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Wine Talk: Alex Lifeson
Music introduced Rush's guitarist to Blue Nun, but a tour promoter saved him from it--and turned him into an enophile
Posted: Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Alex Lifeson, 53, was born in British Columbia. Along with Geddy Lee and former drummer John Rutsey (he was replaced by Neil Peart in 1974), the trio formed rock band Rush in 1968. Lifeson has been the composer and guitarist for all 23 of the band's albums, including a 24th, yet to be named, due for release in April. Over the past four decades the band's sound has evolved with the times, and so has Lifeson's taste in wine. When Rush started out, the band drank cheap wine and malt liquor backstage; now they prefer Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Along with collecting, Lifeson also found that he enjoys pitching in and helping make wine. But what he likes most of all is sharing great wines with friends.
Wine Spectator: How did you first get into wine?
Alex Lifeson: I think I started looking for wines to buy in 1975. Before that, the wines we drank were like Castelvetro, Mateus and those sort of wines. That was our basic knowledge of wine. When we started touring, we had very limited access to wine because we were an opening act. Two bottles of Blue Nun and Night Train is what we used to get in the dressing room in the early days.
AL: Yeah, you got a loaf of white bread, some ham and some cheese, a couple of bottles of Blue Nun and a case of beer. It tasted great, Blue Nun, because that was all we knew. [Then] there was a gig in Milwaukee, and the promoter there had an interest in wine. He took us to a restaurant after a show there and he asked, "Do you guys like wine?" We said, "Oh yeah, we love it! We drink Blue Nun all the time!"
He took us to this restaurant and said, "Now you're going to drink a bottle of Latour and a bottle of Margaux." This was in 1975, so I don't remember the vintage but I would guess it was probably something like a '70. I was just blown away by how amazing it could taste. It had so much depth to it, and it evolved in the course of this dinner. We were there for a couple of hours at least; the wines became different--I had no idea that wine could be like that. So we got home and I would buy a bottle of this and a bottle of that, and work my way up. Maybe a grand cru if I could afford that. And I found the Riojas that were so cheap yet tasted so good.
WS: In your collection you have about 1,200 bottles. Do you specialize in any particular areas?
AL: I really like the Rhône wines. The Guigals have all been my favorites. Particularly the single-vineyard wines. I had access to them about 10 or 12 years ago when they really weren't that popular, and I was able to buy one or two bottles here and there. I bought as much as I could at the time, so I ended up with probably five cases or so, a mix going back to '78.
WS: What are you buying now?
AL: Lately I have been buying what I would say are good deals. René Rostaing [wines] are really well-priced. I also have some Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I collected a lot of Grange because I really enjoy it. I have vintages from the '70s, and I am finishing off the '82s that we had--I had a couple of cases of that. I've been able to enjoy them for 15 years. I bought a lot of that because then Grange was relatively cheap.
I kind of got pissed off at the prices of wine. It really bothered me that suddenly to get some of these great wines you spend 100, 200, 300 bucks on a bottle. I just can't justify that. And this is why I like looking around. I don't care about the prestige of the wine. I just want what tastes really great and that I can share with my friends and they get blown away.
WS: Do you buy any California wines?
AL: Joseph Phelps, [because] I worked at Phelps for one week in 1990. We played in San Francisco, and the promoters sent us to Phelps. We just fell in love with everyone there. They were so nice. We were sitting outside eating, and drinking every wine they ever made--Backus, Insignia. We also drank some of their Johannesburg Rieslings. And Délice. In fact, I was drinking Délice out of barrel every morning that I was there for that week. That was like my orange juice.
WS: What were you doing?
AL: I did everything. I think if you have an interest in wine it is the most fun thing that you could do. You get to see every aspect of the whole process. I was doing punch-downs and pump-overs. I helped out with some of the fermentation and racking. I cleaned out all the white barrels. I was up every morning at 5, and we would be at the winery by 6. I would work all day until 7 at night. I would eat and then go to bed at 9, completely exhausted.
Geddy [Lee, the band's bass player] and I went to Turley in 1998. We were getting into the big bins, and were pulling out rotten stems, grapes and tens of thousands of spiders that were crawling around in there. We left at 4 o'clock in the morning and were done by I think 10 or 11, and we were covered in grape juice. Our arms were purple. I had white shoes that were covered in grape juice. Then we went and had lunch in a local restaurant. We were so proud of the fact that our fingernails were purple.
WS: Do you guys have good wine when you are on tour?
AL: Oh yeah. Every night! Are you kidding? We play the gig and then the dressing room is quiet for maybe half an hour after the show. We have a chef with us and he cooks according to what we are going to drink that night. We carry stemless Riedels with us on the road.
WS: What is the best bottle you have ever had?
AL: You know I really do love those single-vineyard Guigals. I love having the experience of a really fine wine when you are with the right group of people.
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Alex Lifeson interview in Wine Spectator
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