Wine and Vinyl Episode 7: Primitivo and All Things Must Pass

Greetings, Internet! Inspired by the reluctant, if not forced, appearance of Spring we are finally experiencing here in the Heartland, I have decided that for today's pairing we shall examine the immensely enjoyable flavors and poetry born out of artistic and creative suppression. A grape shackled by its blended value-brand past, and an artist delayed from full recognition of his greatness by feuding high-profile band leaders, a gentle disposition, and contractual obligations. Happily, both achieved deserved monumental acclaim once they were set free to fully express themselves. Today, brothers and sisters, I bring you the real life Cinderella stories of Primitivo, aka Zinfandel, and George Harrison’s 1970 stroke of genius, All Things Must Pass. 


Primitivo — it's Zinfandel but from Italy, right? That’s what I had always heard. Internet research, however, provided enough conflicting information that I have now settled on the firm and unequivocal answer of yes/pretty much/sort of/close enough (viticulture experts please feel free to debate this point colorfully in the comment section below). But for the purposes of today's blog we’ll treat them as the same. Because regardless of whether this ill-fated grape hailed from southern Italy or California, it met with the same 20th Century reputation of massive yield, blending swill, sweet rose, garbage fruit. The pinnacle of this varietal abuse came about in the 1990’s with a trashy beverage revolution celebrated in sorority houses and bingo nights the world over, known as “white zin.” But just as a guitar would make perfectly adequate firewood, in the right hands it will serve as the vessel for powerful art. 


Legends about Primitivo date back to the ancient Phoenicians who settled in what is modern day Puglia in southwest Italy. The legends are as dramatic as the wine is ancient. One rumor is that Primitivo was served at the Last Supper, while others claim it was the first grape documented in human history, hence the name “primi” or “first.” Naturally, while these urban legends are wildly interesting, none have been substantiated. Equally interesting, and totally substantiated, are some of the fine Zinfandels and Primitivos being crafted by bold and talented winemakers today. Just as brewers across America are pushing the limits of quality, depth, and creativity one can achieve with barley and hops, I believe we are in an age of unparalleled creativity with regards to winemaking, with Zinfandel being one of the biggest benefactors. Be it from Lodi, California or Puglia, Italy, today this varietal is being carefully crafted into some seriously kick-ass wines. Its bold juicy, smoky textures in my opinion hold their own with fine Syrah from the northern Rhone. Also, as a Kansas Citian, it is with regional (if not supreme) authority that I could not recommend a more enjoyable pairing for your next barbecue than a barrel-aged Zin. 


Now, for the music: 


Suppression — a seemingly inevitable part of the human experience. Regardless of where you come from, your financial status, your ambition, your work ethic, etc., the proverbial Man will invariably try to chasten your dreams or tamp down your potential in one way or another. So, with natural empathy, imagine that you’re a musical and lyrical genius. Your songs are full-on amazing and the world NEEDS to hear them. However, you also happen to be in a famous band led by the two guys that the entire international rock and roll community has decided are the two greatest songwriters in the history of rock and roll music and their monumental egos are in no way interested in sharing the glory. It’s obvious to you that, while you have nothing but love and respect for your band mates and their admittedly monster talents, it’s as much their alpha-male personalities as their musical compositions keeping them in the limelight. It is not debatable that this would be an extremely frustrating situation. Lucky for us, George Harrison was not only a very talented dude, he was also super smart and deeply spiritual and knew exactly how to take the high road...all the way to the bank. 


With its directly metaphorical album cover, in which Harrison is perched on a stool out in a field surrounded by four toppled over lawn gnomes, commercially, All Things Must Pass was a massive success. It stayed at number one on the Billboard Top 100 chart for a total of seven weeks, and the hit single “My Sweet Lord” did the same. But the real correlation I draw between this record and fine Zinfandel is the wildly creative, immensely beautiful sounds that Harrison was able to put together once granted freedom of expression. Of course, he had Phil Spector (famous for his signature “wall of sound”) co-producing, who was naturally up to the task of harmoniously stacking countless tracks. 

Then there were the songs, several of which had been turned down by The Beatles on various records. Thank god. Because there is just no way they would have turned out as beautifully as they did under the supervision of his egotistical band mates and Beatles producer George Martin, nor would they have worked sandwiched between a Lennon and McCartney composition. All Things Much Pass is an incredibly cohesive piece of art intended to be enjoyed from start to finish. 


Then there’s the credits. The massive amount of collaboration on this triple LP, reportedly born out of rebellion from years of strict creative control in the Beatles, is remarkable. Guest appearances and co-writers include (and I’m definitely missing a few here): Eric Clapton, Delaney and Bonnie’s band, Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Badfinger, Klaus Voorman, John Barham, Pete Drake, and a very young Phil Collins. For a guitarist, the album is a full on masterclass. From a writer’s point of view, the depth, metaphor, and diversity of subject matter is next level. In one record you’ve got top shelf quality love songs like “What is Life,” bemused reflection on wasted talent during the warring Beatles days in “Isn’t it a Pity,” and (my personal favorite) gang vocal religious chanting praising the Hare Krishna movement on “My Sweet Lord.” I mean, come on. If you’ve yet to fully immerse yourself in this record, do yourself a favor and make the time. It’s 105 minutes and 59 seconds that you will not regret. Primitivo sold separately.

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