NISSLEY VINEYARDS & WINERY ESTATE, Bainbridge, Pennsylvania
PONTCHARTRAIN VINEYARDS, Bush, Louisiana
ROBERT MONDAVI WINERY, Oakville, California
RODNEY STRONG VINEYARDS, Healdsburg, California
SHELTON VINEYARDS, Dobson, North Carolina
SMITH-BERRY VINEYARD & WINERY, New Castle, Kentucky
A highlight of Smith-Berry’s 2013 Dinner and Concert Series will be the 11th anniversary party on August 24, featuring the music of Jimmy Buffett as performed by the Lunar Beach House Band. “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes” is the title track from Buffett’s breakthrough 1977 album, which featured the mega-hit, “Margaritaville.” Preview “Changes in Latitudes…” here.
SWIFTWATER CELLARS, Cle Elum, Washington
TARARA WINERY, Leesburg, Virginia
THE MOUNTAIN WINERY, Saratoga, California
THORNTON WINERY, Temecula, California
TINHORN CREEK VINEYARDS, Oliver, British Columbia, Canada
On September 7, Juno Award-winning Canadian band Blackie & the Rodeo Kings will close out the 2013 concert series at Tinhorn Creek. “Lock All the Doors” is from the group’s 2007 album, “Bark.” Preview it here.
TWISTED OAK, Vallecito, California
TWIN BROOK WINERY, Gap, Pennsylvania
VARTANYAN ESTATE WINERY, Bellingham, Washington
VINA ROBLES, Paso Robles, California
WENTE VINEYARDS, Livermore, California
WILSON CREEK WINERY & VINEYARDS, Temecula, California
Christmas songs run the gamut from sad and depressing to happy and uplifting.
And so it is with “Christmas wine songs,” which are, by Wine Lines Online’s liberal definition, any Christmas songs that mention wine in any manner.
Since I’m a big fan of happy endings (hey, it’s Christmas time; get your mind out of the gutter), we’ll begin this blog with a few sad and depressing tunes. Bah, humbug!
GOOD KING WENCESLAS
This tune originated during the 1500s. Three hundred years later, John Mason Neale added words. It’s about a 10th-century king who was killed by his brother. And this is a Christmas song why, exactly?
“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather.
SLEIGH BELLS AND WINE
Jason Gleason had a brief run with the group Further Seems Forever, and his “Sleigh Bells and Wine” tells the tale of spending holidays alone. Hey, Jason, I’ve got two words for you: Move on!
How many times must I sit here alone?
Sleigh bells and wine,
And the smell of cloves.
’Cause I sit here crying,
Just crying for you.
So I am sad, I’m so blue.
SO MUCH WINE
The Handsome Family in an alt-country band that formed in Chicago about 20 years ago. “So Much Wine” deals with a loved one who probably shouldn’t drink wine.
I had nothing to say on Christmas day
When you threw all your clothes in the snow.
When you burnt your hair, knocked over chairs,
I just tried to stay out of your way.
But when you fell asleep with blood on your teeth,
I got in my car and drove away.
Listen to me, Butterfly, there’s only so much wine you can drink in one life
And it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass.
Okay, enough holiday depression. Let’s get happy, and for that, we call upon two gentlemen of different generations, and with very different backgrounds.
MISTLETOE AND WINE
Cliff Richard was The Beatles before there was a group called The Beatles. Ultimately eclipsed in record sales by that mop-headed quartet, Richard still is the No. 3-selling recording artist in the U.K.
Over the years, he morphed from Little Richard-like rocker to Christian crooner. “Mistletoe and Wine” would be from the latter period.
Christmas time, Mistletoe and Wine
Children singing Christian rhyme
With logs on the fire and gifts on the tree
A time to rejoice in the good that we see
WHITE WINE IN THE SUN
Tim Minchin is described as “an Australian-English comedian, actor and musician.” The song “White Wine in the Sun” must reflect his Aussie heritage, because Christmas comes during the summertime Down Under, and there’s no sun in Britain, like, ever.
I’m looking forward to Christmas
Though I’m not expecting a visit from Jesus
I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun
I’ll be seeing my dad
My brother and sisters, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun
Hey, Tim, make mine a Chardonnay! Merry Christmas!
There is no shortage of music venues in California’s Central Coast wine region. Here are just two of the estates that offer great sounds in addition to great wines…
• D’Anbino Vineyards and Cellars, Paso Robles
• Castoro Cellars, Templeton
While those venues can accommodate perhaps a few hundred guests, there soon will be a Central Coast winery where a few thousand music fans will be able to sit back, relax and enjoy their favorite singers and bands: Vina Robles, located in the heart of Paso Robles wine country.
Here’s a link to the press release on the project, as well as an artist’s rendering of the venue, which will seat around 3,300: http://www.vinarobles.com/hospitality_center/amphitheatre
The area formerly was home to a summer concert series at the old Martin Brothers Winery. I can remember attending a few “smooth jazz” concerts there, including one particularly stellar show by saxophone player Richard Elliot (http://www.richardelliot.com/). But the Martin Brothers “amphitheater” was basically little more than a hill. The venue at Vina Robles will feature permanent seating and VIP services.
The project is expected to be completed early in 2013, and promises to bring some very talented musicians to the Central Coast.
It had been way too long. About two years. I was overdue for a trip to Texas Hill Country for some good music and some good wine.
The destinations: two historic Texas dance halls, one in Luckenbach, and one in New Braunfels… with a stop at a Hill Country winery along the way.
In “Texas Women,” Hank Williams Jr. sings:
I’m a pretty fair judge of the opposite sex
And I ain’t seen nothin’ that will touch ’em yet
They may be from Waco or out in Lampasas
But one thing about it, they all come from Texas
Williams isn’t kidding when he says “out in Lampasas,” because Lampasas is out there. The 6.3-square-mile town — population: 6,786 — is about 175 miles southwest of Dallas, and about 150 miles northeast of San Antonio, as the Texas buzzard flies.
But on this trip, no thanks whatsoever to advance planning, it happened to be on the way from the Dallas metroplex to Luckenbach, where Asleep at the Wheel was scheduled to play. As we made our way along Highway 281 at a greatly reduced speed, figuring we could be in the midst of one of those famous Texas small town speed traps, we spotted a big winery sign. Well, actually, we saw a big sign in front of a small strip mall that housed a tasting room for Alamosa Wine Cellars (512-556-0001).
The winery is owned by Jim Johnson (no relation — I swear!), whose Twitter feed includes some, uh, interesting comments and observations. A sampling:
• Settling in to a new home in Lampasas. Lampasas has lots of great places to dine. Most of them are in Austin.
• Converted another live raccoon to a good raccoon.
• One more raccoon bites the dust. He won’t be stealing any grapes nor fathering any more grape-thieving varmints.
• Been cutting grass getting ready for the weekend Wine Trail. Right now, I’m grassier than a Russian River Sauvignon Blanc.
It’s obvious, when those Tweets are taken in order, that Johnson not only is a somewhat finicky diner, he’s also very protective of his vineyard, and certainly knows a thing or two about wine.
Thirty-three wineries comprise the group known as Texas Hill Country Wineries, and Alamosa is among them. It’s Hill Country’s northernmost winery (the vineyard is near the town of Bend), and Johnson has learned one of the most vital lessons in winemaking: Grape varieties and clones must be matched to microclimates in order to make great wines.
Or as Johnson puts it: “We believe that the best wines are made from grapes which grow in the soil and climate for which they are suited. We seek to make wines which reflect the terroir of our site, the quality of our grapes and the care of our winemaker.”
Visitors to the tasting room in Lampasas can taste five wines for a modest fee, and that fee is waived if a bottle is purchased. I tasted six wines (but who’s counting?) on my visit, and ended up buying a bottle of the 2007 “Palette,” a Rhone-inspired blend that was in perfect balance.
Two varietal wines — the 2007 Syrah and the 2010 Graciano — were somewhat harsh on the palate, but the four multi-grape blends I tasted all were well made and food friendly.
Here are my tasting notes:
While we were running through the wines, Alamosa Tasting Room Manager Laurie Smith was paid a visit by Sabrina Angermann, who owns the Simply Sweet Bake Shoppe (512-564-1313) next door. Laurie strongly suggested that we stop by the bakery, and after buying my bottle of “Palette,” we did just that.
I grew up in a family owned-and-operated bakery, so I’m pretty picky when it comes to sweet treats. It turns out that Sabrina is, too. After raising a family with her husband Tim, who is Lampasas’ Chief of Police, she decided to make a life-long dream come true.
“I just want to bake,” Sabrina told us. “I love the creative aspect of it — pairing up certain flavors and colors and textures.”
We tried two flavors of cupcakes — chocolate and strawberry — along with “cake balls” that tasted like Orange Creamsicles. This baker’s son was impressed, and couldn’t help but wonder what kind of hedonistic synergy could be created by pairing those orange cake balls with Alamosa Wine Cellars’ Orange Muscat wine.
Alamosa also makes a few Port-style wines that would make sublime pairing partners for Sabrina’s chocolate concoctions. Perhaps the winery and bakery should join forces and offer some creative pairings — for a price, of course — on high-traffic weekends. If I were anywhere nearby, I’d be first in line.
Our sweet tooth satisfied, it was adios to Lampasas and on to Luckenbach for what would prove to be an amazing evening of Texas swing music and dancing with Asleep at the Wheel.
The Luckenbach Dance Hall is legendary in a state known for its dance halls. Among other notable factoids, it is where Jerry Jeff Walker recorded his classic live album, “¡Viva Terlingua!” in 1973 — an album that includes his legendary hit, “Sangria Wine.”
When friends come for Saturday night
It’s nice to make up some Sangria wine
It’s organic and it comes from the vine
It’s also legal and it gets you so high
Yeah I love that Sangria wine
But on this night, it was Asleep at the Wheel — a group that celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010 — in the spotlight. With front man Ray Benson in fine form, it was an unforgettable evening in an unforgettable setting.
Being a Texas band through and through, Asleep at the Wheel is much more likely to sing about beer or whiskey than wine. But the song “Sugarfoot Rag,” included on the album “The Very Best of Asleep at the Wheel,” includes these lyrics:
Well, I got a big jug of cider and a bottle of wine
One’s for my honey and the other is mine
Sip on the cider and sip on the wine
They both sip together and have a good time
I couldn’t locate a YouTube video of that song, but here’s an instrumental audio clip that will acquaint (or reacquaint) you with Asleep at the Wheel’s musical style.
The opening act that night was Bri Bagwell, and much as I tried, I could detect no wine-related lyrics in any of her songs. But don’t be surprised if her song “Whiskey” becomes a big hit on the country charts. The Luckenbach crowd also enjoyed the song “Mexican Beer.” Hey, you’ve gotta know your audience, right?
The next day, our Texas Hill Country music, wine and baked goods expedition moved on to New Braunfels for a concert by singer/songwriter Slaid Cleaves at another historic site, Gruene Hall. It’s said to be the oldest dance hall in Texas, and it was packed with fans of the native New Englander who now calls Austin home.
I first saw Slaid perform at a Borders bookstore in Oak Park, Ill., when there still were Borders bookstores, and he has appeared at my favorite annual music festival — the Millpond Music Festival — several times through the years.
But it was a totally different experience at Gruene (pronounced “green”) Hall because virtually everyone in attendance knew virtually all of the lyrics to virtually all of his songs. And those who had consumed enough Shiner Bock and/or Lone Star weren’t at all shy about singing along. (I must admit that, after perusing the Gruene Hall “wine list,” I, too, opted for a Shiner Bock.)
I had never noticed any specific references to wine in any of Slaid’s songs, although alcohol certainly pops up in a number of his tunes. My favorite of his recordings, “Drinking Days,” includes the memorable passage: “I never knew what time it was ’til closing time came ’round…”
But during the first intermission of the three-set performance, I headed over to the merch table and spotted the only Slaid Cleaves album I didn’t own. It’s called “No Angel Knows,” it came out in 1997, and it includes a song called “Don’t Tell Me.”
If I could turn the hands of time
I’d turn ’em back ’til you were mine
But instead you’ll haunt my dreams tonight
Don’t tell me it’s all right
In a dim lit restaurant you spoke with a breaking voice
Between the wine and the after-dinner smoke
I realized I had no choice
After such a magical weekend of wine and music… not to mention cupcakes and beer… I realized I had no choice but to get back to Texas Hill Country as soon as possible.
Editor’s Note: This classic “Wine Lines” column was published in the Feb. 1-7, 2001 edition of the Northern California Bohemian. The subject of the column, Al Stewart, continues to tour on a fairly regular basis, and you can check out his concert schedule here.
Universal Amphitheater, Los Angeles
Nearly every seat of this magnificent, open-air concert venue has been filled for a performance by Al Stewart, whose “Year of the Cat” single and album has instantly transformed a Scottish folk singer into an American pop icon. I am 18 years old, and my date for the evening is a stunningly beautiful 17-year-old blonde named Sheryl. It had taken me a full year to muster the courage to ask Sheryl out. When she readily accepted my offer, I was flabbergasted.
Stewart and his band put on a memorable show, blending love songs from his early recording days with the history-tinged folk/pop/rock tunes of “Year of the Cat.”
By the time we make the drive back from L.A. to Sheryl’s bayside home on Newport Beach’s Balboa Peninsula, it is a quarter past 1 a.m. We exit my forest green Ford Pinto hatchback and walk to the wood and stained-glass front door of the house.
Without saying a word, and with no prompting (other than telepathic) from me, she leans in and kisses me on the lips. She then looks in my eyes and quietly says five words that have haunted me ever since: “That could become habit forming.”
I smiled sheepishly, told her I had a great time, returned to my car and drove the remaining half-mile to my home. I did not sleep at all that night. Torn between a burning desire to develop a new “habit” and the teenage anxiety that I may not live up to her expectations, I never asked Sheryl out on a second date.
She came over to me and kissed me in play
Taking my hand between her legs as she lay
And she looked in my eyes but I turned them away
Finding no words fit to say
And I hated myself, but could not move,
I was shattered in my confidence,
But it was no sense at all, but too much sense
That took me to the bridge of impotence.
— From Al Stewart’s “Love Chronicles,” 1969
Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Dana Point, Calif.
Now divorced for three years and the father of a stunningly beautiful 10-year-old daughter, I have been enjoying wine for about five years, and writing about it for two. But I have never tasted the heady, sweet, European elixir known as Port.
That changes on a hillside garden terrace overlooking the Pacific, where I join several hundred fellow imbibers at a three-hour vino free-for-all involving more than a hundred wineries from around the world.
Up until now, my wine experiences have been limited to California bottlings, with the odd French Burgundy or Bordeaux added to the mix on special occasions. As I sample one Port after another, of varying vintages and pedigrees, my mind and tastebuds are awakened to a vast new world of possibilities.
Then it seemed that I was traveling
Through the granite hills of Dao
With a vineyard spread in front of me
In a carriage headed south.
Night came with the skies aflame
And all that I saw
Was all mine to claim.
— From Al Stewart’s “King of Portugal,” 1988
Conejo Creek Park, Thousand Oaks, Calif.
It’s about an hour before Al Stewart is due to take the stage for a now all-too-rare performance. The sound-check completed, Stewart joins me for a pre-arranged interview on the splintered seats of a park picnic table.
Knowing that he has discussed and dissected his songs with countless journalists over the years, I decide to focus on another topic of mutual interest: wine. Inevitably, there is a musical link.
“We’re all familiar with Andy Warhol’s observation about everyone getting 15 minutes of fame,” Stewart says. “For me, in retrospect, it was ‘Year of the Cat.’
And that remains the one song fans expect him to play at every concert. But Stewart says he doesn’t mind, because it provided the wherewithal for him to invest heavily in wine.
He has spent untold hours exploring the cellars of historic French wineries, and today, as a resident of San Rafael, lives just a stone’s throw from the Sonoma County and Napa Valley wine regions.
Stewart has been collecting wine for more than three decades, and is amused by the fact he now gets more ink in wine publications than in music periodicals. “When the Wine Spectator devotes a whole page to you, but you’re not in the music magazines anymore, it’s kind of odd,” he says.
Odd? Perhaps. But there is no denying the artistic link between making good music and crafting fine wine. Even though technology is used in both pursuits, nothing gets done without human intervention, interpretation and passion. Nothing of any lasting worth, anyway.
Stewart says his wine collection has dwindled to “a little over a thousand bottles” in recent years, but he figures that’s plenty to carry him “happily into senility.”
I’m sometimes trapped by the close confines
Of the age I’m born into
Though there were others worse than mine
Well I miss what I can’t do.
Join the feast of Ancient Greece
See Alexander’s library
Maybe clink a champagne toast
With a jazz age dancing queen.
— From Al Stewart’s “Josephine Baker,” 1988
The Palms Playhouse, Davis, Calif.
On a brisk, breezy evening, not far from the university that has educated countless winemakers and grape growers, a capacity-and-then-some crowd patiently waits for Al Stewart to take the stage.
When introduced, he is greeted warmly. On this night, he begins his performance with an apology. He says he has been battling the flu, and his voice is a bit raspy. “But after eight bottles of Evian and two bottles of wine,” he says, “here I am.”
At one point between songs, he speaks of just returning from Los Angeles, where he had been recording with guitarist Laurence Juber, an alumnus of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles Wings band (on the run).
“A record company approached me about making an album about wine,” he says. “I remember pausing for a moment and thinking, ‘This must be a dream.'”
By the end of the year, the dream had become reality in the form of Down in the Cellar, a 13-cut CD devoted almost entirely to fermented grapes.
“Touts Les Etoiles,” an ode to Dom Perignon, is sung partially in French, while “The Shiraz Shuffle” pays homage to the wines of Australia. Most of the tunes embrace Stewart’s trademark historical perspective.
And one, in particular, takes me back nearly a quarter of a century to one unforgettable kiss.
You’ve got this impulsive nature
Maybe you were born that way
Sometimes it leads you into danger
Sometimes you can make it pay
On a night like this one
Fly a red balloon
On an endless beach of summer
Under a wine-stained moon.
— From Al Stewart’s “Under a Wine-Stained Moon,” 2000
Nothing lights a fire under an aficionado of “real jazz” more intensely than a discussion about the genre of music that has come to be known as “smooth jazz.”
A jazz critic for a major Chicago newspaper turns five shades of purple when anyone mentions they enjoy “smooth jazz.” It’s pretty funny to watch as the hues gradually change, becoming ever darker.
Truth be told, “smooth jazz” is a term invented by radio programmers, as you’ll read in the “blast from the past,” originally published in the August 19-26, 1999 edition of the Sonoma County Independent, that appears below.
I’ve been following the career of Peter White since the days he played with folk singer Al Stewart, whose hits include “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages.” In the summer of 1999, I was assigned to interview White for a feature that appeared just prior to his concert at Rodney Strong Vineyard in Healdsburg, Calif.
White plays at that venerable Sonoma County estate almost every year as part of its annual summer concert series (http://www.rodneystrong.com/index.php/visit-us/winery-events/rodney-strong-concerts). I’ve seen him play there, as well as at Thornton Winery (http://www.thorntonwine.com/jazz.html) in Southern California’s Temecula wine country.
But the most memorable wine-related Peter White concert took place not at a winery, but on the grounds of the National Orange Show in San Bernardino, Calif. Back in the day, I served as a steward for the Pacific Rim International Wine competition, which was conducted on the Orange Show grounds. For several years, the end of the competition was celebrated with an event called “An Evening of Food and Wine Under the Stars,” and it featured live music to complement the walk-around food-and-wine tasting.
Since I knew the director of the competition, Dr. James Crum, very well (http://winelinesonline.com/dedication/), one year I suggested that the Pacific Rim board bring in White to perform. James took the idea to the board, which apparently liked it because, the next year, White was the featured act at the big post-competition soiree.
In previous years, the music at the event was strictly “background” — a pleasant accompaniment to the wine and food being devoured. But the year that White played, an amazing thing happened: Attendees sat down and listened, filling the fold-up chairs that had been set up adjacent to the stage.
That year, the music was in the foreground. It was a real concert. And the crowd loved it.
Since then, White has become one of the “legends” of the “smooth jazz” scene, even though he thinks of his music as “instrumental pop.” But he is genuinely grateful for the success he has enjoyed, and it shows every time he takes the stage — whether it’s at a winery or wine event with music, or a concert with wine tasting.
I had the opportunity to see White recently in the latter setting — at the Smooth Jazz Fall Festival, held at The Redstone Room on the second floor of the River Music Experience facility and presented by Great Sounds Promotions — in Davenport, Iowa.
Before the show, there was a walk-around wine tasting. Since I was driving, I limited myself to just seven sample pours, and concentrated solely on reds. The selections ranged from a delicious Petite Sirah-based blend from an iconic California winery that is historically linked to the variety, to a well-aged Shiraz-Grenache blend from a well-known producer in Australia. My reviews are here:
And here’s that aforementioned story I wrote about Peter White back in 1999, which the Sonoma County Independent titled, “Dream Time”…
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GUITAR PLAYER and composer Peter White would prefer to be known as a good musician, rather than being lumped into the genre known as smooth jazz. “I have nothing personally against the term,” he says, “but I understand how it might disturb some pure jazz players. Remember, musicians didn’t come up with the term; it was invented by radio station guys. Some people say what I play is not really jazz, and my response is: ‘I never said it was.’”
If one were required to categorize White’s music, it would fall somewhere between instrumental pop and R&B. Listening to his seven solo albums to date (save for his 1997 “Songs of the Season” Christmas album), one can hear a steady progression toward more R&B-tinged tunes.
Nineteen years of backing English folk/rock legend Al Stewart has infused White’s playing with a smart pop sensibility. His skills on the Spanish guitar were showcased on the popular song “On the Border,” part of Stewart’s epochal “Year of the Cat” album. White’s first two solo albums, “Reveillez-Vous” in 1990 and “Excusez-Moi” in 1992, included tunes that White originally wrote for Stewart but that never saw the light of day, and perpetuated the unique interplay between acoustic guitar and saxophone made famous on Stewart’s “Year of the Cat” and “Time Passages” albums. In fact, White wrote the 1992 hit “Dreamwalk” specifically with Stewart’s sax man, Phil Kenzie, in mind.
“It takes the right players to make the guitar and sax sounds work together,” White says. “It doesn’t work well with a guy who plays loud and raucous. It works great with a guy like [jazz-pop star] Boney James, who plays a little softer but still with a lot of dynamics. He always leaves a space in his playing; he sort of slides into a phrase and fades out in the end, so it’s easy for me to slide the guitar in.
“It’s never jarring.”
White played a great many jazz festivals in the early years of his solo career, and says being exposed to such musicians as James, Kirk Whalum and David Sanborn motivated him to lend R&B touches to subsequent albums, including 1996’s “Caravan of Dreams” and last year’s “Perfect Moment.”
“I loved R&B when I was growing up — the Temptations, Four Tops, Spinners, Barry White,” he says. “It was a style I never broached with Al, but it works nicely, I think, with my type of playing.”
Amazingly, White never has taken a guitar lesson. He was motivated to learn the instrument after listening to a group of some repute from his native England — the Beatles.
What was it that attracted White to John, Paul, George, and Ringo?
“Their trousers,” he quips without missing a beat. “No, seriously, it was that the guitar was so prominent in their music. And then watching the video of their appearance at Shea Stadium with all the screaming girls… I thought, ‘That looks like fun.’”
So White went about learning the instrument “one string at a time, starting with the lowest string. Later, I remember watching Eric Clapton playing all these really high notes up at the top of the neck, and I didn’t even know you could do that.”
Other influences included Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, and when White visited America for the first time on Al Stewart’s 1975 tour, the first thing he did was purchase a Les Paul guitar “because I wanted to be like Jimmy Page.” Coincidentally, within a week, White — with his new Les Paul in hand — ran into Page in a hotel elevator.
“All I could do was look at him and say, ‘You’re Jimmy Page,’” he recalls.
White’s basic shyness caused him to be “scared to death” when he first stepped out of the background to front his own band. But, he says, he enjoys it now, especially when his music motivates an audience to dance. “I don’t take that as an insult at all,” he says.
“In fact, it’s a great compliment. It’s the ultimate in audience participation because you know your music has gotten through to them.”
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As this blog entry is written in late October 2011, Peter White is preparing for his annual series of Christmas concerts, this year touring with Mindi Abair and Kirk Whalum. You can check out his full tour schedule here.
And if you scroll down to the listing for next May 11, you’ll see that the Peter White-and-wine connection will be alive and well in 2012.