My creative life for most of the past three decades has revolved around wine and music. Though neither wine writing nor performing with a band auger well for almost anyone’s bank account, it’s worked well enough for me to keep happily at it all these years. Along the way I’ve known and jammed with more than a few winemaker musicians.
I sat in with winemaker Robert Foley’s band for a set at the Triple Door. Rob Newsom (Boudreaux Cellars) and I collaborated on a recording of my song “I Wanna Drink It Today”. Gordy Rawson (Chatter Creek) and I performed on the same stage at a long gone Seattle wine and music event. Don Lange (Lange Estate), who had a successful solo career as a singer/songwriter long before launching his winery, recorded a song with me in his home studio not long ago.
Jay Somers and I have exchanged CDs and chatted about music, though we have yet to jam together. We occupy different musical orbits, but share much the same history as regards our love of playing guitar, writing and performing. Jay’s band is called Portland Cement, and their latest album (“The Road To El Groove”) is currently streaming. In a recent email exchange, Jay shared some thoughts about the synergy between his music and his winemaking.
JS: “I had always hoped to play music professionally, that was my thought as a younger person. It is a difficult business, it takes some luck and a huge amount of hard work to get there. Maybe someday it will happen but I have settled into a situation where it is very therapeutic and calming for me. Some people get up and do yoga, I get up and play the guitar.”
PG: I wasn’t good enough soon enough to get into bands in high school or college. Rather I settled for a stint in freeform FM radio where I could play all the music that spoke to me, meet and interview the artists performing in town, get tickets to any and all concerts and make the occasional songwriter demo to send off to the record companies. Early on I determined that songwriting was my focus and the best chance for whatever talent I had to show itself and lead somewhere. But like Jay I saw what a difficult road lay ahead, and though I’ve never been afraid of hard work, I was not committed to languishing in impoverished obscurity for my entire life. So I pivoted.
JS: “In my career as a winemaker it has been, and continues to be, really important to play, learn and compose to keep me focused. If I were constantly focused on wine it would be overwhelming and I would have burnt out years ago. Starting the day with music as well as ending the day with music helps me leave the winery at the winery. When I get to the winery it is fresh and I can be very focused on the wine. I also keep a guitar at the winery which can be very helpful when I need to clear my mind, especially when I am blending.”
PG: Your comment about blending strikes me as something that applies both to winemaking and music making, albeit in quite different ways. In each instance you are taking different components and finding the best way to combine them into a graceful whole that uses the best of each. In wine, obviously, you are matching grapes and barrels and blocks to find the most compelling, seamless, expressive and complete finished product possible. I’ve done quite a bit of it, and always find it both challenging and extremely satisfying when it works. In writing music I am first combining chords, melody and lyrics into a rough sketch of a playable song; then working with bandmates to explore, expand, polish and ultimately perform that piece.
JS: “Wine and music are the two art forms I work in and for me they compliment each other. Sometimes I need to walk away from the guitar and wine is always there. They are both like a puzzle, music with harmony, melody and rhythm, wine with fermenting, aging and blending.”
PG: I couldn’t agree more. So I’ll put down the guitar and get on with some thoughts on Jay’s new releases.
He’s a well-experienced winemaker, with a background that includes work at Cameron and Adelsheim, as well as founding the J. Christopher brand and most recently J.C. Somers Vintners, where the emphasis is on making wines with focus, length and balance. As his website notes, “we do not make fruit bombs. We want wines that have a fine balance of fruit, acidity and texture; wines that give you more than just a big mid-palate blast – wines that are complete.”
J.C. Somers 2021 Anahata Vineyard Chardonnay – This is sappy, sexy and seductive; it powers along on a wave of lavender highlights, stone fruits and sassy acids. It was aged a year in a pair of 500 liter barrels, then another five months in tank on the lees. Lots of texture and electricity without losing its balance. The length is impressive and it keeps unfolding layer upon layer as it rolls along. On day two it’s showing touches of chicken stock highlighting those potent fruits. 85 cases; 13%; $40 (Eola-Amity Hills) 95/100
J.C. Somers 2021 La Colina Vineyard Pinot Noir – This opens with black cherry fruit and highlights of roasted coffee beans. There’s a youthful sharpness to the mid-palate, and then a fade into darker phenolic flavors of seed and scorched earth, black olive and slightly bitter tannins. 73 cases; 13.5%; $50 (Dundee Hills) 91/100
J.C. Somers 2021 Nouvelle Lune Pinot Noir – Stylish and centered on wild berry, black cherry and forest floor flavors, this compelling wine is a blend of grapes from three Dundee Hills vineyards: Abbey Ridge, La Colina and Nicholas Family. A pleasing seam of chocolate and licorice runs across the palate and impacts the tannins. There are other dark notes – black olive, chicory and a sprinkling of black pepper. The palate is open and deliciously accessible. 250 cases; 13.5%; $40 (Dundee Hills) 92/100
J.C. Somers 2021 Abbey Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir – This young wine has great grip and concentration, with a mid-palate that is absolutely bursting with cherry fruit. One quarter of the barrels were new with medium to light toast, adding a proportionate frame of butterscotch around the core fruit. The richness is immediately obvious, and the layering suggests more development through the finish over time. I’d hold off a bit and drink this starting in the back half of the ‘20s. 96 cases; 13.5%; $65 (Dundee Hills) 94/100
J.C. Somers 2019 Bella Vida Vineyard Wädenswil Pinot Noir – Single clone wines, Jay Somers notes, give a “linear expression”. I take it to mean that they are more tight, more vertical, though less complete in some ways than multi-clone Pinots. Many Oregon winemakers focus on single clone Pinots, and when tasting through a selection of them from a single vineyard and vintage they can be very instructive. This is brambly with raspberry fruit, a touch of tomato leaf and peppery/minty grace notes. 75 cases; 13%; $65; (Dundee Hills) 92/100
J.C. Somers 2019 Bella Vida Vineyard Pinot Noir – A blend of Pommard and Wadenswil clones, elegance and purity are the watchwords here. Lovely black and purple fruits are shown in abundance, framed with juicy acids. There’s just enough sweetness to give the flavor a suggestion of blackberry preserves. It’s immediately appealing, yet tasted after 24 hours it shows the structure to age over another decade. 75 cases; 13%; $55; (Dundee Hills) 93/100
Purchase these wines here.
J.C. Somers 2021 La Revanche Chardonnay – More than a few Willamette Valley vintners have found ways to make elegant, detailed and delicious Chardonnays without relying upon super ripe fruit or super toasty barrels. This very fine example was fermented and aged in 500 liter barrels; it was not put through secondary (malolactic) fermentation. It’s a lovely bottle, annotated with pollen, hinting at minerality, solidly structured with refined lemon, orange and apple fruit at the core. Good length, concentration and superb balance throughout make this an exceptional value in a sleek, elegant Chardonnay. 110 cases; 13%; $28 (Willamette Valley) 94/100