Note: This piece originally appeared in 2010 on the website zesterdaily.com and then mysteriously disappeared – so it reappears here slightly altered from its original form.
I saw a Neil Young show the other night. I’ve loved his music all my life, but aside from my high school years in the seventies, when I hung on every word of his apocryphal lyric like it was some strange gospel of the American Heart, I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about him.
It was a solo show; Young shared the stage with a retinue of gorgeous old guitars, a handful of harmonicas, two pianos and a calliope. Nearly every song he played was thirty years old or older, from chestnuts like “Tell Me Why” to darker offerings, like “Cortez the Killer.” In short, nothing new – and yet every song felt fresh and genuine. Somehow he managed to instill each one with a palpable, edgy anxiety, like he was still trying to work out the squall of emotion that had driven him to write in the first place. I think it left all of us profoundly unsettled – and that made it one of the most moving performances I’ve ever seen. I was expecting an evening of nostalgia, some dilute version of a once mighty rock star. Instead of James Taylor, I got David Lynch.
Thirteen years ago I’m sitting on the patio of a restaurant called Forty-Two Degrees in San Francisco, where I’m the wine director. I’ve been at the post for about a year. I liked wine and I knew a bit about it, but it’s safe to say I’d never really been challenged to this point; enthusiasm and naïveté had combined to make me somewhat oblivious to my own inexperience: I really didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
It’s moments before I’m to introduce Sean Thackrey, a winemaker who lives in Bolinas and whose bottlings are some of the most unique in California. I was pre-tasting Thackrey’s wines for a public tasting event at the restaurant that evening, blends and singular cepages like Pleiades, Taurus, Andromeda, and the red wine he calls Orion, the wine that made his reputation. Orion is where I lose my bearings entirely.
Orion is ostensibly Syrah, and one of California’s earlier efforts along those lines, made then from an old vineyard in Yountville, long since uprooted. The wine smelled of licorice and smoke and eucalyptus and bay laurel, pepper and earth. There was fruit I’m sure, but I don’t remember the sort – mulberry maybe? But the wine possessed a vinousness that bordered on the otherworldly, as if you could identify the veins of earth that the vines’ roots had deciphered and delivered to the cluster, pots of herbs, dried flowers, strange tinctures, a collection of fragrances so exotic I start thinking of it more as a potion than a wine. Tasked with introducing the winemaker, my mind is crammed with so many muddled associations and thoughts that I find I have absolutely nothing to say.
As a performer, Neil Young isn’t particularly charismatic or engaging – on the contrary, he’s probably one of the most charmless performers I’ve ever seen. If he was playing in a bar, he’d probably get kicked off the stage.
But he happens to be one of the most mesmerizing guitarists alive (which more than makes up for the endearing croakiness of his voice). His acoustic style is emotive and precise. But his electric style is quite another thing, possessing a broad, fuzzy, nervous intensity that someone once famously described as “a jet plane in a thunderstorm.” Of course when Young’s full band, Crazy Horse, is inflicting guitar riffs upon an audience, getting blown away is routine. But when it’s a single man, a single guitar, putting up such an extraordinary sound, it feels more personally inflicted.
There was one guitar in particular – a Gretsch White Falcon, a wide, gleaming hollow-body, creamy white, almost the color of milk. It was not the most powerful guitar he performed with that night – that would be a 1953 Gibson Les Paul he calls “Old Black,” which delivers the thunder wall that Young is best known for.
The Gretsch, meanwhile, is usually played for precision. It’s favored by rockabilly pickers and retro pop stars like Brian Setzer and Chris Isaac. It whines cleanly, with a mild twang, it sounds lonesome and pretty. Young, though, he made it wail. He played “Ohio,” that threnody to the Kent State massacre, on a guitar that by rights should never reach that emotional pitch.
He performed without the slightest interest in making us feel good. He did not even acknowledge the crowd until nearly three quarters of the way through his eighty minute set, and then it was to ask everyone to quiet down.
If anything the crowd, mostly rapturous at the outset, got increasingly anxious as the concert wore on, as they watched a rock and roll god finish a song, put down his guitar and stare blankly at the instruments around him, and for a few disoriented moments try to get his bearings, as if saying to himself okay, how on earth did I get here?
I manage to introduce Thackrey, who stands before thirty-five people and starts to talk about himself and his wines. He’s completely captivating; with Randall Grahm, Thackrey is among the most verbally gifted winemakers in California – he’s erudite and funny, and he tells a great story and possesses one of the zaniest whinnies for a laugh that I’ve ever heard. It’s completely infectious. I’m left to ponder the wine I had pretasted.
Thackrey tells the story of finding the vineyard and working with its remarkable owner, Arthur Schmidt. Schmidt received Syrah budwood some time in the sixties (it’s not clear when) from Napa’s winemaker monk Brother Timothy, who made the wines at Christian Brothers during their heyday in the fifties and sixties. Brother Timothy had planted Syrah on a bad patch of ground near the Napa River, where it grew poorly.
Timothy never liked the variety – he never made a good wine from these vines. So it’s a bit odd that he’d want to sell its cuttings, odder still that Arthur Schmidt should want to plant it at all. But he did, he grafted the Syrah onto old roots, interplanted among other vines; each Syrah vine was tied off with a red ribbon tied so that Schmidt and Thackrey could easily identify what to pick. Something about this expressive variety, given the chance to tap deeply into Napa’s alluvial secrets, gives the fruit an enigmatic depth of flavor, which Thackrey merely channels for five memorable vintages.
Schmidt eventually sold the property to the Swanson family, creators of the American TV Dinner, who had moved into the Napa Valley looking to spend their proceeds. The Swansons immediately tore up the vineyard to plant Merlot. Arthur Schmidt, says Thackrey, was dead within months.
When we taste it, there is this awkward silence that seems to go on for several minutes, (probably it didn’t, but it felt that way) as everyone tried to make sense of what they’re tasting, but the wine simply keeps eluding us. Thackrey seems to be enjoying the effect.
It’s my job to break the silence, and so partly to give us something to hold onto, I stand up and look at the group of tasters before me, turn back to stare in my glass and say, “Not only is this a great wine; it’s a weird wine.”
I can’t think of anything more to say. Neither can anyone else, and I sit back down. And that, more or less, is where the tasting ends.
Young’s encore is perfunctory, a short pretty song called “Walk With Me.” Not a song I had heard before, nor one I was able to find on any album tracklist. Perhaps it’s new, or will be released. In effect Young had done the reverse of most artists, introducing new work in a slot traditionally reserved for only the most endearing, anthemic works, the one song that will tie everything together.
But some experiences aren’t meant to be tied together. Some experiences are so unique and enigmatic that when you encounter them you don’t really have a reference point. Instead, they open you up.