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Jeff Austin 1974 – 2019 (Travels with Jeff)

July 4, 2019 1 comment

* Editor’s Note: There won’t be much wine in this geist.

My dear friend, Jeff Austin, is gone.

Jeff & me 2003

I’m still processing, though the news cycle has moved on, but I also need to write some things down. This is how I used to process everything, before I sold booze for a living, back when people would pay me for words. It used to be a whole industry, before they started calling it user-generated content, and settled on shittier copy for free. You get what you pay for. I used to write a lot, as did my friend, Jeff, often in the same place and time. I recall a time high on a hilltop, above Nederland, CO, pounding away on my laptop (and wrestling with Sawyer the dog) on Jeff’s living room floor, while he and Todd Snider worked out some tunes.

I like Todd a lot, but he never remembers me. The third time we all hung out together was on the front couch of somebody’s tour bus outside a theater in the south (maybe the Ryman, maybe the Fox?) that one or both had just played. Todd introduced himself to me, so I reminded him of the living room writing session, and another solid hang in between. I told him, “no worries, I get it, songwriters only remember chicks and guitar players.” Without missing a beat, Todd replied, “I don’t much remember guitar players.”

Jeff Austin was one of the best friends I’ve ever had, and unlike Jeff, I’ve never had a lot of them, at any one time. I don’t entirely know the details, but I know that he is gone, and I am currently a 6’3” raw nerve in a hail storm. He had so long since survived his hard coke days, and the rehab that followed. It had been a decade since I had seen him consume to excess, and I never saw this coming.

Jeff and I certainly had some hard days, nights, and weeks of mass consumption, but the last decade or so, our parties usually involved fairly lavish meals, and reasonable bedtimes. Jeff worked much of his early work life in kitchens and food service, and became a true gourmand and a highly skilled home cook. He used to work at the deli in Nederland when he was off the road with Yonder, not because he needed the money, but because he enjoyed the work.

Chef Park’s Wagyu Carpaccio

Our youthful Vegas trips, filled with drugs and strippers (long before his marriage), quickly turned into long slow evenings of 12+ course dining events and rare Chambertin at profound eateries, most notably and often, Joel de Robuchon’s L’Atelier at the MGM. Those meals were rivaled by equally decadent, though more rustic and relaxed NY dining expereinces at Chef Park’s counter, at Bistro Petit. The visceral joy we shared at those counters, watching the deep effortless artistry that occurred in the open kitchens, reverberates through my brainstem even now.

I met Jeff and the other founding members of Yonder Mountain String Band when that scraggly bunch of skinny kids (and one full size acoustic bass) spilled out of a stuffed white minivan, onto a soggy festival field in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. It was the 3rd year of the Big Wu’s Family Reunion. Jeff was a human rubber band of life lust, Ben soft-spoken and joyfully reverent, Dave was reading The Rise and Fall of the 3rd Reich, and I thought that Adam hated me, but it turned out he’s a profoundly dry wit, moored to a stoic anchor. And man could those kids pick. That drive without drums was riveting. Through the course of that wonderful weekend, Jeff and I found ourselves in the same place and time, over and over again, and by time those four packed back into the minivan, we were fast friends. Swimming in similar circles for then next few years, I crossed paths with Jeff and the Yonder crew frequently, both happenstance and planned.

Jeff & I once spent a couple of days looking at houses outside of Nashville, with the intent to buy, and we joked about being hetero-life-partners. And there was always music! Everywhere we went, we were always comparing notes on what we were discovering and exploring. Jeff turned me on to the Louvin Brothers, I turned him on to Yo La Tengo. Driving west from Colorado to Las Vegas once, listening to Ben Folds’ then recent release, Rockin’ the Suburbs, Jeff said, more than slightly enviously, “That guy holds the patent on every hook in the universe.”

It wasn’t long into our friendship that the Yonder van rolled up to Berkfest, and I spent much of that weekend careening

Jeff holding church in 2006

through forest and field with Jeff, his mandolin, and the Devil (a tiny, sweet, cherubic blond with a magical sack full of trouble), stopping at tents and camp sites to pick and partake. At some point during the weekend I arrived (just as Jeff, Dave, Ben, and Adam walked up) at the tented, elevated platform that served as the festival stage’s indoor/outdoor green room. At this time in my life, I was respectful (and naïve) enough to believe the sign reading ‘Yonder Mountain String Band and family’ meant the band and blood relatives, as opposed to ‘family’ in the Dead sense of the word. I was talking with Jeff as he headed up the stairs, and then he turned back toward me, noticing that I had stopped at the sign. He shot me an incredulous little smile, “what are you doing? You’re family.” It’s hard to explain how much that meant to me then, and how much it still means to me now, but it has been a long time since anybody paid me for words, and I’m a little rusty.

During those years, as a Hunter Thompson disciple, I was practicing the self-indulgent art of getting away with it, which is what Thompson said of writing for a living. In our travels, and occasionally from stage, Jeff would refer to me as his lawyer (though which of us was Dr. Gonzo was always in question), and I in turn would offer life and professional advice. My cartoonish tone would indicate whether it was a deliberately awful idea, or an actual moment of reason. Considering our individual self-destructive tendencies, we were more often than not, a centering influence on each other, which is why I feel such an abject failure now.

Through my freelance years, during which we both traveled extensively, I had more world-class times with Jeff Austin, in more cities and festival fields than I can count or detail. When he first started attaining real material success, he was proud of the pull he could muster and came to New York to join me for two consecutive small venue Jeff Tweedy shows- for which he had excellent seats awaiting us. We had a blast. And I was proud of what my friend had built, from nothing, with his buddies and his bare picking hand. Over the years, my own fortunes ebbed and flowed, while for many consecutive, Jeff’s were on a steady constant rise. Through my leaner years, he always picked up the check, without

Wrigley Field 2007

saying anything about it.

I once had the ill-conceived idea to join my friends Jeff, Ben, Dave, and Adam, on Yonder Mountain’s Europe tour, and shoot a feature on spec. It was one of the best experiences of my life, and then there was radio silence from Yonder’s then manager for a very long time. The project was going to be scrapped completely, until Jeff stepped in and insisted that my feature accompany the next Mountain Tracks (4) live release, as a CD/DVD combo. When the dust settled, and the cash was counted, I was repaid what I had spent on production and travel, and a (tiny) little bit on top. How many filmmakers can say that they turned a profit on their first feature (using the term loosely, as it’s my only feature)? The only reason I can say that is Jeff Austin.

It was also on that trip, that for 11 Euro each, at a picnic table full of Yonder cast and crew, we shared one of the most profoundly fulfilling meals of our lives, outside the otherwise sold-out tiny village dining room, two towns down the road from the American country music festival the fellas were playing in rural France. Many of the festival’s patrons didn’t speak a word of English, but they did line dance in tasseled leather, and wide-brim hats. If I could make this shit up, I’d be a better writer.

Our times were always music and food centric. But few things will ever beat the profound simplicity of those freshly picked wild morels, sautéed in butter, in a heavy skillet, over an outdoor hearth on the edge of Yellowstone. Was that before, during, or after Sandy and Stella’s wedding, Jeff?

Jeff wasn’t perfect. He once caused a huge rift between my girlfriend and I, after curtly dismissing discussion of her music (she is a classically trained string player, and a founding member of an indy band, with a couple of solid records). But she eventually threw me out, in the middle of the night, for something I didn’t do, and Jeff would always take my calls in the middle of the night, so it’s tough to hold that one- or any other- against him.

In an interview once, Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, told me with a reverent chuckle, “On stage, Jeff is a freight train.” Hunter Thompson often said that you know who your friends are at 3 o’clock in the morning. Jeff Austin was a freight train, who would take my call at 3 o’clock in the morning. There is no replacing that. My world is a much smaller place for his absence, and I will miss him as long as I breathe, but I will be listening to his music, and recalling our adventures, fondly for the rest of my life. And you should too.

If you’d like to help out Jeff Austin’s wife and kids, you can do that HERE.

Theory Kitchen, Sad Cowboy Music, and Giving a Shit

April 24, 2016 Leave a comment

Duck 2 ways Theory Kitchen 4-2016If necessity is the mother of invention, then the mother of inspiration is a deadline… for something else. I’m on the precipice of a comprehensive inventory and professional off-site storage project that will see 200 cases go out the door of my shop- via the cavernous basement, which is far from the front door- and all I can think about is how many blog posts behind I am.

It’s late and I’ve just been to a Theory Kitchen event, and I am again reminded that giving a shit (and attention to detail) goes a long way. The kid who runs the show is the same age now I was when getting obscenely high and paying my rent interviewing (and photographing) musicians, writers, and artists for print magazines back before Seattle died. The ‘90s were a magical time for getting away with it in America (RIP HST!).

K Vintners Morrison Lane '01 4-2016I’m drinking, amongst other things, a K Vintners Syrah Morison Lane 2001. Full disclosure, I love the wines of Charles Smith. I haven’t particularly enjoyed the company of the man himself (though I’d certainly give it another shot- over the right Chateauneuf du Pape), but his wines are very good, on the low end, and expansive and otherworldly, at their very best. But it’s clearly on the back end of its plateau. Those dusty tannins and that distinct apply dryness in the back will, over the next few years, head toward the predominant front note, on its way to becoming deep, slightly cloudy, brick-toned water, if stored properly, and eventually a sullen dry vinegar. On the off chance you have any in your cellar, drink it sooner than later.

I’ve been in a prolonged phase of sad cowboy music, the like of which I haven’t seen since first discovering Townes Van Zandt, however many years ago that was. And these days I can’t stop listening to The Dave Rawlings Machine’s Nashville Obsolete. Just now, writing that down, I almost dropped a tear. It’s a good goddamn record, in an era that’s goddamn short on good goddamn records. I’ll admit to having erased “Candy” from the album on my iphone, and it really does feel kind of silly and extraneous amongst the incisive story telling, verse, and chord progression of “The Weekend”, “Shorthaired Women”, “The Trip“, and “Pilgrim”.

Pig Crispy Theory Kitchen 4-2016Three hours after first opening, this wine- K Vintners Syrah Morison Lane 2001- really smells, in the glass, like a Hermitage twice its age, and the palate really isn’t that far off, minus the nod toward animalia. Deep blackberry fruit, earth, tar, basalt, ancient woodland herbs; an encompassing, pensive mouthful. A pleasantly dark way to end an evening. Thanks for that, Chuck.

Belles Soeurs (Beaux Freres) Pinot Noir Shea Vineyard 2000 and Late Night with Bob Dylan

September 6, 2011 Leave a comment

After the reasonably exquisite Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Evenstad Reserve 2003 (tasting notes in previous post), a Belles Soeurs Pinot Noir Shea Vineyard 2000 was poured. In general, across most vintages, I find their wines mades from outsourced grapes from Shea Vineyard to be more complete ventures than Beaux Freres’ Estate-specific cuvées (Beaux Freres Vineyard, Upper Terrace), though I have yet to encounter an uninteresting wine that bears the name. I have read about, but have yet to taste their tiny production Upper Terrace Grenache, and I would be more than happy to accept tasting samples, to be discussed here on WineGeist, judiciously and impartially.

I’m listening to “Mr. Tambourine Man” as performed by its composer, Bob Dylan, at the Hollywood Bowl, September 2, 1965. I know Dylan gets a lot of air time here, but that was the track that came up on the full library shuffle, just then, as I started the sentence; it’s still playing now. It’s true that I’ve been staring at the incomplete line, “I’m listening to…” for a couple of dozen songs, but that’s neither here nor there and Dylan is inspiring. And that song in particular, “Mr. Tambourine Man” is a big one in an unparalleled body of work, not to mention being the second part of the Good Doctor‘s dedication preceding Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas: “-and to Bob Dylan, for Mister Tambourine Man“. Dylan wrote that one in ’65 and in the same year it was recorded by The Byrds and released as their first single for Columbia Records, which reached #1 on US and UK charts. Unrelated, I was told, not that long ago, “It takes a lot of Dylan to make a nice Syrah.” But today, we’re discussing Oregon Pinot.

The Belles Soeurs Pinot Noir Shea Vineyard 2000 wafts immediately of cedar and raw meat, and is dark in the glass, knocking on the door of deep purple. Visually, it’s almost unreasonably concentrated for the varietal and most definitely for the vintage. The vast majority of 2000 OR Pinot Noir, even the very good ones are a little thin in the middle, as if too much water was interjected at a major stage of growth, and the grapes partied like it was 1999, resulting in flimsier fruit. Ironically enough, the grapes of 1999 were far more studious and the wines released from that vintage continue to age well. Even the normally highly concentrated Beaux Freres wines are a little soft, a little light on character, in 2000, including this one whose palate is not so brooding as the color. The only recently tasted examples to the contrary for 2000 OR Pinot are Ken Wright Pinot Noir, Shea and McCrone Vineyard bottles. But back to the ’00 Belles Soeurs Shea: the palate displays cool damp earth, ash, as well as some vegetal characterists and green pepper. There’s a nice mid-palate dryness, but the body seems to drop off there, making for a shorter experience. That being said, there exist notes of espresso bean, anise, and prune as well as overripe raspberry and a dusty, silty finish. The Belles Soeurs Pinot Noir Shea Vineyard 2000 is a highly palatable wine, but it’s a little thin for its pedigree, and is likely at the back end of its drinking plateau. Remaining bottles will be enjoyed in the near future, rather than returned to the cellar.

Gerard Bertrand Cremant de Limoux 2007 and Patti Smith’s New York Minute

August 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Conflict(s) of interests run as rampant in the wine world as almost anywhere else, besides the intertwined upper echelon of government and industry. Many reviewers make it a point to make known their connections to wines reviewed and many more are slammed in the blogosphere for not disclosing such details. In reviewing another Gerard Bertand wine, I feel I should say that, when contacted, Bertand’s rep wasn’t interested in helping to locate and new releases of Le Viala and La Forge, Bertand’s flagship bottles. On top of this, to my request to pre-pay and have some ordered from the same distributor from which they acquire the more modest bottles, BQE Wine & Liquors, with whom I do a fair amount of business replied, “No special orders.” Everyone involved seems to have the same attitude as the Frenchmen who make the stuff: There isn’t very much of it, it’s very good, and it will all sell without much effort on our part. Unfortunately, all of these things are true, and, besides those aforementioned flagship bottles, Gerard Bertand makes a number of very nice wines per dollar spent. Most recently I tasted Bertrand’s white bubbly: Cremant de Limoux 2007.

I was just reading Patti Smith’s Just Kids, about her early days in New York and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorp. Smith’s best known record is of course, Horses (without which there may very well be no Ani DiFranco), which got me thinking about “Wild Horses”. Which lead my ears to find themselves listening to Beggar’s Banquet on shuffle. I’m not sure any other song has such particular visceral connection to a book as does “Sympathy for the Devil” with Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Records did a stunning old time radio show style reading of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s finest work, which predates and outclasses the film, that would eventually follow.

Back to Gerard Bertrand Cremant de Limoux 2007. At just under $15 a bottle (from my friends at BQE Wine & Liquor), this delightful bubbly compares quite favorably on the world stage, versus Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco. In the glass, the Bertrand Cremant is very pale yellow, with the faintest green hue, tapering off to almost clear in the very point of the flute. The palate is sweet, lightly honeyed, and light on its feet, but with enough yeast, citrus, and lively acidity to maintain balance. As it breathes, white grape, Bartlet pair, and green apple build on the palate, unusual in its pleasant grapiness. The moderate finish is with the presence of yeast and a texture that’s near powdery. This is a highly enjoyable sparkling wine for its price point and makes nice summer cocktail.

Back to Bourgogne Rouge and (John Hartford’s) Back in the Good Old Days

July 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Back into the mixed case of 2000-2005 Bourgogne Rouge and next up for tasting is Domaine Robert Chevillon Bourgogne 2000. While this Bourgogne Rouge is Chevillon’s générique Pinot Noir, they are known primarily for their (Grand Cru quality) Premier Cru Nuits St Georges and I have been impressed especially with (and continue to hoard a few of) their Les St Georges and Les Cailles releases of vintages past. Those of the late ’90s were drinking beautifully at last tasting.

I’m listening to John Hartford’s “Back in the Good Old Days” from his 1971 landmark Aereo-Plain album. In that same year, Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” appeared in Rolling Stone and John C. Lilly wrote Center of the Cyclone. Aereo-Plain marked the moment when the hippies met the hillbillies (none of whom cared to be drafted) and some pretty fantastic music ensued. Hartford’s band for Aereo-Plain included Vassar Clements, one of the most naturally gifted and accomplished bluegrass fiddle players that ever lived.

Back in the glass, the Robert Chevillon Bourgogne 2000 is deep ruby. There’s an earthy funk to the nose that’s heading toward animal, almost barnyard, but not heavy enough to obscure the soft red fruits, raspberry, and cherry. On the palate, those red fruits are joined by ripe black currant. There is an acidic structure to the finish that suggests that this wine will happily last another few years, properly cellared. These aged base line Burgundies continue to provide excellent drinking per dollar.

Patz & Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch ’07 and Summer Sun (Happy 4th!)

July 4, 2011 Leave a comment

A summer white in the the summer wind.

It’s the 4thand the hunter/gatherer in me feels the need to grill something. There are a couple of Albacore steaks in the fridge and the marinade now contains: olive oil, white wine, a fistful of fresh basil, mined garlic and ginger, crushed hot peppers, salt and pepper the fish, not the marinade… and I’m out of citrus, so a dash of Pellegrino Limonata, looks like just the thing. I’ll also confess that the white wine is Patz & Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch 2007 that was vacu vin’d in the fridge from yesterday. I am still not sponsored by Vacu Vin but, per dollar spent, I’m not sure anything else has added more to the enjoyment of my wine consumption. And I’m not above sponsorship cash and products.

I’m listening to Yo La Tengo’s Summer Sun. They’ve been so good for so long that it’s inspiring and intimidating in the same moment. Summer Sun achieves and maintains a complete aesthetic throughout, without ever reaching monotone, in a way that few records ever have. The climax, literarily speaking, is the 10 ½ minute gorgeously ethereal and meandering “Let’s Be Still,” which sounds like the finest of all summer afternoon naps, no sunburn, no mosquito bites. At sundown, one wakes to the falling action of Georgia’s breathy rendition of Alex Chilton’s nostalgically sweet “Take Care”. And that’s how you end a great record.

Very little of the Patz & Hall Chardonnay Dutton Ranch 2007 went into the tuna marinade. Some is currently in the glass in my hand in which it appears to be 18 karat gold with just a hint of gripping viscosity to the swirl. There’s an apparent yeastiness to the nose, under which peach, wildflowers, and strawberry are rapidly emerging. There’s a butteriness to the texture and a firm but fair acidity that carries through a long finish, where pineapple persists. It’s nice juice that has another handful of good years in it, properly stored.

Rutherford Hill Port 1986 and God Bless Warren Zevon (Tasting on Shuffle Pt. 5)

July 3, 2011 Leave a comment

Looking pretty sharp at 25 years.

The wine I was most excited to open with that glorious cheese selection from Bedford Cheese Shop was a Rutherford Hill Vintage Port 1986. I’m a big fan of high quality US dessert wines and this is one of the most port-like “Ports” I’ve ever encountered. There are an enormous amount of fabulous stickies bottled not only up and down the west coast, but sweet white is one of the few things they’ve been getting right in parts of New York for a long time. Often batches of California dessert wine are pet projects of wineries known for other things and production is often so small that if you don’t specifically ask, you’d never know they existed. I often come across such small batch wines in collection and consignment offers, which was how I originally discovered the dessert wines of Williams Selyem and Shafer. Over the years Phelps has produced a number of beautiful stickies such that I can recommend you purchase and taste just about any one you can find.

Warren Zevon‘s posthumous Preludes: Rare and Unreleased shuffles up on the itunes and I remember how much one can miss a guy he never met. Preludes is made up of selections from the tapes that Zevon’s son, Jordan, found in an old suicase, shortly after Zevon’s death. Warren Zevon was one of the great American storytellers and these earliest recordings show just how good he already was early on in his career, though on the charmingly raw version of “Carmelita,” it’s clear that guitar was his (distant) second instrument, to the piano, at which he was masterful. The previously unreleased “Rosartita Beach Café” sounds like something he might have written after a minor bender with Hunter Thompson, but I’m fairly certain they hadn’t yet met and become friends. “Rosartita Beach Café” was torn from the same moment as “Desperados Under the Eaves,” the version of which resides on Preludes is crushing. For my music listening dollar, it doesn’t really get any better. And the next glass is raised to Warren Zevon.

After hours of breathing, there’s still a solid alcoholic bite to the Rutherford Hill Port 1986, but the palate is broader and brambly, unquestionably lush, and surprisingly grapey for it’s age. It’s a big wine and age hasn’t taken that away. It’s thick with chocolate and black pepper, wild herbs, wintergreen, and a hint of caramelized sugar. This is a wine that would have worked as well with a rich flourless chocolate cake as it does with the various cheeses. It would be a crime on one level, but this ’86 Rutherford Hill Port would make a stunning reduction for a world-class marbled cut of beef. And damned if sipping it doesn’t make me want one of my 10-12 annual cigars; Montecristo #5 please, if anybody’s running to the shop… in Havana, or Montreal, or Mexico City, or Paris, or Amsterdam, or Moscow, or Zagreb

Epilogue: Beautiful as it was that evening, thanks to my trusty vacu vin, the ’86 Rutherford Hill Port was drinking even better the next day and the rest of the week, once the alcohol integrated had properly integrated.