Wine and Vinyl Episode 4 "Texas Edition": The Ballad of Spider John and The Tempranillo Cowboy

Greetings, good people of the Internet. Today I am excited to bring you a particularly prideful and personal edition of Wine and Vinyl. Not proud in the everyday human sense, like the “hey maybe I did a decent job, whaddayathink?” kind of pride. But a particular sort of bold, inherent, borderline reckless kind of pride that one might only truly understand if they have had the joyous opportunity to live and love life in the great state of Texas.  With a strong Texan lineage and as a longtime former resident, I can honestly say that while I, at times, have had moderate to severe ideological differences with many of my good friends in the Lone Star State, there are several cultural aspects that entirely live up to the hype. Musically, there are very few artistic regions that can compare to the bottomless well of talent that Texas has produced. From Willie Nelson to Buddy Holly, from Don Henley to Beyoncé, the musical bar in Texas is not only set remarkably high, but is incredibly diverse.  This unique depth and quality lends itself naturally to the smoky, leathery aromas and elegant bravado that is Texas Tempranillo. 
Let’s begin with the wine. First, I must confess that not only is Tempranillo one of my absolute favorite beverages in existence, it is also the wine that gave me that “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” kind of moment that anyone foolish enough to pursue a career in wine has at one point or another. The realization that from that moment on, fermented grape juice will in fact be an important part of my life. Unlike most enthusiasts, however, my varietal affair began not with a bottle from ancient vines grown on the sunny slopes of Tempranillo’s native Spain, but instead from the cactus and juniper studded hills of central Texas. It was about seven years ago, on what was at the time a fifteen minute drive back to Austin from the smallish town of Dripping Springs where I was in training as an auto mechanic, that I caught a fascinating piece on Austin’s public radio station, KUTX. They were explaining how in the grip of unprecedented drought, cotton farmers throughout the state were tearing out their old cash crops and getting into the vineyard business. All because soil analysis proved Texas dirt to be a perfect fit to grow some relatively unknown Spanish wine grape that the farmer being interviewed was referring to as “TAHM-PRAY-NÉE-LYO.”  Intrigued, and ready for a drink after a long day of greasy knuckle-busting in the garage, I stopped at my local beverage vendor and found a bottle on the Texas wine shelf. 
Like many people in their early twenties, my wine experiences had been more or less limited to what my parents drank, which in my case was your pretty typical 1990’s California palate. So it was kind of my assumption that red wine = gigantic Cab with tannins that ring your tongue out like a sponge (not that there’s anything wrong with that). So, one can imagine my surprise at the downright sensual experience I had upon the first swig of my newfound obsession. Juicy flavors of blackberry and red fruits harmoniously frolicking around my palate, being expertly supervised by subtle notes of tar and smoky cedar, followed by tannins firm enough to leave you wanting more, yet gentle enough that no food pairing was required. This was fun, yet deep. Sexy, yet sophisticated, this was the beverage equivalent of Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and Frank Sinatra being reincarnated into one being. A moment so moving that I just had to share the good news! I nearly involuntarily dropped to my knees, in order  to get on eye level with Fred, my pit bull mix, and exclaim to him and the universe, “Holy S---, I LOVE WINE!!!!” It was instantly obvious to me why people write books, travel the world, and blow their entire pension for this stuff. Fred remained deadly still with enthusiasm, likely trying to decipher if my excitement was over the kind of human treat that could potentially be shared if he was, in fact, “a good boy.”   
Coincidentally, this passionate revelation was not at all unlike an experience I had had earlier that summer when a fellow guitarist friend turned me onto a mysterious cult legend of a songwriter, the one album wonder, Willis Alan Ramsey. I was first introduced to Ramsey by Paul Walker, a good buddy of mine and first rate musical talent you can find performing just about any night in the world famous blues clubs of Austin, TX, when he is not on the road keeping some of rock and roll royalty’s own guitars in top shape. 
Pauly and I moved to Austin at around the same time and quickly bonded over our passion, not only for music, but also the endless sea of bars and beverages that make up the Texas Capital City. It was a hot and sunny spring day in Austin when I received a notification from Pauly with a YouTube link to the 1972 Shelter Records release Willis Alan Ramsey LP, with specific instructions to “check this guy out.”  Coming from such a trusted source, I followed the order at once. I then spent what I can best estimate to be the next 2-7 hours in my one-room Travis Heights apartment, in a bathrobe amid a growing pile of empty cans of Lone Star, having my mind BLOWN. 
I had not (and have not) ever heard anything like this in my life. I had never heard anyone sing like, play guitar like, let alone write songs like this. Yet, at the same time, I had, because a lot of these songs had gone on to be major commercial successes for mainstream 70’s acts like America, Jimmy Buffett, and Waylon Jennings. But with a feeling similar to Eric Clapton’s description of the first time he heard Robert Johnson, it was clear that this was the real thing. 
In wine-speak, this was the premium vintage Bordeaux that Meritage so desperately strives to be compared to. It’s also the only record I’ve encountered that covers subject matter as diverse as the biography of folk hero/activist Woody Guthrie, the woes of a serial grocery store bandit turned love sick hobo, and the improbable but adorable imagery of a love affair between two promiscuous young muskrats. All of this wildly creative lyrical content woven tightly together with the signature rhythm guitar style and quirky tenor voice of a world wise poet, proud enough to make no attempt to mask his strong regional accent. A concept album without a concept. Seriously amazing stuff. 
Since that fateful summer, whenever tipsy late night conversations steer their way into the proverbial list of provisions one would require on a desert island, you can rest assured that a copy of Willis Alan Ramsey, good headphones, and a train car full of Texas Hill Country Tempranillo are right at the top of my list. And tacos. Obvs, tacos. 
Here is the recipe for this weeks priceless pairing: 

The Wine 

Producer: Becker Vineyards, Stonewall, TX 

Vintage: 2015 

Wine: Tempranillo, single varietal 

Assessment: A seductive nose led by black cherry aromas, propped up harmoniously by notes of leather, tobacco and black pepper. A red easily pairable with savory meat dishes such as pork or roast foul, yet juicy enough to enjoy on its own. A killer wine, especially when comparing price points with some of its regional competition. 

The Album: 

Willis Alan Ramsey, Shelter Records, 1972 

You’re likely going to have to dig to find a copy of this on vinyl. The only one I have ever owned I found in an antique store on South Congress in Austin, where the shopkeeper told me she bought it used because she remembered she used to go watch him play around town when he was first starting out.  

While produced by the legendary Leon Russell, and hosting some of the top session players of the day, this LP renders a sound unlike any other. Ramsey’s sparse and organic arrangements give just enough weight to help his wildly unique lyrics come across. Much like assessing the complexity of a grape like Tempranillo, the more you listen, the more you find, and you just never stop finding. 

My personal tracks of distinction are “Ballad of Spider John” “Satin Sheets” “Painted Lady” and “Boy from Oklahoma.” 

Thank you, and as always, until next week, 

One Love. 

Duncan Hill

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