Greetings and happy Easter/Passover/Sunday. Since any of you fortunate enough to reside in Middle America are likely trying to muster the courage to brave this late winter - allegedly spring - death rattle of cold and sleet to gather with family, I am here today to offer the warm solace of my most trusty winter garment, booze and Rock and Roll. Today’s pairing is born out of a tale as twisted as those friendly masochists you’ve spotted find knitting their own scarfs in the corner of the local coffee shop who “actually, LOVE this WEATHER!” Get ready for a mouthwatering serving of heartbreak with notes of deception, adultery, addiction, self-loathing, and that remarkably tannic finish of old time Catholicism. A deviously harmonious marriage of ten of the most legendary recordings in history and the 18, count em’, EIGHTEEN different grapes that make up one of the world’s most highly regarded wines. Yes, brothers and sisters, today we embark on the gloriously complex adventure of Chateauneuf du Pape and Eric Clapton’s 1970 masterpiece “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.”
As is our custom, let's start with the wine:
The story of Chateauneuf du Pape was first related to me by a French colleague — a passionate wine importer with a real knack for relating the folklore of his home country. This is a talent which is not only thoroughly enjoyable to experience, but also a proven sales tactic. Sadly, I am not a sassy Frenchman with a classic accent and nationalistic bravado. I am, however, an American millennial, so here is a brief summary of the tale of Chateauneuf du Pape, using the language of our times:
In the early 14th century Pope Clement V was getting rowdy on cab/merlot and having a generally live time in Bordeaux celebrating his Papal election when the Vatican texted and was like “Your uber will be there in 5, stoked that you’re moving to Italy to rule Catholicism.” And Pope Clement V was all, “WOAH BRO, I'm down for the Pope gig, but OLIVE OIL on my BREAD... not my scene. You’re gonna need to build me a new Pope pad in the South of France before we pull the trigger on this deal.” And the Vatican was all, “This dude’s ego is next level, but we also don’t want to spend eternity in hell, so I guess we will build a new castle for the Pope.” Or, in French, a Chateauneuf du Pape.
Now, millennials and the French popes of the day had a couple things in common. First, they were super into Pinot Noir (this was pre-Willamette Valley, when Burgundy pretty much had the Pinot market cornered). They also shared an inherent desire to “go local.” All around the Southern Rhone Valley where the Pope’s new castle was erected, the locals were downing oceans of red made mostly out of Grenache. And after copious amounts of what we in the wine business refer to as “research” into the local swill, the sentiment around the new castle was pretty unanimous: “Let's make this a thing.” They then set about spreading the word, and soon put the Chateauneuf du Pape appellation, as well as the entire Rhone Valley, on the map as not only a world class region for grape juice but also the universal measuring stick for Syrah/ Grenache blends. Currently there are 18 permissible grapes used to blend Chateauneuf du Pape, with Grenache usually doing most of the heavy lifting. And while it's true that you’ll be hard pressed to find a bottle under $28, I am yet to open one that wasn’t well worth its price tag.
Now onto our next strange and epic historical saga. Do you remember, as a child, when you were taught to believe that your grandmother was your mom, and that your real mother was your sister, and then when you figured out the real story you focused all of that insurmountable anger and depression into music, subsequently becoming the greatest guitar player alive? Then you fell in love with your best friend’s (who happens to be in The Beatles) wife, and she is kinda into it but not sure. So then you started hooking up with her sister for a minute, got super into heroin, and just when everybody was about to write you off as a lost cause you got together in a Florida recording studio with a handful of the most talented musicians around, including another one of the greatest guitarists in history, (and mountains of cocaine and heroin) to make an album about your unrequited love, and the legendary producer Tom Dowd happened to be there to record it all? We’ve all been there right? Seriously though, that's what happened.
The events in Eric Clapton’s life leading up to Derek and the Dominos’ only studio album are so dark, and excessive, and magnificent, and downright weird, that they really could have only ended in one of two ways: Iconic, timeless, groundbreaking art. Or death. Fortunately for us it turned out to be the former. Every time I listen to this record I am taken aback, not just by its incomparable musicianship and songwriting, but by the genuine transcendence of heartbreak and desperation that come through in each note. Not only in Clapton’s playing and singing, but everyone’s. It feels as though the whole band took on their friend’s torment and burden. Then, amidst all of this overwhelming angst and sadness, you have the Olympic level competition between Clapton and Duane Allman’s guitar playing. Which in my opinion is the garnish that takes the album from genius to legendary. As a guitarist, it's the gold standard of blues-rock.
So, in an attempt to match the complexity of today’s pairing, as well as the spirit behind this classic record, I want to offer anyone reading not just a music and beverage suggestion, but a challenge. The next time life inevitably deals you a shitty hand, harness that adversity and make it into something. Anything. Draw a picture of it, write about it, plant a tree about it. Instead of indulging our go-to vices and coping mechanisms, re-utilize that bummer energy into something that the world might not have had otherwise. Who knows, maybe it will just be a nice therapeutic exercise like that one time I went to a yoga class, but maybe it will turn into a thing.
Now here are the details on today’s matchup:
Winemaker: Sarment Dore, Chateuneuf du Pape AOC
Nose: Spicy herbaceous notes of rosemary and thyme, almost medicinal, surrounding the classic red fruit notes of Grenache.
Palate: Rich black cherry flavors followed by notes of licorice, Rosemary, and white pepper. Firm tannins create a lasting finish.
Artist: Derek and the Dominos
Album: Layla...and other assorted love songs, 1970
Serving suggestion: To achieve the full potential of this album, listen to it at moderate volume in a place where you know you will be alone and free of distractions for its entirety. Start to finish is the only way to catch the true conveyance of heartbreak and anguish.
Tracks of distinction: Layla (Obviously), Bellbottom Blues for its impeccable arrangement. It’s Too Late, for Bobby Whitlock’s howling call and response vocal. Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad, for its desperation and otherworldly guitar work.
Until next week.