On the Trail With Courtney Taylor-Taylor
I was a graduating senior in high school when the Dandy Warhols released their breakthrough album "The Dandy Warhols Come Down". Back then I used to rock my parents Mazda MPV minivan with a tape deck that allowed me to create elaborate mixes via my AIWA stereo unit. Perhaps the most-worn cassette of the bunch that year was an old Maxell that started off with a track called "Boys Better"—a power-chord piece of brightly-tuned Dandy distortion that always put me in the right mood from the minute my foot hit the gas pedal. The lead singer of the world-famous group, Courtney Taylor-Taylor, lives in Portland but is a huge fan of K&L. We're constantly shipping him cases of French reds to decant for dinner time and I keep in touch with him often about his drinking needs. I caught up with him recently to discuss the topic of wine while running through the Pacific Northwest. Not just any wine, mind you, but Bordeaux specifically. My passion. His passion.
Courtney: Have you looked at my order history recently?
David: Yeah, I did. You’re buying the stuff that’s pretty much our bread and butter around here: reasonably-priced, mature Bordeaux. That’s our speciality!
Courtney: I’m a Bordeaux head and it took me my entire career to figure that out.
David: What was it about Bordeaux that got you hooked?
Courtney: Let’s start out with classic literature. Nineteenth century literature, anything, rewoven stories of Rome. Wine plays a huge a role in classic literature so naturally I grew up reading books and thinking: I’m going to be a wine drinker. I’m going to love this stuff. I’m going to find the good stuff and I’m going to drink it—a lot of it.
David: How old are you here?
Courtney: Oh, I don’t know….twelve?
David: Ok (laughs) you started early.
Courtney: I was seventeen I think when I first read Les Miserables, however many thousands of pages that was. Everything had wine. A Tale of Two Cities, you name it—everyone mentions wine. So cut to the Dandy Warhols. I was always a drummer but by the time I was twenty-five or so, I realized I was never going to find the perfect band to be in, so I needed to make it myself. Having spent my entire life studying music and composition—classical, space rock, jazz, trance, everything—I said, “OK, I’m going to do it. I’m going to sing and play guitar.”
David: What was the theme behind your idea of the perfect band?
Courtney: Pete our guitar player had moved back from New York and he had a record collection that included all the cool stuff: Mint 500, Slowdive, Jesus and Mary Chain, Spiritualized, all the really cool bands at the time. That was kind of it. We made a band based on very simple and very cool ideas—emotionally, exactly what I feel. No trying to over-achieve, or any of that. I also knew how to make videos and that was the MTV era. For $500 bucks I made a video that MTV played every Sunday night for weeks on 120 Minutes. I didn't like what was going on in the nineties with misogynist rap-rock and angry dork metal, and all that crap. So it was easy for us to flagrantly play this cross-dressing, cocky artist role—the farther we were away from what was popular, the better we were going to feel. And sure enough the record companies came around. Being a band that had some sort of international flavor, they took us out for really expensive dinners. You gotta remember that in 1995 this was the explosion of Napa California reds. We’re being poured $900 bottles of Napa cab. No bottle age. These were new releases, and those wines just struck me as a huge disappointment.
David: (laughs) All that big silky fruit and high alcohol?
Courtney: Had anyone decanted them then maybe, but at the time I thought: "If this is what wine is, I don’t like it." It was a bummer. It was a big bummer moment in my life. Cut to three or four years later, I’m in Europe on tour, I’m pretty hungover, but I’ve gotta go get a drink and something to eat somewhere. So I wander into a bar that’s open and empty and old and wooden, just right, and I’m thinking, “God, I’m in France. I should get a glass of wine.” The guy there pours me something from a bottle that’s open and half empty and it kind of blows my mind. This is what I had always imagined wine should taste like. What the hell is this? The guy looked at me like I was the dumbest, idiot Yankee ever and said, “Izz Bordeaux.” And then I realize, “Oh fuck, I’m in Bordeaux. We’re playing in Bordeaux tonight. Oh, Bordeaux is the city and the wine is named after this place. Doh!”
David: We’ve all had that moment, I think.
Courtney: Good. Well we were grinding it out back then, doing a lot of touring for months and months at a time. I kept trying more wine, but I couldn’t get that same wonderful moment to happen for me again. Then flash forward five years later, we start to have a lotta hits—like ten hits around the world that are on someone’s charts somewhere at the same time. I start to build a studio because now I have the money and, as you assume in my business, it’s not going to last. So you do something to secure your future. I bought a quarter of a city block and I built and designed the ultimate boys club on earth called the Odditorium.
David: This is in Portland, right?
Courtney: Yes, and every room is radically different in design, lighting, shape, and sound—it’s the most perfect studio that I can imagine. Except for maybe right on the beach in Jamaica, or something. I started having big parties there and the first one I had was when Jet, the Vines, and the Strokes were all in Portland on the same night.
Courtney: So I said bring your crews. We’re having dinner. The Strokes needed a place to practice during the day, so they rented the big room out. I told them that for the price of the rental they had just paid for dinner, too. "I’m gonna have my lighting guy’s girlfriend who runs a restaurant cater the whole thing, I’ll get the wine," I told them. So I went and got cases of mixed wine, a place called Great Wine Buys in Portland—they’re amazing dudes—and the guy John there told me, “If you really like any of these then write the name down on your wrist. Get a Sharpie, hook it into your collar like you do when you sign autographs, and write it on your wrist because you think you’ll remember, but you won’t. Cuz you're drunk.”
David: That’s what smart phones are mostly used for today, I think.
Courtney: I remember there was a 2001 Gigondas and a Chateauneuf de Pape. They were great, like twenty five bucks and good, so I ended up buying a bunch of cases of those. Then the next time I had a big party it was when some of Andy Warhol’s old gang were in town with Duran Duran and Gus Van Sant. So I said let’s do two cases of wine this time based off of what I liked previously.
David: So you’re getting into all this amazing French wine, but how are your guests reacting? Are they enjoying it as much as you?
Courtney: Well, with the Strokes—I think all those guys met at like private school in Geneva or something, so I assume they grew up on nice wine. I think it was Nick Valensi, their guitar player, during the fog of tons of wine and food, who said: “Hey Courtney, this wine is amazing,” and he points to the 2001 Gigondas. So I wrote that one on my wrist. And, yeah, people are noticing. With Nick Rhodes and Duran Duran, they were traveling with what seemed like twenty grand worth of Bordeaux in a giant flight case. You cant serve crap to those dudes.
David: God, I love Duran Duran. Even more so now. I love that they travel with Bordeaux.
Courtney: Like late 80s/early 90s Bordeaux, too. So when we were making a record with Duran Duran, every night when we would have dinner Nick Rhodes would bring a bottle of Bordeaux. It was murder for me to sit there and wait for it to open up. He would say, “Don’t touch it! Don’t touch it!” And we couldn’t help ourselves, so we would taste it and not think it tasted all that great. But by the last sip at the end of the bottle each night, we’d be kicking ourselves saying, “Why didn’t we wait!” As the level of each artist progressed, as the age of the guests got older, I had to keep raising the bar a bit with the level of the wine. The next party we had was with David Bowie and his band.
David: Don’t tell me you got to drink wine with David Bowie?
Courtney: David wasn't drinking at that point. It wasn’t like I was sitting around with Bowie alone, drinking 98 Margaux or something, swooning along with Dave or anything (laughs). But we were friendly with him and we were working with him in the studio. I guess that’s how he stayed current, you know? It was Grandaddy before us, then the Arcade Fire after us. Anyway, as we got higher and higher in the price or the wines, my knowledge was starting to actually grow. Once you escape the limits of cheap wine—wines where the flavor is just rather thin or simple—you can start to focus on what you really like and try to define your palate. What is my style? What really sends me?
David: So where did you go from there?
Courtney: I ended up going back to the shop and John said to me: “Look, normally I’d never tell you to buy a $100 dollar bottle of wine, but you need to take this”—and to this day neither of us can remember what the wine was—“and go to the Brasserie Montmartre”—which was a great restaurant that just closed recently—“order a glass of Champagne for each of you, have them decant this bottle, don’t touch it for forty-five minutes, swirl it, and then when the main course comes out, take a sip.” So my wife and I went down there, we ordered frog legs, escargot, we drank Champagne. I think we had some sort of lamb dish, and then we tasted the Bordeaux. Dear God. That moment changed my life forever.
David: That was an amazing build up! It’s a testament to the transformative power of Bordeaux. It’s not all that different than what happened to me working at K&L, minus all the parties with famous rock stars.
Courtney: As you can see from my list of purchases from K&L, it’s probably around forty cases of Bordeaux at this point. Obviously, I have a really narrow pallet, I’m a super fucking snob, and I’m a bargain hunter on top of that.
David: (laughs) You might as well start working here with us! Great wine always tastes better when you know you got it for twenty bucks.
Courtney: Exactly. With my 1995 Moutons, if I tasted one of those and then had it next to my 1996 Léoville-Poyferré—which I think I paid about $60 for—I’m not sure I would have bought them originally. I don’t care at this point. I do not always prefer the $350 bottle of wine. Sure, there are fewer bumps and angular corners than say in a wine like Lanessan. But Lanessan is exactly that same thing: it’s a wine that I love and that I’d rather spend for instead of the more expensive Bordeaux. I think my favorite wine in my cellar right now is my 2000 Figeac.
David: We had that wine at a big staff dinner not that long ago. It was one of the stars of the show.
Courtney: Cool. That wine kills everything else I have. I love that St. Emilion funk. It’s gorgeous. It’s what old wine is supposed to be, in my mind.
David: I think that’s how you know where you’re at as a wine lover, when you’ve moved beyond the standard low end, but you’ve also tasted the high end and can come to some sort of middle ground. When people name drop the first growths…
Courtney: Like that’s the best wine? That’s just their taste! (laughs)
David: Like, “Oh, I just happen to think first growths taste better.” I’m not interested in listening to that. I have to just walk away sometimes. But simultaneously I have a problem when people rip expensive wines simply because they’re expensive, when it’s clear they don’t really know what they’re talking about. You’ve got both sides, you know? When folks are equally “too cool” to drink expensive stuff, just like the snobs can often be concerning the cheap stuff.
Courtney: I walked into this sort of hipster-French restaurant in Portland not that long ago, I was with the wine buyer for the Getty family and it was late, we were pretty lit up—we walked in hot—so we went right for the wine and thought maybe we’ll eat later. I asked, “Do you guys have any Bordeaux?” and the guy says, “The sommelier hates Bordeaux. We don’t have any.” I can feel my friend’s heel kick me on the side of my ankle, you know, with the little smirk on the side of his face, and we both kind of said, “Oh, right on, right on.” (laughs). I’m thinking, “How are we going to get out of here without drinking Languedoc syrup?”
David: Don’t you find it funny though that all the fashionable trends you must have seen over your career in the music business have a mirror image in the wine world?
Courtney: Oh absolutely. Wine is totally trendy. There isn’t a hot new restaurant in Portland now that doesn’t have eight Bordeaux selections on its wine menu. It used to be only Oregon and Napa. That was it. I was fucked! I always had to bring my own wine. But now I think half of the restaurants are French-themed because that’s what’s cool, so you can get Bordeaux by the glass. Just like you can in heaven.
David: Who’s someone who likes Bordeaux that maybe you’ve shared a bottle with who maybe we wouldn’t expect? Someone who was….
Courtney: …an expensive wino? Let’s see…..no one (laughs). Not one single person. I seek out other Bordeaux heads, but I rarely find them.
David: Who’s someone you wish you could drink Bordeaux with?
Courtney: Anyone who’s a great conversationalist. You know who’s someone I would have loved to have a great wine and food experience with, just getting sloppy and shitty and opinionated with before he quit drinking, is Patton Oswalt. Dude…that would have been awesome.
David: He has one of those moments on Reno 911 as a guest star. They end up singing “Caribbean Queen” on the airplane. It’s one of my favorite scenes ever.
Courtney: I did have a dream night like this, but it was with Greek white wine. It was one of those situations where we just kept ordering more bottles and more bottles. "Just one more bottle," we'd say, but now the sun’s coming up in the courtyard of the hotel and you’re still sitting outside talking. It was with Robert Smith.
David: No way. My wife would have DIED.
Courtney: It was in Greece. As far as name-dropping goes and all that, he is the only man who has ever given me the kind of advice and wisdom that you dream of as a young musician who’s going to eventually meet older musicians. He was really forthcoming with his knowledge and his experiences, unabashedly laying his opinions on me with a you-can-take-it-or-leave-it kind of attitude. He was great. Robert Smith really helped me manage my head as we were starting to get successful. He didn’t tell me what to do or anything, but he told me: “I found this helpful and I didn’t find this helpful.” He’s the guy who told me it isn’t helpful to just keep getting bigger. It does not make your life happier. Dude was right.