Singer-songwriter Al Stewart was never a typical rocker. The self-confessed yuppie puts his reputation on the line to tell JANICE FUHRMAN why wine and music are the perfect blend.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, Scottish singer-songwriter Al Stewart roomed with Paul Simon in London, met the Beatles, opened for the Rolling Stones, had an international hit and launched his 35-year voyage of discovering fine wine.
Today, talking to this Al Stewart, a troubadour and diehard wine fan, you can easily picture him holding a homemade placard across his chest that says: ‘Will play for Harlan Estate.’ And he would. Gladly.
‘Someone said to me recently: “All of us older rockers in our late 50s have given up drugs and we’re drinking fine wine. But you did that 30 years ago!”’ laughs Al Stewart. ‘Maybe I was the first yuppie. I just went straight to fine wine. It was my thing. In my mind, history, wine, literature and music all belong together.
‘I have looked back at people in history who were wine buffs and was very pleased to see people like Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill. And then I looked at who the teetotalers were and it was a roll call of horrible people like Hitler, Pol Pot and the Ayatollah Khomeini.’
Though he has for the past eight years lived in a leafy residential suburb of San Francisco with his wife Kristine and two young daughters, the Glasgow native, now 59, performs about 70 shows a year in Europe and America and will release his 17th album next year. Down in the Cellar, released in 2000, is a slate of love songs about a lifelong passion. In ‘Waiting for Margaux’ he sings admiringly of a woman who ‘has the best taste in wine’. In the title track, meanwhile, he croons that in the wine cellar of Jean-Louis Chave ‘you’ll see history breathing’.
Al Stewart has been a wine enthusiast since he was in his early 20s playing in Beatle bands. As soon as he had some money in his pocket from his early records, he sought out fine wines.
‘I went into Oddbins in London and asked them why the bottles with dates on them cost three times more than the wines I’d been drinking. Almost everything in Oddbins at the time was from the 1961 vintage, which was one of the great vintages of the century.
The first bottle that blew me away was a 1961 Calon-Ségur, which cost about £5 at the time. I just went around the store and bought each of the 1961 wines, one bottle at a time. I steamed off the labels and saved them in a book.’
Voyage of Discovery
This led Stewart on a gradual voyage of discovery: to Bordeaux first growths, the great estates of Burgundy, and the 1953 Bordeaux, his favourite vintage for a time. By 1976, he was serious enough about his passion to spend much of his time and money on wine.
‘My only real interests were music, literature, history and wine. And because music, literature and history didn’t cost anything, I put my money into wine. Somebody else said this, but it’s applied to me my whole life: “I’ve probably spent 50% of all my disposable income on fine wine. I’m ashamed to say I think I’ve probably wasted all the rest.”’
After The Year of the Cat became a hit (except in England, he notes wryly), he moved to Los Angeles, bought a house and built a wine cellar. He soon filled it with 3,000 bottles, over half of them claret. It was his playground. ‘I had all the first growths, all the great vintages – 1945, 1949, 1953, 1959, 1961. I would go in there after a show and open a bottle of something nice. I loved my wine cellar, it was just the most beautiful thing in the world.’
Despite a busy schedule and a growing career, his interest in wine expanded. ‘It became a total obsession. I was spending more time reading about wine than ever before. There I was in the middle of the night, tracking wines down from around the world that I wanted to own.’
Though his world had up to then been Bordeaux and Burgundy, it opened up to include New World wines. ‘I have fond memories of the 1970 Beaulieu Vineyards Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The first great American wine I had was the 1968 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. It gave me hope. Then everything took off in the 1990s and it became a different world. You now have Screaming Eagle and Harlan, which is my favourite Cabernet-based wine. Even at a lower level, it’s a new planet.’
Today, he has a collection of 1,800 bottles, housed in refrigerated wine cabinets in his home. His favourites are Dehlinger Pinot Noir, Shafer Hillside Select Cabernet, Selene Sauvignon Blanc, Vérité Merlot, Ojai Roll Ranch Syrah, Domaine Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, Domaine de la Janasse in the southern Rhône, Dujac and Robert Groffier from Burgundy, Australia’s Clarendon Hills, port from the House of Graham and ‘every single vintage’ of Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs.
He’s a restless wine connoisseur, always eager to try something new. ‘At any given time, there are 40 to 50 wines waiting for me to taste.’ Paraphrasing Hilary Clinton, he says: ‘I’m a victim of a vast red wine conspiracy. Who can keep up with this nonsense? It’s obsessive behaviour – but at least I know I’m not alone.’