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When we said we wanted to create a children’s book of wine most people looked at us as if we shouldn’t have kids.

Understandable. Even in these twisted times drunk babies are not the answer.

We’re not there yet.

 


 

When we said we wanted to create a children’s book of wine most people looked at us as if we shouldn’t have kids.

Understandable. Even in these twisted times drunk babies are not the answer.

We’re not there yet.

 

But there are things adults do that we wanted to avoid.

 

A lot of wine media tells you more about the rich internal life of the author than it does about the winemaker. We wanted to avoid that. A lot of wine media makes you not want to drink wine. We definitely wanted to avoid that.

Instead we wanted to share something that translates to pleasure. To excite your curiosity. To spark a taste for something new.

The easiest way to do that was to tell a story straight from the winemaker’s mouth. We set our sights west, on California, with the intention of eventually moving east to Europe, purely through word of mouth. Sort of like rewinding Manifest Destiny by emptying a bottle of wine over a tape recorder. Glou glou glug glug.

California is a strange place.

I once heard an eighty-year-old remark that she would never move to SoCal because time moved so fast there she’d be dead before she knew it. We’re in a drought and it sometimes seems like the only liquid here is the face of a clock, melting.

Wine seemed like the proper medicine. At the very least it would make the journey more pleasurable. When we started traveling from November 2016 (the day before the world changed), back to Spring 2015, forward to post-election California, we quickly realized our children’s book narrative was devolving. This was becoming NSFW, and we were left holding the pieces, Memento-style, looking for Post-its on dingy bathroom mirrors and tattoos on our chests. We were speeding on a torpedo to the dark heart of America, as if Hunter S. Thompson were suddenly reborn to explain the world through wine.

Then we landed back where we started, in LA, a desert and now a sanctuary city, talking to Egon of Now-Again Records. He was bringing it full circle. Wine and music-making have withstood political upheaval for centuries. Grapes, like music, often suffer to produce great art. We just gotta keep fighting the good fight.

The thrill of the chase starts with the first taste. Now that’s something any kid could get behind.

—Los Angeles, CA. September 2017

 

 
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The Day Dilla Died


AMPLIFY WINES

Text: Jennifer Green

Video & Photos: Lendl Tellington

The Day Dilla Died


AMPLIFY WINES

Text: Jennifer Green

Video & Photos: Lendl Tellington

Cameron Porter was sitting at his desk in East Hollywood at a label called Plug Research, then home to crazy musical geniuses like Flying Lotus and Daedelus. He’d moved down to LA from Santa Maria in 2004, a humble, quietly brilliant guy chasing culture, running from Republicans and a childhood spent doing things like tending to his dad’s orchids. Sure, his dad was a hip guy—not many 50-year-old dudes in the ‘burbs were listening to Doggie Style and The Chronic—but Santa Maria itself rejected culture. It was white. It bled red. Cameron couldn’t wait to get the hell out.

So here he was in the City of Angels, a nerd surrounded by “all these cool weird guys who dressed like I did in kindergarten, you know like Velcro shoes, Izod shirts, this weird fashion sense.” (For the record, Cameron’s aunt was a sales rep for Izod, hence the funky threads.) Flying Lotus had been at J Dilla’s deathbed for days as his friend battled lupus and a rare blood disease. That friend, at only thirty-two, was already one of the most influential hip-hop producers of all time, having cut his teeth with De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo and Common. Three days earlier, Dilla had released his seminal album Donuts. On February 10, 2006, he succumbed to cardiac arrest.

  Illustration by Boy Bison

Illustration by Boy Bison

Daedelus walked into the office.

“Yeah, man. Dilla passed.”

 
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Cameron moved back north in 2008. The place he’d fled was now home again. But things had changed. Farmers were suddenly discussing the nuances of different wine and food pairings. There was culture beyond agriculture. Sideways had thrown Santa Barbara County on the silver screen and tourists were flocking in droves.

The people who lived there were changing, too. Santa Maria was now majority Mexican.

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It’s November 2016, the day before the election. We’re sitting across from Cameron in the infamous café where Paul Giamatti taught everyone to hate Merlot, trying to remember a time before Trump was telling everyone to hate Mexicans. The clock is ticking.

Cameron’s wife Marlen is first generation born and raised. Her grandfather came to the US from Oaxaca in the 60s to pick grapes. The American guy who recruited him took an instant liking to him and sponsored him for citizenship. He’s been here ever since. Mar, one of his twenty-one grandchildren, met Cameron at a house party eleven years ago, when they realized they were both into the same music and wine.

She’s the reason he moved back here. Along with a desire to redeem Merlot.

I feel a moral duty to make Merlot.

Merlot here is just so fuckin’ good.
 
  Illustration by Boy Bison

Illustration by Boy Bison

 

The soil had been light but dense with clay. We’d felt gravel and sand underfoot as well, stepping to avoid stray golf balls amid the graveyard of grapes that weren’t ripe enough to pick at harvest. The vineyard was just across the way from the Alisal River Course in Solvang, a faux-Danish town straight out of Westworld.

(“I’m secretly a robot,” Cameron whispered.)

Cut back to Los Olivos Wine Merchant Café. We’re eating fries in the room where Paul Giamatti started huffing and puffing before storming out the door. Pop culture really does work wonders in times of stress. We’ve put down our phones to avoid the mounting shitstorm of national news. Cameron is playing his part, intent on distracting us from the dire situation at hand, like any good host on Westworld.

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Cameron : Growing up in Santa Maria it was this conservative town, almost anti-culture in a way. It was all about big agriculture. Wine really changed all that, which was what made me initially fall in love with it. Stuff had been happening since the 70s and 80s, but it was really starting to reach a critical mass right [before I left for LA]. Suddenly you could actually make a living doing it. My first passion was music, but the music business was going in the opposite direction.

Glou Glou : Well that explains the overlap. You were saying J Dilla was such an inspiration to you in terms of sampling. That was the whole idea — improvising with what you have.

Cameron : Yeah and he was the guy that figured out how to make it sound human, you know? Which was essentially like, MadLib talks about it — J Dilla was the first person to turn the quantize off. So you have these weird wonky off-kilter drums, almost like a real human being would play. It seems like such an obvious thing, but no one had done it before. And with Voodoo, Questlove talks about Dilla getting him to play loose. Questlove is so in the pocket. Sooo on time. And so with wine, in a way you’re a producer — I mean you are a producer — but like a producer in the studio. Almost. With grapes. You’re the one who’s shaping that sound and training it into what it’s going to become.

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Glou Glou : Yet there are only so many things you can control when it comes to wine. You have the earth, you have grapes, and that’s what you have to work with. At the end of the day, what comes from the ground comes from the ground. With music, you listen to a song and you know who played on it, but when you drink something, you’re like, it came from this place, this soil, that year, there was this climate…there are so many nuances you can tap into that make the universe of wine much more complex.

Cameron : At the same time I think there’s almost a dehumanization of wine, where it’s been made to be all about the vineyard, all about the land. I think the human element gets lost in wine. But to me — if you want to make the classical comparison — if the vineyard’s that sheet of music, the way you play that is so different from person to person, the way you choose to interpret it. And to me that’s really what makes a wine great. Is that you get that winemaker’s personality and the heart and soul that went into that bottle. And choosing what to amplify at a given time — amplify wines dot com — [laughs]

Not everything is going to be out there and weird. Our Merlot is very classic. That’s really just what the site is asking for.

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Glou Glou : Demands, yeah. We talked about technique erasing that sometimes. Like with carbonic maceration [in which the juice ferments inside the grape, leading to fruity, low tannin wine] where you just taste the technique. And you’re not amplifying anything but the technique.

Cameron : It’s the same thing, yeah. There are good practitioners of it and bad. With Overnoy Poulsard [Pierre Overnoy is the OG in France’s Jura] you taste a very strong sense of place and sense of self. Even though it’s partially carbonic. Or a lot of the great Beaujolais producers. Whereas the other stuff just tastes like bubble gum. It’s knowing how to use those tools, when to, how to. I don’t claim to be some expert genius winemaker. I’m just doing stuff that’s intuitive and what in our experience thus far has worked.

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Cameron : We used to make fun of all the producers who were just knocking off Dilla. All these guys who were like, turn your quantize off and make beats. Flying Lotus was one of the few who was really truly doing something different.  The guy I always really liked was Carlos Niño. He had a group called Build An Ark which was really good – reminded me of old Archie Shepp, soulful jazz vibe that no one had tried to bring back. Life Force Trio was one of his things. People were just getting into Dilla in a big way, talking about it a lot more.

Glou Glou : Tends to happen when someone dies.

Cameron : Yeah. It was a crazy time. We shared the office with a radio station called dublab, which always had cool artists.

Another fry?

Glou Glou : Gladly.

Being in LA, what drove you to come back?

Cameron : A lot of it was Mar. We were dating long distance two and a half years —she’d been up here the whole time. And then there was a desire to make wine. What interests me in any art form…I always want to make it. It’s hard for me to be a casual observer, just enjoy it. So I wanted to make it. You can’t really do that in LA. I came back up here — everything I thought I would never do, like work in agriculture.

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Glou Glou : Your 14-year-old self is cringing right now.

Cameron : Yeah, haha. Certainly growing up I was always like, I can’t wait to get out of Santa Maria. Never coming back here, ya know? I think you also find, when you go out in the world, it’s not like LA is that much more special or different. You go somewhere to find yourself and there you are. You’re the same person. So I really enjoyed the cultural aspects of being in LA, the cuisine and things to do, but to me rather than retreating from somewhere…how do you make it better?

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Cameron : This is your home. What do you do to improve it and the community you live in? So I always think about when people are like, if Trump becomes president I’m moving to Canada. If that happened, wouldn’t you wanna really stay and fight and make things better? So I think that’s kind of my view of Santa Maria.

Glou Glou : That Trump already became president.

Cameron : It is. Yeah. [laughs]

 

Los Olivos, California. November 7, 2016

 

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In The studio


AMPLIFY WINES

Text: Jennifer Green

Video & Photos: Lendl Tellington

In The studio


AMPLIFY WINES

Text: Jennifer Green

Video & Photos: Lendl Tellington

We’re standing in Cameron and Marlen’s cellar and it looks like a crime scene. The Carignan they picked just over a month ago went crazy during fermentation, exploding over each tank. One after another.

Boom boom boom.

We’d traipsed through the Carignan vineyard just before lunch. It’s a striking property owned by the Chumash tribe, dotted with oak trees and owl houses (much to the dismay of the local gopher population). Throughout the soil are chunks of serpentine that have washed down from the mountains: black rock that’s hostile to most any plant but grapevines. Camp 4, the site’s called. Cameron’s been working with it the longest out of any vineyard he’s dealt with in the four years since he and Mar started Amplify. It has a wild magic to it.

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It’s a magic that can be lost on some. In Cameron’s experience, young winemakers tend to show up and say, let’s change this or that, when all they’re really showing is their arrogance. The Chumash oversee the land, and the Mexicans they’ve hired to farm it have been working the same land for 30-40 years. They’ve risen through the ranks by getting to know the vineyards intimately. It would take at least that amount of time to best their knowledge.

The organic farming is one aspect which Cameron and Mar leave to the pros. The winemaking is another. This year, they’ve gotten healthy fruit with so much ambient yeast on the skins that the grapes threw a rager during fermentation, like so many rebellious teenagers spilling themselves down the barrels. Now, a month later, the Carignan is still rarin’ to go. We taste two lots: the first oozes pheromones (“any wine that smells like sex, you really can’t go wrong,” Cameron notes) and the second is hyper-masculine. We swear we can hear the locker room talk. (“Except this one grabs you by the heart,” Cameron jokes.)

Cameron and Mar are hands-off parents. They’ll combine the two lots when they bottle and let them do their thing. Because diverse grapes, with their little flaws and imperfections, produce complex wine. They hate the idea of sorting berries for uniform ripeness. Where’s the romance in that?

Their Carignan would learn how to talk to a lady. Unlike the man who wasn’t, at that point, our president.

But I digress…

 
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Cameron : I was thinking the other day about the idea of great genre filmmakers. I’m a huge horror fan. Old westerns. Where these guys were auteurs within these underappreciated genres. So to me that’s the really interesting thing with working with a lot of the fruit we do.

We’re not necessarily working with expensive fruit or ultra noble high-end varieties. We’re working with Carginan and Counoise. To me they’re almost like the grape equivalent of a horror movie. Not that they’re a horror to work with but —

Glou Glou : You wouldn’t see a horror film at the Oscars.

Cameron : Yeah exactly. I mean the guys I loved growing up were like John Carpenter. People like that who’ve got this very distinctive style and have been able to find a way to make what they’re doing work on the cheap.

Glou Glou : But they also have a certain appreciation that’s tied to it. Their fame might not be about prestige but they do have a following. John Carpenter’s made a bunch of films. They’re just satisfying.

Cameron : And there’s a joy, a visceral joy, to those movies. There’s that intellectual element being slipped in. They Live, for example. That’s a total genre movie. It stars Rowdy Rowdy Piper. But he’s slipping in all this commentary on Reagan-era America.

Glou Glou : They’re like a vessel.

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Cameron : Yeah. So you’re creating this fun experience for someone but if they choose to, they can get intellectual about the wines. And they can think about them. There’s hopefully some commentary, something new being said about where they’re grown, who’s making them. But on the surface they’re fun. They’re enjoyable. There’s an immediacy to them. A sense of pleasure.

 

Glou Glou : They kind of grab you. What are your favorite Westerns?

Cameron : The Searchers would be a definite classic. Modern…I mean Unforgiven is an incredible movie. Shane was always a good classic Western. Sergio Leone, all the Spaghetti Westerns. Those were just—the music. Ennio Morricone’s stuff is just amazing.

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Glou Glou : The Searchers is fascinating in that it’s a take on the genre but also a nod to the way that genre dismissed a certain race of people. John Ford’s last film is all about following the Native American perspective in a cowboy movie. Like he felt that he had to pay them back in some way because of what the genre is inherently. But yeah, The Searchers is the first in that it’s so twisted.

Cameron : It’s such an amazing movie. Just visually, too, the way that it was shot was just amazing. I think people who were watching it at the time didn’t even realize the subtext. They just think, John Wayne. But it influenced Taxi Driver and so many films.

Glou Glou : Yeah, that shot when he goes in and sees the silhouettes of the family.  That’s been ripped a bunch of times. I think that’s what’s cool about the genre film and about the wine you’re talking about. You don’t have to realize the subtext to appreciate it. There are different levels of reading into it.

Cameron : Yeah, you don’t have to have that experience, but if you want to go deeper, you can.

Glou Glou : What do you think about wines where you have be able to read the subtext? Where you have to be fluent to enjoy them?

Cameron : Well I think there are wines that in some way are purely intellectual. To me, that means there’s some fundamental flaw in them. You’re almost appreciating the risk that was taken more than the result. Which is to say, like an unsulfured wine where the volatile acidity is just so unbearably high you don’t even want to drink it. Or a wine that’s got an absurd level of reduction. Something like that. Where you go, wow, this person really took a risk, and they failed miserably but it’s fascinating intellectually to try this.

Glou Glou : Right, it will never be a classic.

Cameron : I think with wine there has to be some element of joy in wanting to drink it. It’s like a piece of music. There has to be some element that makes you want to listen to it. Or a film you’re watching, even if it’s a difficult experience—there has to be something in there to latch on to. It can’t be just totally cerebral. There has to be some element of joy somewhere in there, you know.

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Glou Glou : John Cage wines?

Cameron : Yeah exactly, like "Silence" by John Cage. It’s very cool intellectually... or the most out-there elements of free jazz, where there’s no melody, no rhythm. It’s just totally atonal. To me you can get dissonant but there still has to be a backbeat there.

Glou Glou : What do you think the backbeat is in wine?

Cameron : The backbeat in wine can be different things. Sugar can be a backbeat. You can do some weird shit but if there’s a little residual sugar, people can come back to it and there’s an element of joy. I think acid also again keeps it refreshing and succulent. You want to take another sip.

Glou Glou : So both of those things, when they’re in moderation.

 

Cameron : Right. German Riesling I think is a perfect example of that. You’ve got this wine that’s sweet but it’s got a ton of acid, and it’s really mineral & geeky at the same time. A person who’s very novice, new to wine, can definitely enjoy that but the nerdiest sommelier on the planet is obsessed with Riesling too.

In any wine, I think acid is kind of like the soul.”

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Santa Maria, California. November 7, 2016

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A Delicious Meeting Called Dinner


AMPLIFY WINES

Text: Jennifer Green

Video & Photos: Lendl Tellington

A Delicious Meeting Called Dinner


AMPLIFY WINES

Text: Jennifer Green

Video & Photos: Lendl Tellington

With six hours to Election Day, we’re walking through the door to Cam and Mar’s home.

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Their other baby (apart from Amplify) is a wonderful human named Miles. He’s sixteen months old and running around, screaming with joy as he darts between the legs of adults, tables and chairs. Not quite as rambunctious as the Carignan, but he’ll get there.

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Mar’s grandma is whipping up something intoxicating in the kitchen. Her grandpa greets us warmly, with a shining face. They’ve been married sixty years. (“I’m tired!” he jokes.)

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In the background, Wolf Blitzer is blaring on TV, prophesizing Hillary’s win, and someone shuts him off so the real show can begin:

Chilaquiles, wafting bliss and meat and spice spooned over steaming Oaxacan corn tortillas... made thin and cooked over a hot flame (in Oaxaca they’re made on the floor to be the size of pizza pans). The secret ingredient is fresh epazote, a squeaky clean and floral herb, added at the very end after the tomatoes have simmered down to a luscious pulp. Mar’s grandma brought it from Oaxaca to plant in their backyard.

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 “You can have some,” she says, to my astonishment, as she prepares a generous heap. Topped with lime, onions and queso fresco, it’s a fever dream of flavors and textures, obscuring the stress of tomorrow’s verdict.

Cam and Mar have four of their babies on the table: Duke & Ella (Viognier/Muscat blend in 2015, soon to be Riesling/Muscat in 2016), Muscat, Carignan and Merlot. The more they drink, Cameron says, the more it becomes all about texture. Sure, aromatics are nice but “the way a wine feels is really important to me. And I think a lot of what are considered natural wines lack that."

 
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If someone says natural wine’s about these fun spritzy light wines,
I’m like, fuck that.
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The wines we enjoy have a freshness from that acid but have that textural gravitas where there’s some more depth there. It’s not something that just disappears on your palate.”

It sure is some of the most food-friendly juice we’ve ever slugged, and they all go insanely well with the chilaquiles on our forks. The Duke & Ella lifts the flavor, taming the onions. The Muscat and Merlot are like a hammock, gently catching all the textures. The Carignan, with its light tannins and high acid, lassos the spice. Magic chilaquiles wine.

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They rarely, if ever, drink wine by itself. We can get behind that—wine is like salt. It needs food and food needs it. “These are fuckin’ Amurikan wines,” Cameron jokes as we slurp down our meals so quickly our stomachs start to hurt.

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Mar’s grandpa whispers something to his wife. Mar leans toward us with a twinkle in her eye. “My grandpa just said, 'If Trump were to taste these chilaquiles he wouldn’t dislike Mexicans as much.'”

The table erupts in laughter.

 

Nipomo, California. November 7, 2016

 

  Illustration by Boy Bison

Illustration by Boy Bison

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Giddyup


BROC CELLARS

Text: Jennifer Green

Photos: Guy Wilkinson

Giddyup


BROC CELLARS

Text: Jennifer Green

Photos: Guy Wilkinson

Let’s rewind to 2015. Simpler times.

 

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We’re walkin’ round the block to Chris Brockway’s winery in Berkeley, California, our first impression is concrete. Then power lines. Then aluminum siding. Certainly throws into sharp relief the notion most people have of wine. Our interest is piqued. Not a lick of pastoral landscape here.

Inside, we find a man who is by turns relaxed and irreverent, greeting us with a Midwestern drawl, like a retired cowboy who’s found his next craft. Just the sort of guy you’d want to knock back some beers with.

But Chris is far from retired.

He’s simply gotten pretty damn good at learnin’ how to lasso grapes into wine.

  Illustration by Boy Bison

Illustration by Boy Bison

ON GETTING YOUR HANDS DIRTY

Glou Glou: You’re not born into this. What motivates a young person such as yourself to come to California to make wine?

Chris: There were a couple reasons. First of all, I was a philosophy major. That right there, you’re either going to be a lawyer, teacher, a chef or a winemaker. I was getting ready to graduate soon, and I was like, what the hell do you do with a philosophy degree? Somebody said, well you talk about wine all the friggin’ time, why don’t you become a winemaker, and I was like, I can’t do that! I live in Nebraska. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.

But I always had a passion. Some people collect football cards. I had a collection of my stepfather’s bottles I always liked lining up.

And then it kinda stuck with me for a little while. I was like, wait a minute, why don’t I just go do that. I packed up the car and was like I’m getting out of this town.

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Glou Glou: This one horse town.

Chris: Yeah yeah and, you know, this town with all the bad beer.

Glou Glou: And all the cows.

Chris: Yeah and I drove out to Davis. That was ‘97. So a while ago.

I wanted to get my hands dirty. I wanted to be a California winemaker. Because living in the US, that seemed like where you’d wanna go. I was always kinda interested in older vine style, so I was drinking a lot of old vine Zinfandel, and things like that. Before things got super ripe.

 

ON RIPENESS

Chris: When I came out of school it was the heyday of big wines. You pick it ripe and adjust it down after, was what I learned working with other people. But now I’m like, school wasn’t that ridiculous because we were taught to pick when it’s healthy.

Glou Glou: How do you know the moment when it’s healthy?

Chris: Well you just don’t let it become desiccated. You don’t let stuff become shriveled up by the sun. And, you know, there’s no nutrients left in the vine or the grapes. You pick it a little earlier when it’s happy and still growing, not when it’s kind of fading.

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Glou Glou: Does everyone kind of have their own definition of when something’s ripe? How much of an art is it versus a science?

Chris: It depends on what you’re trying to do. That mindset that was still around in 2002—you know, get it off the vine when it’s happy and healthy—is completely gone. This bigger wine mindset is now the norm and I’m kind of the opposite of that.

ON URBAN WINE

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Glou Glou: Where did you make your first wine? Was it in your own winery or someone else’s?

Chris: No, I made my first wine in a basement. When I was going to school I moved down to Los Angeles for a little bit cus I ran out of money.

Glou Glou: Is that what people do, when they run out of money? They go to LA?

Chris: Yeah, you know, I better go to LA, I’m outta cash [laughs]. No, I was working, editing really bad TV shows, stuff like that. Mostly things nobody’s ever seen for a good reason. So to build up enough cash to go back to school I lived in a place that kind of had a basement. Which is very unusual for Los Angeles.

So I made my first wine down there. Some grapes from Paso Robles. Made like a half a ton or something like that.

Glou Glou: How’d it turn out?

Chris: Uhh, it turned out poorly [chuckles]. It was alright for a little while but I used to kinda top off the barrel with whatever I was drinking—

Glou Glou: ...whiskey...

Chris: Yeah, like a little bit for your homies kind of thing. So basically that barrel ended up being every wine that I drank. One barrel with multiple flaws from a hundred wines. A lot of history. So yeah, I learned my first lesson. After that, I didn’t make wine until I started working professionally. I took a couple years off, and moved straight up into the Bay Area. Worked for a winery over in Alameda, never really left the city environment.

Glou Glou: So many people have this pastoral idea of winemaking, especially of winemakers. That’s their environment. How has being in an urban environment affected your winemaking?

Chris: Quite a bit, I think especially being in the Bay Area where there’s a style of food. The Chez Panisse effect—fresh ingredients sourced from this place, that place, with everything at its ideal peak. But simply prepared.

On the dessert list at Chez Panisse it’s, like, a bowl of tangerines. Literally four tangerines in a bowl. I don’t know what the price was. That might be going to the extreme.

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Glou Glou: Was it the best tangerine you’ve ever had?

Chris: Yeah, you know it peeled perfectly and there was something very rewarding about that. Now what you see, whether it’s in San Francisco, or in the East Bay, are all these offshoots, so now that’s the general cuisine. With that in mind, the wine that you have with that kind of food changes as well. Lighter wines, wines with good acid that aren’t going to overpower a lot of the simply prepared food that you see around here.  You have importers like Dressner and Rosenthal and obviously Kermit Lynch, and those wines go with a lot of that food, but there wasn’t a lot of local wine, or whatever you want to call it. The things they’re making in the wine regions around here didn’t match what was being prepared here.

So I wanted to have something. This is California, right?! We did this almost 30-40 years ago. Things were not always 15% alcohol. Things were more table wines in the best sense of the word.

Glou Glou: So it was a cultural decision.

Chris: Mmhm. Yeah, and so I became disillusioned with the style of winemaking that I was taught. And just decided to start over on my own. I was like, even if I’m not going to be able to sell any of my own wine, I better just make something I like. In case I have to drink it. That kind of cliché.

That was around the time that I first heard about the natural wine thing, where there was a name but it wasn’t real to me. And then Terroir [in San Francisco] opened up. I was kinda like, oh my God, what is this place?

I would go in there almost every night and there was always something new. Pineau d’aunis rosé! And I was like, what’s Pineau d’aunis…

Those kinds of experiences excite you. You haven’t been able to put it all together. You’ve been experimenting with different things and then all of a sudden, you’re exposed to all these different people from all over the world.

Chris: I think being here in the Bay Area had a very strong influence on what I do.

So that’s what made it kinda fun. A handful of producers have cropped up, like La Clarine up in the Sierra Foothills, Donkey & Goat, which is right here.

Slowly things have been changing. My whole thing is I wanted to do a younger, fresher style of wine that matched the food where I live—something that’s fun to drink and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to pour for my friends.

 
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Berkeley, CA. April 2, 2015

 

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Evolution


BROC CELLARS

Text: Jennifer Green

Photos: Guy Wilkinson

Evolution


BROC CELLARS

Text: Jennifer Green

Photos: Guy Wilkinson

Evolution has become a dirty word in much of this great country, but we’re steering clear of politics here. Keep in mind, we’re back in 2015. This was before the crazies moved from the fringe to invade the mainstream.

Evolution here means evolving your craft to produce maximum depth and pleasure. Which does sound a bit like procreation, I guess.

So I’d better watch it.

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Chris: I think everything goes through a process of how far can you push it at the top end of the scale, whether it’s alcohol or THC or hops in beer. Sometimes a major recalibration needs to take place.

You like hanging out with your friends, you like drinking wine, you like shooting the shit, why do you want this big heavy cloying thing where everyone’s just yawning and kind of bored, you know? You want wines that pick you up, not weigh you down.

Glou Glou: So how do you work in the winery to achieve that style of wine?

Chris: We keep it pretty simple. I always say it takes a lot of work to do very little with your wines. No yeast or sulfur in the fermenter, no sulfur during aging, unless there’s the odd time something wants to take the wrong turn and then we just clean it up. Everything sees a little sulfur about four weeks before bottling. Usually it’s just a tiny amount, not for any chemistry stability, but more for flavor. I kinda like a little bit of sulfur in my wines, a tiny amount, because I think it just lifts the wine.

Glou Glou: A little spark.

Chris: Yeah yeah, you can perceive the acid that’s in there a little bit more.  But once again, it could be down to almost nothing for you by the time you crack a bottle.

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Glou Glou: Was it hard for you to source grapes at first, not having a name?

Chris: You can always find something to get started but I think it takes a while to find what you want. Some vineyards I’ve been working with since 2002, so eleven years in the making, so to speak. It just takes a really long time to figure vineyards out. And I don’t think you ever do but that’s what keeps it exciting. You want to keep returning to these spots, and keep learning a place.

Glou Glou: How do you learn a place? What kind of questions do you ask?

Chris: It depends on how much of the backstory you already know. So definitely with the older vine stuff, which is what we’re working with more—some of these heritage vineyards, getting back to why I moved out here (whether it’s old vine Carignan or Zinfandel, which is obviously not a native grape to California, and the Valdiguié and the Grenache gris)—I’d ask, how’d this get here, why is it still alive, why didn’t this get torn out? Why is it still healthy and producing? What is it about this spot that didn’t get ripped out or didn’t get phylloxera? Where did it come from?

Glou Glou: Do you encounter fierce competition for those sorts of grapes?

Chris: I didn’t use to. Nobody cared. People talked about old vines but there wasn’t this overall concern or push for them. Now you see some of your buddies and you’re like, what are you doing out here? Get! [laughs] Go! Mine! But before 2009 there weren’t that many people interested in the old vine Carignan. It was like, what were you going to do with that? Nobody cared about Valdiguié. Maybe nobody still does. I do.

Most of those vineyards are gone and replaced with something else. I’m just trying to convince people to keep these vineyards around. We’ll buy them. We’ll even farm them. There is a renewed interest with some of these like-minded producers— which is the more the merrier as far as I’m concerned. Keeping the rising tides attitude about things make sense.

 
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Glou Glou: What kind of terroirs are you working with?

Chris: Since we’re working with about ten different vineyards right now, that’s quite a few soil types, and a lot of different climates as well.

A lot of the stuff is warm. We are in California. The key thing is trying to find the right varietal in a climate that actually makes sense for it. Obviously with a lot of these old vine vineyards that are still around, the climate works. They were planted there for a reason.

But a lot of that stuff is sandy soils—nothing too extreme. The coolest terroir we’re working is kind of like this raised seabed, very calcaire kind of soil with a lot of slate and fossilized seashells [points to rock resting on table]. That’s out of Paso Robles which I think is some of the best soil down there. There’s a vein that runs through and the way it locks in the acid, with a lot of these calcareous deposits and uplifted sea creatures, makes it my favorite.

Glou Glou: Which grape do you like working with the most?

Chris: I mean the Valdiguié is kind of fun because nobody gives it any respect.

Glou Glou: The underdog.

Chris: Yeah, yeah. Working with that was just by chance. Cus I was looking for Gamay. I was like, I want to make Gamay, where is Gamay? So I go out to this guy’s vineyard and he’s like, I have Gamay and I’m like no shit, that’s cool. Awesome. When was it planted? And he was like ah, you know, 1950. Ok, they had Gamay around here, in the 50s? I asked what the weather was like. He’s like, oh it’s hot. I thought oh, that’s weird, cus Gamay likes cooler climates. When he said he picked it mid-October, I was like ah, that’s pretty late… are you sure you don’t have Valdiguié? And he’s like, I’m sure. He’s got the sign posted and everything. He’s like, Gamay. I call it Gamay. My dad called it Gamay. My grandfather called it Gamay. So alright, it’s Gamay. But I’m going to call it Valdiguié.

Glou Glou: And we’ll call it even.

Chris: Yeah yeah, you call it what you want, I’ll call it what I want. But that’s how that kind of came about. But I also remember being in college, having my first bottle of J. Lohr, like, what’s this? Oh, Valdiguié. I kinda had an idea. Cus that’s what I could afford in college. So I had a precedent from 15 years earlier.

Illustration by Boy Bison

Glou Glou: In general what kind of wine are you trying to make?

Chris: There’s no recipe so I think people get a little frustrated when they’re like I wanna learn, I wanna come in and help. And then they come in and I’m asking them questions.

Depending on the grape, we have a lot of different oddball vessels. We have the Picpoul in the concrete, we have some of the old vine Carignan in the oval casks and concrete, and most of the whites are in these Germanic casks.

 

I don’t make one wine the same way year after year. I work with whatever the vintage is giving me and then I try to make the right decision. It’s the opposite of what many wineries do but I understand both sides to the argument. So we can have 100% whole cluster fermentation one year and then not a stem in sight the next year.

Glou Glou: Now that you have this new space, are you able to make wines you couldn’t before?

Chris: We’re starting to make more white wines, make a more ‘complete side of a record.’ Like the first song, second song...there’s supposed to be a progression when you listen to it, right? So I want to have more interesting whites and sparklings.

Glou Glou: Among the wines you make, what are your favorites to drink?

Chris: Probably whatever I just bottled and released. Right now it’s the Chenin blanc. That’s the one I’m most excited about. But I don’t really drink my own.

Glou Glou: Really?

Chris: Nah. I make a point not to drink my wine. Cus I’ve seen other people get house palates, and that’s the only thing they like, and that’s the only thing they drink, and then it starts to slowly get bigger and bigger and riper and riper. Plus, I taste the wines so much here, you saw all the barrels out there. We just tasted through every single barrel.

Glou Glou: That makes sense. You’re not trying to stack your palate up, you’re trying to expand it.

Chris: So yeah, I just try to always keep my palate calibrated. Whatever that means. You know what I’m saying? I try to drink other places.

Glou Glou: Yeah, it’s like your palate has to travel. Stay active.

Chris: Since I can’t go to France all the time, right.

 Illustration by Boy Bison

Illustration by Boy Bison

Glou Glou: What do you want in your glass tonight?

Chris: I don’t know, it depends if the Warriors are playing basketball tonight or not. I guess if I had a craving for one thing, right this moment, it’d probably be a Pineau d’Aunis. Or maybe a Chenin blanc. That’s only cus we were just talking about Chenin blanc.

Glou Glou: You seem to always be thirsty for what you’re talking about.

Chris: Yeah, maybe the Pineau and the Chenin. Probably both.

 

Berkeley, CA. April 2, 2015

 

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Fear and Loathing in the Sierras


LA CLARINE FARM

Text: Jennifer Green

Photos: Lendl Tellington

Fear and Loathing in the Sierras


LA CLARINE FARM

Text: Jennifer Green

Photos: Lendl Tellington

Good wine is a necessity of life for me.

–Thomas Jefferson

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Thomas Jefferson had a few good ideas. And then he had some others. Here in the Sierra foothills, an hour east of Sacramento, starts the Great Red North of California, known to some as Jefferson State. A place of gentle beauty and wild ideas, beyond the shale even by Trump standards. This, ladies and gentlemen, is outlaw country.

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Hank Beckmeyer and Caroline Hoel live in Somerset. Their neighbors are a small but vocal minority who’ve harbored divergent instincts for over a century (a long-ass time by West Coast standards). They swear allegiance not to California but to the State of Jefferson, a self-styled secession that took root in the 1800s — once named after the president who proposed an independent nation in western North America, now a movement driven by people who feel like they’ve already severed ties. Their seal is two XX’s — double-crossed by the state capital of Sacramento, cut off from the cultural and economic capitals of San Francisco and Los Angeles, dismissing them as so many yuppies stealing their water.

Many of these towns saw their heyday die with the gold rush. Today they’re marked only by pine trees and post offices, interspersed with people who came here to get away from the world and wish to push it still further away.

When Trump was elected five weeks earlier, many Californians started chewing on the notion of Cal-Exit. Many folks here would be happy as a clam to see them go.

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Amidst it all sit Hank and Caro, two happy-go-lucky wine heads swirling their glasses and looking past the porch at their goats grazing on La Clarine Farm. They are expats in their own ways, Caro from her childhood home in the French Alps, Hank from his upbringing in Florida, both from their neighbors here. Hank once toured in the band Half Japanese (Kurt Cobain is rumored to have died wearing one of their t-shirts).

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He played for Moe Tucker of the Velvet Underground and opened for Lou Reed before he went on to settle in Germany, exporting music and importing wine on the side. Caro was in the music biz, too, but had a hankering to start the next chapter. They intersected over beers at Oktoberfest and came to California looking to raise goats and grapes in a place whose terroir reminded them of what they were drinking overseas — wines from the Languedoc in Southern France.

To them, Somerset means soil, not secession.

 

LA CLARINE FARM

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It’s hard to imagine fear and loathing in a place so full of love, but this den of pleasures ain’t too distant from one of Hunter S. Thompson’s best trips. The acid rips, you’ve got purple lips, suddenly the scale tips. You’re hooked on the juice before can say cheese! Our fellow addict Joseph Harper of Elf Café in LA once described these as the gateway drugs to natural wine. He couldn’t be more on the money.

It does a lot to visit a place. When you taste their Tempranillo 2016, you can feel the smokiness of the air we inhaled there. Hank says he recognizes the dusty mineral tannins from the home vineyard — the small stretch of grapes just outside their house. It grips but it’s ethereal. Like a bite of steak that just left your mouth.

When you try their Mourvedre/Marsanne blend, we swear you can taste the forest pixies and wild sage. But maybe that’s just our drug-addled imagination.

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Contradictions abound. Here we are in the middle of gun-totin’ bible-thumpin’ territory, yet Caro seems to magically produce trays of comfort food that include exotic meats, cheeses, and other earthly delights. (She’s a damn fine cook.) Also, Hank and Caro actively reject the term natural (“if you define it, you’ll kill it”) and the dogmas that come with it, even though they’re producing some of the most hyper-naturally-made wines in California!

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In the cellar, there’s an old label on the wall reading “Methfesseliers” — apparently named after the street in Hamburg where Hank fermented his first batch of wine, in an ice chest. He doesn’t remember the grape. He insists it isn’t meth. But is it? Is any of this real? Does it matter?

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What were we doing? What was the meaning of this trip? Were we just wandering around in a frenzy? It’s December 2016 and the whole world seems to be teetering on the verge of an existential explosion. As the U.S. awaits a regime change, we’re launching on a savage journey to the heart of the American dream. We’ve holed up with Hank and Caro in their cozy bunker in the foothills, replacing our bloodstream with wine and scribbling down a gonzo guide to surviving the apocalypse. If the end was ‘nigh at least we’d be seeing stars.

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—El Dorado County, California.
December 16, 201

 

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How To Survive The Apocalypse


LA CLARINE FARM

Text: Jennifer Green

Photos: Lendl Tellington

How To Survive The Apocalypse


LA CLARINE FARM

Text: Jennifer Green

Photos: Lendl Tellington

Hank got into wine when he was down in Cannes for a weeklong music festival in the 90s, supposedly an industry gathering but really an excuse for hobnobbing and debauchery in the South of France in the dead of winter. He got curious about some of the local wines and went rogue, sticking around an extra week to go knockin’ on doors: Domaine Tempier, Chateau Simone, Thierry Allemand. With lightning speed, he was importing his discoveries to the German market, before anyone there cared.

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1. GET HIGH ON YOUR OWN SUPPLY

He didn’t give a damn. He and Caro ended up drinking most of ‘em themselves.

What drew him to these people, we wondered.

“It seems like I gravitated toward the folks who were doing stuff hands-off,” he says. “There was no natural wine back then. It was just, people made wine. And some people made wine like their fathers and their fathers’ fathers did. Other people were into using technology.”

Makes sense, because natural wine is a relatively new term but it’s the oldest way of doin’ the damn thing.

“Exactly. And I tended to gravitate toward those kinds of people that had a long heritage of doing things the same way.”

“Right,” Caro says. “Get it right the first time instead of having to manipulate it later.”

Hell if we could argue with that. Who wouldn’t want the old school stuff, pure and uncut? Also, the wines were interesting and so were the people, damn it! There seemed to be a correlation between that. They weren’t making wine like all the other squares, just to sell. The wine they made was the wine they wanted to drink! They were scratching their own itch, just like Hank and Caro are doing here, in a secluded pocket of wilderness clear across the globe.

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“Not everybody has to be into natural wines,” he adds, in earnest. “It doesn’t really matter. There are more people that are into Kendall-Jackson or Rombauer Chardonnay than will ever even taste La Clarine Farm, ever. And that’s ok. But if you’re curious about how wine’s made, and why does this wine taste so different than that wine, then it’s there to discover, but you have to actively want to discover it. That’s different than saying, you really need to drink this wine cus it’s organically made and there’s no sulfites in it.” To hell with dogma!

 

When he and Caro set up shop in Somerset, they told themselves they’d get their feet wet and if nobody liked their wine, fuck it, they could drink it all.  They started with Mourvèdre and some other Rhône grape strains, things took off, and everything they made they’d just reinvest as they looked for other suppliers (vineyards, that is). Once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

2. MAKE AN APOCALYPSE ROSE

Hank got hooked in the South of France. Caro got hooked as a kid in the Savoie (as far as we can tell, the legal drinking age in France is three). But the Loire Valley is most people’s gateway to “natural” wine (some other drugs, too, but easy there cowboy). There are constraints Mother Nature puts in place. It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s gray. Not exactly the recipe for fat, juicy wines, and thank baby Jesus, because that’s the opposite of what we like to swill.  

In the Loire, “the wine can’t be overripe,” Caro says. “Not gonna happen. Whereas in the South of France, it can be hot. And then California is even hotter. Here you’re challenged if you’re not trying to make ‘big’ wine. You have to
really be careful and decide, hey I’ll pick now, unless you’re gonna be manipulating later.”

We’re in the cellar at the foot of their driveway, sucking in cold mountain air between sips of Mourvèdre, Syrah and Counoise, picked three months ago, fermented in barrel, then blended. It’s tasting like psychedelic grapefruit, or at the very least like juice we wished we’d guzzled at breakfast. Our tongues are damn near lolling out of our mouths.

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“We started delaying the release of this rosé by a year because we don’t want to manipulate it. The only way we’d have it out by February [two months from now] is by doing something to it,” Caro tells us as we lick our lips.

Hank says it’ll probably still be fermenting when most wineries are bottling and getting ready to ship for spring, when rosé hits the shelves at suppliers across the country. Instead, he’s planning to bottle in the summer and release the spring of next year, in ’18.

Who in holy hell knows where the world will be then.

“Yeah, that’s the plan.”

3. MARRY THE SAME PERSON TWICE

If you met Caro you’d wanna marry her twice, too. Metaphors can’t do this woman justice. She’s sweet as a pie of Georgia peaches, if the peaches had sass and a French accent. She’s cultured as can be, yet she’s got the true grit of a gal who’s spent years managing all-male construction crews in rural Amurika. She’s got a laugh as sparkling as the Albariño we’re swigging.

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When Hank moved to California from Europe, his better half was nine months behind him. Bureaucracy kept her in Europe, and when she finally scooped up her visa at the embassy in Paris, she was told it didn’t mean a damn thing if her fiancé was American. She’d have to get married and then apply for a change of status before she could work in the US. Goddamn it all! So when Caro landed in California, she said, Hank, we’ve got to get married. Now. The next day they went to Jackson, bought a marriage license, and the first open slot, they got hitched. Then they tied the knot again all proper for family and friends.

Here they are, sixteen years later, breaking bad in the California wilderness. A rock solid duo locked arm in arm with three dogs, two cats, a minimum of twenty-three goats, and exponentially more bottles of wine. Ready for whatever comes their way.

4. IMPROVISE IN SLO-MO

We’re inside now, sitting at their kitchen table downing another bottle of Albariño as hail starts to pelt the roof like a doped-up woodpecker. The goats are screaming bloody murder down the driveway. The buck is ramming his horns on the fence so forcefully we can hear every clash. Everything sounds much more ominous after doomsday (November 8th, if you haven’t been following).

Trying to tune it out, Hank is recounting his days in the band Half Japanese. It’s a righteous tale. The music was loud, improvised. They’d borrow from anything and everything. “If it somehow fit together and seemed appropriate, we would mash up country with anything. Country’s always a good thing to mash up anyway.” God knows it needs it.

Hank says they only had three days of rehearsal for the first tour he went on. Three days! He barely knew the damn song structures. But as the tour went on, it was great because everything evolved on stage and they’d end up incorporating the happy accidents. He loved that. It was like exposing wine to oxygen for the first time.

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“You learn and you adjust the way you do things. So I try to bring that into winemaking. I always try to go into every vintage with this improvisational feeling.”

Making wine and music seem to share lots of mind-bending parallels.

“There are a lot, but it’s also not like I’m playing a song. With wine, the improv lasts a long time — it’s like slow motion. You don’t see the result right away.

It’s like you play one show a year and then nobody gets to hear it for 6 months or 10 months or whatever. And by then you’re like, I’m beyond that. I have other ideas now.”

Sometimes he’ll come up with an idea to try at harvest and other times he’ll wing it. Sometimes it’s “yeah, let’s do that. That sounds stupid fun. So…skin contact Marsanne. It’ll be on the skins for at least six months. Then we’ll take it and make a sparkling wine out of it. So, sparkling orange Marsanne. It’s what the world needs.”

“It could be awful,” Caro adds.

We point out that it wouldn’t be the only thing turning out awful right now, so maybe it’s just staying current with the times. If not, it’ll be the remedy.

“I dunno,” Hank says, peering sly as a fox over the top of his glass. “I think people are gonna need a lot of wine in the next four years. If they still let us make it.”

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5. TURN BACK THE CLOCK

We might be drinking more wine than ever, it turns out. With the drought in California the last five years, and global warming on track to make matters much fuckin’ worse, orchard owners are thinking of converting to vineyards since grapes require much less water than trees. If you twist your brain and squeeze out some wishful thinking, you might see the upside: the more global warming is denied, the more wine we’ll end up making. Sure beats imagining this place as a goddamn dustbowl.

In ancient times, people made wine when they weren’t sure water was safe to drink.

Now, absent water, we’re back to wine. Just like that! Funny how the universe works.

6. THE ART OF THE DEAL

Take some advice from the fat cats in office. Or don’t:

Hank: I’m kind of a terrible salesperson, which is why we rely on professionals who are good at it to do it for us.

Glou Glou: But terrible salespeople are sometimes the best because you’re not spitting bulshit.

Hank: It’s hard for me to sell my wine because it is kind of a personal thing to me. Then I feel like the only way I can sell my wine is to pump myself up. It’s like ego inflation.

Caro: Trump yourself up?

Hank: Hahah, trump myself up. That phrase has taken on a whole new meaning. And I’m not comfortable doing that, saying look what I’ve done, it’s really fantastic.

7. DO THE RIGHT THING

It’s too bad Hank’s not a narcissist, because he’d make a great fuckin’ president.

Instead of inserting his ego into wine (God knows there’s enough of that in the biz), he’s been on a die-hard quest to take himself out of it. When he arrived in California, he figured he first ought to make wine for other folks. The wineries he apprenticed himself to were commercial, using lots of technology to shore up any bets if Mother Nature dealt a bad hand. Everything was filtered and got a good dose of sulfur on a regular basis.

So when he and Caro started La Clarine, he wanted to “see how far back you could take winemaking, toward zero. And all these things I’d been doing, like regular sulfite additions, and racking the wine every 3-4 months [moving it from barrel to barrel to remove the sediment]… I had the impression most of that was stuff you did just to keep people busy. And I wondered how important it really was for the wine.”

Hell if he was gonna do any of that shit. He’d learnt a thing or two before breaking into the game on his own. He was also gonna use native yeast (found on the skins of the grapes) even though that meant the wine wouldn’t be consistent from year to year. But as much as he tried to take himself out of the game, he soon realized that wine doesn’t make itself. There are times when he needs to step into the ring: mainly, in choosing when to pick and when to bottle. In these moments, he wields huge influence, so he’s gotta act wisely:

“That’s kind of what experience teaches you. Working with vineyards for a number of years and seeing how the fruit is. It’s a matter of learning the personalities of the vineyards and trying to take advantage of that. If you’re making red wine, when do you press it and how aggressive do you want to be with extraction? [Extraction is like making tea — how much flavor, tannin, and color do you want to pull from the grape?] Some vineyards you don’t need as much. Others seem to like it.

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When it comes to bottling, there is a time when you taste in the cellar and the wine seems harmonious. And then you go, ok, I want to capture that. In my mind, that’s what you’re doing with bottling. You’re capturing that moment. Like a snapshot. Then of course it changes in the bottle after. Can’t do anything about that. So you hope you get it right.”

Some governments could learn a thing or two from Hank Beckmeyer. If they gave a damn.

8. DON'T BE A *****

Sulfur is front and center in the debate over natural wine. It’s like the MSG of the wine world. It’s everywhere. But are you fuckin’ allergic? Does it actually give you a hangover?

Listen up, health nuts. Sulfur’s added in winemaking to stabilize and extend shelf life. Plain and simple. Over-sulfured wine’s not considered natural because it flattens personality and texture. But not sulfuring enough can create a breeding ground for bacteria. There’s no official word on how much is considered “acceptable,” but purists continue to lab-test wines to determine the exact amount. The problem with that?

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“All wines have sulfites,” Hank scoffs, pulling a true Walter White. “They’re produced naturally during fermentation. Yeast can produce on average 5 parts to 90 parts of sulfites depending on the strain. Take Côte-Rôtie [in the Northern Rhone]. Thirty percent of the indigenous yeast strains there produce a lot of sulfites. Plus, there’s a margin of error. The test isn’t accurate below 5 parts anyway, so you can have a zero reading and still have sulfites in the wine.

 

What people are worried about is added sulfites. But there’s no way to test for that.”

So why is sulfur the black sheep in the race to the purest wine?

“It’s something you can quantify, so it’s easy to demonize it.”

Caro chimes in. “It’s very telling of people’s mindsets. Everything has to be either black or white. All the variations in between…they can’t deal with. It’s the same thing with politics. So that’s why they go from, I can’t vote for Sanders so I’ll go for the opposite. What’s in the middle does not work for them.”

Hank: “Nuance is difficult sometimes. People just take it for what it is. Oh, that’s why I was hungover the last time I went out and drank six bottles of wine. It was the sulfur.”

Caro: Nah, you just drank too much.

 
 

 

—El Dorado County, California.
December 16, 2016

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Dilla Lives On


Eothen "EGON" Alapatt

Text: Jennifer Green

Video & Photos: Lendl Tellington

Dilla Lives On


Eothen "EGON" Alapatt

Text: Jennifer Green

Video & Photos: Lendl Tellington

“We’re in it together, all of us. And we’re not trippin’

Egon is saying as he opens the door to the space that houses his two record labels: Now-Again Records on the right, and Rappcats, a collaborative venture with Madlib, on the left.

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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.

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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.

 
 Illustration by Boy Bison

Illustration by Boy Bison

 

“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 Diary

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“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.

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I mean, all the best wine writers that I’ve found seem to be struggling to find a way to describe what they like. The same thing with music.

We always fall back to the same ways of describing the same thing.

…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.

 Photo courtesy of Egon

Photo courtesy of Egon

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.

 Photo courtesy of Egon

Photo courtesy of Egon

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.

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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

 Photo courtesy of Egon

Photo courtesy of Egon

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).

 Photo courtesy of @SoilPimp

Photo courtesy of @SoilPimp

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.

I love drinking Burgundy...the finesse of it. But then you start realizing that there’s a quality to it that you find pleasing. It works for you. It works for your personality. How you’re feeling that day.

I have those moments all the time, with expensive rare bottles and with common bottles too.

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

 Illustration by Boy Bison

Illustration by Boy Bison