In 2009, the legendary music of The Rolling Stones was reincarnated in a most fascinating, avant-garde manner. Winemaker Mark Beaman was deep in experimentation, listening to the group’s iconic album Forty Licks at the Mendocino Wine Company of Ukiah, CA. He had chosen the long-standing vintage Merlot as the perfect expression of the music’s timeless character and story to create a savory varietal. Featuring aromas of black cherry, with hints of mint and potent plum, brown sugar, cinnamon and cedar flavors, it was meant to tickle and please diverse palates. But this merlot also was crafted to stimulate musical nostalgia like the other offerings of his ever-growing creation: Wines That Rock.

The innovative company had dreamt up a cabernet sauvignon to accompany Pink Floyd’s “haunting” The Dark Side of the Moon, a chardonnay embodying the original, trailblazing music of the Woodstock Festival, and many more. Co-founders Ron Roy and Howard Jackowitz, collaborated with the award-winning, environment-friendly Mendocino company, to create an attractive union of great tasting vintage wine with rock ‘n’ roll. Finding harmony between the two subjects was years in the making, requiring a lengthy search on the co-founders’ part for just the appropriate winery that understood their visionary mission. After finding an amalgamated team with great passion and ingenuity, they started to craft new and authentic custom wines evoking the intricate energies of classic rock albums, and conveying their iconic imagery on the bottle. (In October 2009, they uncorked the first bottles backstage at the star-packed 25th anniversary shows for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame featuring Mick Jagger, U2, Metallica and others, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.) Thus, each wine is created by finding a perfect synergy and equilibrium between flavors, images, and music.

For most, this type of innovation means foraying into the unconventional, pushing away from a status quo establishment, and transmogrifying old perceptions. They do that in a number of ways including the winemaking trio’s (made up of Beaman, Bob Swain and Christian Le Sommer’s) bemusing use of grapes and diverse flavor combinations in each selection. In addition, they bring the aesthetic flair of rock album covers back to life with unique artistic bottle labels that are designed like album jackets (including liner notes and all). In that way, the bottles liberate connoisseurs from mundane packaging, and can make way for vigorous conversation.

In fact, to relish these acclaimed wines is a total sensory experience, explains Beaman, who shares some of his creative methods with GALO. As the company blazes forward with new inspirations like making bottles educing rock artists’ various musical expressions, he reflects on wine traditions and nuances, environmental leadership at the Mendocino winery, and future inventiveness in winemaking.

GALO: Commingling wine and music is undoubtedly intriguing for wine aficionados, but also can be risky business. How did you conceptualize this new wine category, and was it important to demonstrate an equilibrium between the two elements?

Mark Beaman: The original idea was a collaboration between Ron Roy and Howard Jackowitz, longtime business partners in the music industry and founders of UltraStar, the world’s largest online rock ‘n’ roll fan club. One evening, Ron was listening to some Flaming Lips, organizing his son’s baseball card collection and enjoying a bottle of wine, when an idea popped into his [mind]. The idea was to take the iconic image of a rock ‘n’ roll album cover and use it for the label of a bottle of wine. The risky part, as your question implies, was that many people might consider it a gimmick. Therefore, the challenge was to craft the wine as much as possible to capture the essence and attitude of the music from the album. Ron called Howard and they brought in their music partners from the UltraStar and RZO days, and Wines That Rock was created. After a lengthy search, trips to California and interviewing multiple wineries, the Wines That Rock team found and developed a partnership with our winery — The Mendocino Wine Company. So, the match was made with their access to the bands and artists and our access to great wine and our mutual love of rock ‘n’ roll music. It was crucial to emphasize the authenticity of the wine and its relationship to the music including getting the musicians approval on the quality and message of the wine.

GALO: Being a wine connoisseur, what robust wine most tickles your palate, what music elements were you most trying to capture with your wines, and how did you work with the Mendocino Wine Company to incorporate your taste into “great tasting” varietals that treat classical rock songs as a muse?

MB: I enjoy all sorts of wines as long as they are well made, display varietal correctness and a sense of place. I am on a big, meaty Syrah kick right now from St. Joseph, Cote Brune, and a few California and Washington players.

The musical elements I try to capture are all of them! Both, what stands out initially and what you pick up upon further inspection. The first time you hear a song, you might notice just the catchy intro guitar lick. With the first smell and sip of a wine, it may just be the cherry or berry aroma and flavor that grab your attention. However, after hearing the song several more times, other things stand out, such as the lyrics and their possible meaning, the bass groove, the drums, time signature changes, and so on. Likewise, as you delve deeper into a wine, you notice there are secondary savory and spice aspects that are not as front and center as the fruit, but are just as enjoyable once you recognize them. Since there are many layers and elements to music and wine, I try to pair up the obvious and the subtle between the two. That’s why it takes many attempts on a glass by glass blending trial to get to where I am satisfied.

The reason I can do this is because Mendocino Wine Company is unique in that our spice rack or mixing board of wines is so massive. We have up to 300 different and distinct lots of red wine and 100 whites to choose from because we keep each block of a vineyard separate throughout barrel aging until a blend is chosen. Thus with wine’s many layers in its aromas, flavors, acid, tannin and oak influence, there is a broad enough palate to blend to match music’s diversity.

GALO: Traditionally, wine labels are the winemaker’s signature, and thus, proof of origination. Your labels are revolutionary in that they are like album jackets with liner notes and are “tapestries from rock vaults.” Would you say your artwork-ridden labels like those of Chateau Mouton Rothschild link your company to a specific era, play to expression and aesthetics, or are more like valued collector’s items, and why?

MB: The label and the wine are certainly linked to the music and the way it makes you feel. With some people, there is undoubtedly an emotional response upon seeing the label that takes them back to an era or memory. That may be what draws them into purchasing the wine. Hopefully, they pop the cork and play the album, and enjoy the synergy and play between the music and wine. A few people do probably put the bottle on display and treat it as art. The intention with the project though is to consume the art, not just look at it.

GALO: Your product encourages us to “taste the music,” and ruminate over the peculiar, artistic labels on each bottle to foster this total sensory experience. Tell me about the process, from mapping out this trajectory to creating something memorable that would stimulate all of our senses. In the process, did you consider that taste and smell are less finely tuned than other senses to detect subtle nuances in wines?

MB: Since this type of wine blending had never been done before, it was up to me to create my own method. I started with the music and simply listening to the album several times and writing down notes on what came into my head. Attitude, style, lyrical message, emotional response, and other adjectives and descriptions were recorded. I also consumed music critics’ reviews, documentaries on the making of the music, autobiographies of the artists, and whatever else I could get my hands on that might prove useful in getting a feel not just for the music, but also the artists perspective and inspiration at the time of creating the album. I then looked over the notes from a wine perspective to see what type of variety might be best fitting. If the music was aggressive, a sweet and cheerful Muscat would not be a good fit, but a burly Petite Syrah might be. This method narrowed it down to what varietal or type of blend of varietals might work. The next step was to dig into the cellar and barrel room to select the dozens of different versions of that variety I had access to. I would sit down and taste each wine individually and take notes on what stood out in regard to aroma, flavor, acid, tannin, oak impact, and so on. Rather than focusing on how similar the wines were to other fruits, I used crossover terms like subtle, complex, loud, bright, soft, heavy, simple, and earthy. This was a big step away from “Wine #1 tastes of Rainer Cherries and Wine #2 of black peppercorns.”

From the terms I gathered from tasting the wines, I then had musical terms and wine terms written in a similar language to search for parallels between. I would select what seemed to match from the wines I had tasted and then the real work began to experiment with blends. With wine blending, you build the structure and core to the wine first, and then add aromatics and layers to the fruit later. This was done all while the music from the album was playing. It all sounds like fun and it is, but an objective perspective needs to be maintained, and it takes much trial and error and revisiting the blends the following day with a fresh palate. What emerged (hopefully) from the process is a wine that complements the music because it was made to mirror the energy of the music. I believe that listening and tasting at the same time engage the senses of smell, taste, hearing, and to a lesser degree, touch, in a dance of senses that seem to get less attention than that of sight. We have become such visually stimulated creatures that the joy our other senses present can take a backseat. Think of it as audio/aroma/flavor therapy.

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