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San Rafael singer/songwriter Al Stewart gives homage to the fermented grape

By Bob Johnson

Summer 1976
Universal Amphitheater
Los Angeles.

Nearly every seat of this magnificent, open-air concert venue has been filled for a performance by Al Stewart, whose "Year of the Cat" single and album has instantly transformed a Scottish folk singer into an American pop icon. I am 18 years old, and my date for the evening is a stunningly beautiful 17-year-old blonde named Sheryl. It had taken me a full year to muster the courage to ask Sheryl out. When she readily accepted my offer, I was flabbergasted.

Stewart and his band put on a memorable show, blending love songs from his early recording days with the history-tinged folk/pop/rock tunes of Year of the Cat.

By the time we make the drive back from L.A. to Sheryl's bayside home on Newport Beach's Balboa Peninsula, it is a quarter past 1 a.m. We exit my forest green Ford Pinto hatchback and walk to the wood and stained-glass front door of the house.

Without saying a word, and with no prompting (other than telepathic) from me, she leans in and kisses me on the lips. She then looks in my eyes and quietly says five words that have haunted me ever since: "That could become habit forming."

I smiled sheepishly, told her I had a great time, returned to my car and drove the remaining half-mile to my home. I did not sleep at all that night. Torn between a burning desire to develop a new "habit" and the teenage anxiety that I may not live up to her expectations, I never asked Sheryl out on a second date.

    She came over to me and kissed me in play
    Taking my hand between her legs as she lay
    And she looked in my eyes but I turned them away
    Finding no words fit to say
    And I hated myself, but could not move,
    I was shattered in my confidence,
    But it was no sense at all, but too much sense
    That took me to the bridge of impotence.
           --From Al Stewart's "Love Chronicles," 1969

Fall, 1989
Ritz-Carlton Hotel
Dana Point, Calif.

Now divorced for three years and the father of a stunningly beautiful 10-year-old daughter, I have been enjoying wine for about five years, and writing about it for two. But I have never tasted the heady, sweet, European elixir known as Port.

That changes on a hillside garden terrace overlooking the Pacific, where I join several hundred fellow imbibers at a three-hour vino free-for-all involving more than a hundred wineries from around the world.

Up until now, my wine experiences have been limited to California bottlings, with the odd French Burgundy or Bordeaux added to the mix on special occasions. As I sample one Port after another, of varying vintages and pedigrees, my mind and tastebuds are awakened to a vast new world of possibilities.

    Then it seemed that I was traveling
    Through the granite hills of Dao
    With a vineyard spread in front of me
    In a carriage headed south.
    Night came with the skies aflame
    And all that I saw
    Was all mine to claim.
           --From Al Stewart's "King of Portugal," 1988

July 18, 1999
Conejo Creek Park
Thousand Oaks, Calif.

It's about an hour before Al Stewart is due to take the stage for a now all-too-rare performance. The sound-check completed, Stewart joins me for a pre-arranged interview on the splintered seats of a park picnic table.

Knowing that he has discussed and dissected his songs with countless journalists over the years, I decide to focus on another topic of mutual interest: wine. Inevitably, there is a musical link.

"We're all familiar with Andy Warhol's observation about everyone getting 15 minutes of fame," Stewart says. "For me, in retrospect, it was Year of the Cat.

And that remains the one song fans expect him to play at every concert. But Stewart says he doesn't mind, because it provided the wherewithal for him to invest heavily in wine.

He has spent untold hours exploring the cellars of historic French wineries, and today, as a resident of San Rafael, lives just a stone's throw from the Sonoma County and Napa Valley wine regions.

Stewart has been collecting wine for more than three decades, and is amused by the fact he now gets more ink in wine publications than in music periodicals. "When the Wine Spectator devotes a whole page to you, but you're not in the music magazines anymore, it's kind of odd," he says.

Odd? Perhaps. But there is no denying the artistic link between making good music and crafting fine wine. Even though technology is used in both pursuits, nothing gets done without human intervention, interpretation and passion. Nothing of any lasting worth, anyway.

Stewart says his wine collection has dwindled to "a little over a thousand bottles" in recent years, but he figures that's plenty to carry him "happily into senility."

    I'm sometimes trapped by the close confines
    Of the age I'm born into
    Though there were others worse than mine
    Well I miss what I can't do.
    Join the feast of Ancient Greece
    See Alexander's library
    Maybe clink a champagne toast
    With a jazz age dancing queen.
           --From Al Stewart's "Josephine Baker," 1988

Jan. 28, 2000
The Palms Playhouse
Davis, Calif.

On a brisk, breezy evening, not far from the university that has educated countless winemakers and grape growers, a capacity-and-then-some crowd patiently waits for Al Stewart to take the stage.

When introduced, he is greeted warmly. On this night, he begins his performance with an apology. He says he has been battling the flu, and his voice is a bit raspy. "But after eight bottles of Evian and two bottles of wine," he says, "here I am."

At one point between songs, he speaks of just returning from Los Angeles, where he had been recording with guitarist Laurence Juber, an alumnus of Paul McCartney's post-Beatles Wings band (on the run).

"A record company approached me about making an album about wine," he says. "I remember pausing for a moment and thinking, 'This must be a dream.'"

By the end of the year, the dream had become reality in the form of Down in the Cellar, a 13-cut CD devoted almost entirely to fermented grapes.

"Touts Les Etoiles," an ode to Dom Perignon, is sung partially in French, while "The Shiraz Shuffle" pays homage to the wines of Australia. Most of the tunes embrace Stewart's trademark historical perspective.

And one, in particular, takes me back nearly a quarter of a century to an unforgettable kiss.

    You've got this impulsive nature
    Maybe you were born that way
    Sometimes it leads you into danger
    Sometimes you can make it pay
    On a night like this one
    Fly a red balloon
    On an endless beach of summer
    Under a wine-stained moon.
           --From Al Stewart's Under a Wine-Stained Moon, 2000

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From the February 1-7, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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