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Why Winemaking Rocks

Published in Gourmet Live 10.10.12
Geoff Nicholson tunes in to rock stars, including Dave Matthews and AC/DC, who are turning out vintage pours
Why Winemaking Rocks

Foreground, popular bottles from the Wines That Rock vineyard; background, Blenheim Vineyards, founded by Dave Matthews outside of Charlottesville, Virginia.

The best music, like the best food and wine, is mood-changing—and sometimes even consciousness-raising. Certain kinds of music lift you up like a fine Champagne; others make you feel as soft and mellow as a good Burgundy. (And some music, admittedly, leaves you with a headache and nausea, just like a bad wine.)

Wine and rock 'n' roll have more in common than might be immediately obvious. Both deliver pleasure in the moment, but often that's the result of a long and painstaking process. Both involve a complexity and a kind of magic that you can never wholly explain. "Lightning in a bottle" may apply to both. Neither age nor youth guarantees success in either area. Some vintage rock acts seem to have become "corked" along the way, and we'll have to see whether acts that are currently fresh and exciting will still be palatable in a few years' time. Sometimes subtlety is the name of the game, but there are times when you want wine and your music to make a big splash and leave the taste buds and/or eardrums throbbing.

In an age when so many celebrities are peddling clothing lines and fragrances, for a rock star to put his or her name to a range of wines seems positively old-school —maybe even borderline punk-rock. Artists as diverse as Sting, Madonna, Mick Fleetwood, Boz Scaggs, Simply Red's Mick Hucknall, and Maynard James Keenan of Tool (along with many others) all have interests in vineyards, and although I think you're unlikely to find these people stomping grapes à la Lucille Ball, in most cases we're talking about more than just an endorsement deal. For a growing list of rock stars (some of whom may surprise you), winemaking has become a surprisingly legit second act.

As a winemaker, David Coverdale, of Whitesnake—which, in case you didn't know, is very much still a band—has addressed the aspirational, status-making nature of wine connoisseurship head-on in interviews about his own extracurricular activities. In Wine Spectator, he explained that he sees wine drinking as an issue of social mobility, perhaps even class warfare (and what's more rock 'n' roll than that?). Born to a humble household in the north of England in the 1950s, he remembers when only the aristocracy drank wine. But Coverdale, who fronted Deep Purple before starting White Snake in 1978, grew up as English society was growing up too, and being in massively successful rock bands that toured the world by private jet, stayed in the best hotels, and ate at the best restaurants, he soon discovered that otherwise ordinary people could well appreciate the extraordinary pleasures of wine. And in his case they could make it, too.

In 2010, Coverdale released Whitesnake Zinfandel, in partnership with winemaker Dennis De La Montanya, and it was an immediate success. The first run produced 300 cases, and they got orders for a thousand. A Merlot is now promised. On the winery Web site, Coverdale describes his Zinfandel as a "bodacious, cheeky little wine, filled to the brim with the spicy essence of sexy, slippery Snakeyness… I recommend it to complement any and all grown-up friskiness and hot-tub jollies." Showmanship and a sense of humor may be as essential to the winemaker as to the long-surviving rocker.

Few combine the two things better than Les Claypool of Primus, the man who among numerous achievements wrote the theme music with his band to the TV show South Park. He describes himself as a "fella who drinks vino until his teeth turn purple," and if his Web site is to be believed, he's pretty hands-on in his winemaking: An activity that he first thought of as a "home winemaking project" quickly developed into something that required him and his partners to be "sorting in the field at 4 a.m. with lamps strapped to our heads and me standing over a massive stainless-steel vat a couple of times a day, for the following 12 days straight, lovingly punching the cap down into the glorious Burgundy-colored juice." He evidently has gifts as a poet, too. "Frankly, it came out pretty damn good," he says. Claypool Cellars make what he calls "fancy booze for semi-fancy folks," including Purple Pachyderm and Pink Pachyderm (a Pinot Noir and a Pinot Noir rosé). The winery's tasting room is in a converted Southern Pacific caboose. Well, why wouldn't it be?

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