We’d met Eothen Alapatt, or Egon as he’s widely known, when we first moved to LA in ’15. The guy’s a legend. Over the years, he’s overseen the careers of musicians who have changed what it means to be a producer in hip-hop. People who have shaped—sonically—what hip-hop has become. People like Madlib. People like J Dilla. As manager of Stone’s Throw Records between 2000 and 2011, Egon released Madlib and Doom’s infamous Madvillainy and Dilla’s Donuts. He’s now Creative Director of the J Dilla Estate.
Egon anchored his burning love for wine after visiting his best friend’s grave. Dilla is buried in Glendale, just over the hill from what was once Palate Food + Wine.
After Egon and his wife paid their respects at Dilla’s gravesite, they wandered into the restaurant. Steve Goldun, who would also become a dear friend, was behind the counter. He opened a bottle of 1974 Corton-Charlemagne.
The day is seared in Egon’s memory. The bottle, too. If old white Burgundy could be that arresting, he knew where to set his sights. The hunt was on.
Now we’re walking through the door, again, to Now-Again, the record label Egon launched after he split from Stone’s Throw. A bastion of diversity against the culture wars raging outside. Walls lined floor-to-ceiling with “psych funk” relics he’s gathered from India to Zambia to Iran. Our ears are pulsing but our hallucinations are down to a tolerable level. The mere presence of the man is calming our jangled nerves! He’s a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in a person of character. Open to the possibilities of life, with a double barrel of curiosity and grit. Because for Egon, it’s about packaging enthusiasm. He could give a fuck all about trends.
“I played the piano since I was a kid and studied music, but I gave up on that because I realized that I was more concerned with the way that music made me and other people feel. And that’s one of the reasons I became a DJ when I was young. I was like, how cool is this? I just love this music and I’d love for somebody else to hear it and love it as much as I do. Plus back in the 90s, the idea of being a hip-hop DJ was different than it is now. There were no DJ Khaleds out there. The DJ was always in the background, sort of the backbone to the group but the person that the spotlight always seemed to miss on stage. But to me that was always the most intriguing.
I’ve always looked at music as a way to convey passion and enthusiasm and magical moments. So when I think about wine I’m usually thinking about how difficult it is to put into words what I’m feeling right now. I’ve always gotten bored when people try to explain wine by brix or by acidity or soil, although I know that some of that stuff’s important.
That’s way less intriguing to me than the fact that it’s a magical thing. This vineyard, like Corton-Charlemagne, for example. This vineyard was walled off because Corton-Charlemagne was for Charlemagne.”
Our brains are shot. Fizzling. So we settle in for some worldly wisdom and let Egon do the talking. Like a campfire in our throbbing heads, a light for the Dark Ages.
“The story, yeah. The story’s always important with any great wine that’s made by a singular force, like a family, a winemaker [as opposed to a negociant]. I’m intrigued by a person like Michel Lafarge. What made him make his wine the way he did over time? And where is he now? Why he was doing what he did, and how he stuck through it in the lean times…Those singular stories are the ones I really gravitate towards. Every once in a while you find those stories in the modern day. Xavier Caillard is a good example. La Clarine Farm, I find their story to be really intriguing. Sometimes I’m even able to talk to these folks, which is really cool.
The most famous stories are usually the most boring to me. There’s a really polished guy that was the head of Chateau d’Yquem and a couple other houses in Bordeaux. Really fancy guy who had a lot of really intelligent things to say, but I was thinking, man, this is way more boring than reading, let’s say, Hugh Johnson talk about why he fell in love with Chablis.
And I think there’s a lot of wine writers over time who have been able to really capture the essence of why we love this stuff. I’d rather spend time reading about them and their discovery—and their inability to adequately put into words—why this stuff is so powerful and meaningful, and why you do it besides the booze aspect of it. So I actually gravitate toward them, too, as vessels for the story.
Eric Asimov. He wrote a really telling eulogy for Stanko Radikon. It’s a beautiful piece. And when you read pieces like that you say, oh wow, I just learned a little bit more about this thing that I love so much.
To use the Radikon example — when you taste all of the Radikon wines together, you say: why did he do this? Why did he choose to go in this direction? Are there other people like him in that part of Italy and Slovenia that are doing the same thing? And what do we get out of these wines besides the fact that they’re orange, right? Why does he release his Merlot when it’s 15 years old? Should we age it? I don’t know. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should just drink it now. Because that’s what the winemaker thinks.
Those are all very intriguing to me. Discussion points, anyway. Then the bottle’s gone and you’re not worried about it, right?
You move on. You have a memory. I used to take tasting notes and I realized that was absolute folly because by the time I was taking notes I was too drunk to know what I was saying anyway.”
Drive Me Wild
Wine and music are human products.
Quirks and idiosyncrasies are bottled up, recorded. Released when you pop the cork or drop the needle. When you connect with that purity of expression you’re connecting to another human. It’s enough to make your hairs stand on end. To make you wanna mainline it.
You can’t explain it. Words cannot do justice. But we try anyway.
…I think it’s interesting when you hear what somebody like Joki Freund did when he heard John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass. I don’t care if Wolfgang Dauner is playing better than McCoy Tyner, even if there is a way to compare their solos on the records. I just find it interesting that a German guy heard John Coltrane and tried to do the same thing the same year in Germany.
I’d rather put those together with a bunch of musicians and say, how awesome is this? And then play through it, and hear what people say. How they feel.
And I feel the same way about wine. The other day I was with Steve [formerly of Palate, now a dear friend] and a music producer named Emile Haynie, who’s really into wine too. We were going to share a whole bunch of bottles, a couple I’d never even tried, and he hadn’t tried. Steve had. And we were able to talk about them without any pretense. Really try to get into why we enjoy them — why you’re into it, what you’re finding in it, without feeling dumb about using simple words to describe an experience which is almost too complex to articulate anyway.
I think it’s really cool to know how a record’s made. I think it’s cool to know the difference between good distortion in a record and bad distortion. Same thing in wine. There are certain flaws in natural wine that some people find absolutely appealing. Like volatile acidity. Some people find it absolutely off-putting. But I think it’s intriguing when a person can say why they like it for this wine.
And then, you know, there’s talking to people that know more than you do. And I do that with music all the time, too. So I’m always around people that know more than I do because I feel like I’m going to elevate myself that way, right? So whether it’s an importer or a merchant or a sommelier or a fellow fan or enthusiast, you’re always asking, well, why are you into what you’re into?”
Light My Fire
“My grandfather opened a liquor store in Connecticut in 1955. Built the building and everything. And my uncle, who started working there in the 70s, got into California wine first and then French wine, of course, and German wine. And so by the time I was helping out in the 80s they had a wine section. Standard stuff, you know. Dom Perignon and Krug. That type of Champagne for special occasions.
My uncle slowly but surely started building up a better wine selection there. So by the time I was able to ask the right questions about wine he was able to really point me in the right direction.
I said, well look, I’m buying all this wine in California. At a supermarket. And I’m basically looking for stuff that’s on sale, haha. And stuff that looks like it’s from smaller producers. One day I went back there and I said, just let me buy a couple bottles from you. I had a little extra money. And one of the bottles, actually I still have it: a ’99 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot. Which, you know, when I tried it was profound. Because I’d never tried anything like that. So I said, whoa this is really great. And then I was like, aw man, it’s $27. How am I ever going to be able to afford this?
And you start figuring out what you’re going to give up to afford what you like. We found smaller and smaller merchants until we got to a point where the merchants would kinda take pity on us and sell us really great bottles of wine cheap…and that’s when I started drinking old Burgundy.
So by the time I met Steve, who really taught me quite a bit about wine, I knew that when you’re put in a position to learn from a person like that, you should ask as much as you can. And I did.
With wine you’re always chasing that first moment you get when you hear something transformative as a kid. Like with that first record or whatever. I thought that George Harrison’s Set on You was transformative. It turns out it wasn’t. I was just too young to know the difference, right? But Public Enemy’s Rebel Without a Pause — that was transformative. And that was rather obscure when it came out.
I got into music because of hip-hop, really. By the time I discovered how great the late 80s and early 90s rap music could be, I started focusing on the producer, of course, because that’s what I was always intrigued by. Not the rapper. Always the producer.
I realized there was a certain style of hip-hop that I loved and a certain sample library that created that type of hip-hop. It all had roots in James Brown’s rhythm but it stretched out further. You start realizing that something magical happened in rhythm and popular music in the late 60s and then you start piecing that together. And then it’s easy from there to go outwards. Because hip-hop distilled a lot of that stuff through the four second sample.
It all had to be immediate. So by the time you heard something you loved it was enough to make you go back. And whether you focused on a sample, a breakbeat or whatever, by the time you flipped over the record, you started realizing that there was a magical quality to the entire project. Not just that moment.
I think about music and wine in the same way. Where I’m just going for that moment. And then I’m chasing that. With music I’m doing that in every genre. So right now I’m really into South African jazz. And I already know enough about South African music, and I know enough about jazz, that I can immediately hear when I needle drop a record whether or not it’s something worth listening to. With wine, I’m just thinking about all of the other great wine that it reminds me of. What greatness pops into my head when I try it, right? And everything just kinda comes into focus.”
Dilla Says Go
After Dilla passed, Egon teamed up with Madlib to launch Madlib Invazion, a label, touring entity and production company which has sent them around the world, playing shows to thousands upon thousands of fans. Backstage, they have a show of their own: wine, wine and more wine. Bottles from their suitcases, bottles from folks who source for them on the road, contacts they’ve cultivated over the years.
Their mutual obsession began when Madlib and Egon started living together in 2001. As early as ‘02, “there were glasses of wine on the table. Like I said, we were broke. So our taste developed for that stuff in tandem. We were traveling a lot and I was always trying to find more restaurants and wine stuff. Eventually, as you get a little bit older, you start realizing that you can’t do drugs if you’re a musician and make it beyond a certain threshold. Drugs make you do silly things. And hard liquor is a curse for many musicians. I mean, it’s killed a lot of musicians, of course...But wine’s relatively easy. Especially the natural stuff.”
Just before the election, Madlib and Egon had the weekend off. They flew to Tampa with a fellow collector named Robert Dentice to drink wine from the best cellar in America: Bern’s Steak House. The head sommelier, whom they contacted in advance, set aside bottles so rare he presented them in a paper bag table-side, so no one else would see — it was the last of the lot! Two straight nights of drinking through the last century: World-War I Bordeaux (a 1918 Lafite Rothschild), through the Roaring 20s, the Great Depression, World War II to the psychedelic 70s (a 1972 Romanée Saint Vivant).
When they’re on the road, they’re drinking white Burgundy, Riesling, Champagne. Lots of Champagne, and lots sourced through Steve: Cédric Bouchard, Ulysse Collin, Jacques Lassaigne. Not the easiest stuff to get a hold of, either, but a couple world wars can really put things in perspective.
Egon and Madlib’s companion, Robert, is a fellow addict. He’s got a record and wine collection in the thousands, and he’s the one showing them the ropes here.
Why the overlap, we ask. Why so many music fiends into wine, and vice versa?
Egon says it was always like that. He knows lots of people who are into one really esoteric form of music and also one really esoteric form of wine. Or if they’re into everything in one area, same goes for the other.
“So you know you start piecing together a person’s personality for collecting through the types of wine and the types of records they collect...I want a good variety but I also want to have a center I can fall back on. And I can’t even really explain why there’s a center to it, but my collection makes total sense to me. Whether it’s free jazz or acid folk or psychedelic rock or funk. I feel basically the same way about my wine collection.
It’s this weird thing, especially with music and record collecting, and wine collecting too, I think, where people feel really odd talking about something that they themselves love for reasons that are unique to themselves alone.
But there’s purity in every form of expression. I just think that wine happens to be one of the greatest ones. It’s something that as a species we just figured out very long ago that worked for us and we could turn into this art.”
It goes back to that bottle of Corton-Charlemagne he and his wife drank after visiting Dilla’s grave.
When you’re opening a good bottle of wine let good friends surround you at the table. I believe that stuff. It can really make or break the moment.
I love listening to music on my own but I’d much rather be listening with people and watch their reaction to it. Hear the same song in different contexts. Different points in my life. Other people’s lives. Different moods. I feel the same way about wine, and I think most people probably do.”
—Highland Park, Los Angeles, California