Two Trains Running: Words On Wine & Jazz

This story begins, as do all stories of this kind, by train tracks. It was Point Richmond, the train yard west of 116 West Barrett Avenue. I was sitting on the resin'd edge of a crosstie, reading The Dharma Bums and drinking Gato Negro from a wineskin, and I understood then that "jazz" was a word that came before "of" in a sentence about something important.

And I understood then the longing that’s in wine — that blue keening sound of searching that one hears in the ascent of a Coltrane solo, that hoarse impassioned reaching towards a spirit world that is real for how hard we believe.

Crazy Train

I have devoted years upon years upon years of my life trying to understand, explain, conjure, and contextualize wine, and contrary to how it may seem, I did not impose jazz as my metaphor for love of the music. Yes, I love jazz, but I also love listening to baseball on the radio. Nor do I write of wine and jazz because I like to experience them together. I do, but that's not why I rely on the one to explain the other.

Wine & JazzNo. I write of them together because as process, they are so much the same.

A jazz musician studies for years and years and years to master their craft. Endless hours behind closed doors, on set breaks, before shows and after, practicing, practicing, practicing. Scales, chords, theories, harmonies, fingerings, modes, melodies, it never ends, and it's not meant to. It is a constant and ceaseless enactment of discipline, but it's all in the service of a moment when you must act as if you've never rehearsed in your life, a moment when you must be utterly and completely present, a moment of pure improvisational spontaneity.

So it is with wine. All the years of study, the years of trial and error and trial. In the vineyards, in the winery. In the lab, on the bottling line. At the tank, at the table. The reading, the listening, the tasting, and the tasting again. From the grafting and planting, the pruning and pulling, to the fermenting, the pressing, the aging, and bottling, it is one experiment after another, one more lesson notched in the viticultural belt, one more earned accrual of knowledge. Yet it is all in the service of a moment when you must rely entirely on mojo. Someone at the vine, pulling a grape and macerating it between purple teeth, turning and rising, declaring, "It's ready." Someone at table, tasting through blend after blend after blend after blend, chasing the elusive assemblage, riding ever closer to the truth; closer, closer, closer, until the moment; "This is it."

It has been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. If this is true, then both winemakers and jazz musicians are insane, for this is what they do.

The same might be said for writers.

Working On The Railroad

In 2004, it was revealed to me that Free Jazz was like wine: acidity, the angularity; fruit, the theme. It was a Montepulciano D'Abruzzo that did it. You may remember the wine, it was from La Valentina. It was the only under-$20 bottle of wine to make Wine Spectator's Top 100 list that year. I bought it for my shop, and sold it out, mainly by equating it to Don Cherry making a pocket trumpet sing. Yet while one might say "Free Jazz" with the same informed ease that one says something like "Natural Wine," the truth is no jazz is really free any more than any wine is truly natural.

Editor's Note: For his post "Beauty is a Rare Thing" — after an Ornette Coleman piece, and originally appearing on the Ridge Vineyards blog — Watkins was a finalist in this year's Wine Blog Awards, alongside fellow Grape Collective contributor Jameson Fink.

What is true is that wines, like jazz, are not made -- they are built. They begin at an imagined ending, circle back to an earth-bound beginning, then travel forwards, track by track and rail by rail, towards their dreamt-of destination, there to arrive as if always meant to be, their conclusion seemingly foregone, their brilliance obvious to the point of being predictable.

And so it is when the drummer touches wood to the brass of a cymbal to summon up the song. All that is seemingly known is a bar count, a progression, a tempo. And yet the song takes form, as if it always was as it is. This is a kind of architectural confidence, as if harmony were the last crosstie laid on a line not yet set on broken ground. When we listen to brilliance in jazz, were are hearing the sound of vision, and feeling the rhythm of work.


It was once said of Thelonious Monk: “Man, I’ve played with piano players who played all the white keys, and I’ve played with piano players who played all the black keys. But I never played with no motherfucker who played in between the cracks.”

This is what we look for in great wine: that taste. That elusive mystical taste of a place that we are forever escaping towards, where the train rails meet at the horizon.

When we taste brilliance in wine, we experience something that is not reducible to its components: yes, there are tannins; yes, there is acidity; yes, the vintage went this way or that; yes, the fruit was harvested this date or that time; yes, the maceration went some length, and yes it was this kind of oak and not that, but no, there is nothing to explain the movement of this wine, and why it moves us. There is no name for the space between B and B flat, but when you taste it, You Got To Move.


The Train I Ride

For many years I hosted a series of Wine Bloggers Tastings at Ridge Vineyards. In late April of 2012, the theme was "The Gospels of Pauls." We celebrated the anniversary of the birthday of the great jazz bassist Paul Chambers by tasting four great wines from Paul Draper, and debating which paired best with which great jazz piece played on by Paul Chambers. On the screen behind the tasting table I put up four pairs of quotes...

“Everyone is influenced by everybody, but you bring it down home the way you feel it.”

-Thelonious Monk

“We’ve always made wines that we loved to drink.”

-Paul Draper


“When you have great vineyards that produce high quality grapes of distinctive individual character, this is not only an environmentally and socially responsible approach, it’s also the best way to consistently make fine wine.”

-Paul Draper

It’s all about creation and surprise. It just needs to be appreciated and watered like flowers. You have to water flowers. These peaks will come again.

-Sonny Rollins


“Overall, I think the main thing a musician would like to do is give a picture to the listener of the many wonderful things that he knows of and senses in the universe.”

-John Coltrane

“My aim is to take these pieces of ground, and allow them to express themselves. What I demand of a great wine is that it reflects nature, not the hand of the winemaker; it has to have that connection to the earth.”

-Paul Draper


“I had finally realized that you didn’t need a degree in oenology to make great wine.”

-Paul Draper

“If they act too hip, you know they can’t play shit.”

-Miles Davis

Chasin' The 'Trane

I wrote my first published tasting notes for a Cabernet Franc. The Vineyard Manager told me I couldn't write "herbaceous" in a tasting note and expect it to sell. So I quoted Thelonious Monk: "The piano ain't got no wrong notes!" And I used "herbaceous." And it sold.

wineThe painter Jackson Pollock once said: "There was a reviewer a while back who wrote that my pictures didn't have any beginning or any end. He didn't mean it as a compliment, but it was." I mean this as a compliment when I say that the 1999 Mastroberardino Radici Taurasi Riserva is a wine with neither beginning nor end.

Right: The wine transcends time. (Vinbuteljen)

Alice Coltrane described John Coltrane coming down from his work room after writing "A Love Supreme" like this:

"It was like Moses coming down the mountain, it was so beautiful. He walked down and there was that joy, that peace in his face, tranquility. So I said, “Tell me everything, we didn’t see you really for four or five days…” He said, “This is the first time that I have received all of the music for what I want to record, in a suite. This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.”

I believe this is how great wine is made. It is tasted before a bud has even broken.


There are 8 million stories in The City of Wine. This has been one of them.