I have had my eyes opened, I have been awakened, I have found enlightenment.
As if, in days of old, an old Rinzai Master had koan’d me to the point of insensibility, and then suddenly shocked me into awareness with a single gesture, a single movement, a single sound, I have suddenly come to understand Natural Wine.
I am listening to Mississippi Fred McDowell tonight, because it’s his birthday; he would have been 110 years old. I am listening to Fred McDowell, and his music is my ringing gong, the tone of my awakening.
“There’s never been market pressure or pressure here at Ridge in any way to tell us to do anything other than make the wines that we enjoy and we think are some of the finest.” So said Paul Draper recently.
Fred McDowell never recorded in the “first wave” of blues recordings in America. Unlike Son House, Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Tommy Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt, and more, Fred McDowell made no pre-war recordings. He was a farmer, and continued as a farmer. And he continued as a musician. He played at dances, house parties, church events, picnics, what have you. There was no “market pressure.” But his music was the finest. Truly the finest.
And not unlike with Ridge Vineyards, the world caught up.
Fred McDowell’s later years marked an astonishing change for him. In 1959 (the very same year the Ridge “founders” purchased land on Monte Bello), he recorded for Alan Lomax, and this led to an extraordinary next 13 years, in which he toured all over the country, made countless recordings, and was both feted and emulated by the likes of The Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt, as well as thousands of friends and fans who fell in love with the raw, emotional, hypnotically powerful music he produced; music he produced with just his voice, a guitar, and a slide. An “unknown” farmer no more, Fred McDowell was suddenly a prophet, voice from the past explaining the future. The antidote for, and the answer to, a confused and bloated time lost in the detritus of its own supposed advances. Simplicity in a complicated age, purity in a sullied age, nobility in a scandalous age. In short, real.
And this is my revelation.
The Natural Blues.
Straightforward. Unprocessed. Raw. Emotional. Unadorned. Clear. Powerful. Real.
This is the music of Fred McDowell. This is Natural.
To live a simple life, to practice an honest craft; we must look many ways for guidance and inspiration. At Ridge, we look back, into a Pre-Industrial world, before additives, before processing, when the “ingredients” list on any wine (had there have been one) would have been but a few items long.
I look tonight to Fred McDowell, a man who made the most extraordinarily fine music with but a few ingredients: voice, guitar, slide. And the fourth, of course, the man. His life, his soul.
Fred McDowell passed away in July of 1972, just about halfway between harvest and bottling of the legendary 1971 Monte Bello.
To make music like Fred McDowell made music, is to make natural music. It is to make The Natural Blues.
And this is my epiphany.
To make wine like Ridge makes wine, is to make natural wine. By my definition, tonight, to the sounds of Mississippi Fred McDowell, we make natural wine.
This won’t hold water in court, of course, and I wouldn’t present the theory to the judges who judge these things.
But tonight, to the sounds of Fred McDowell, I can say I understand.
The first Fred McDowell recording I ever heard was “Milk Cow Blues” from an album called “Long Way From Home.” You can hear it here: