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The Beatles, Napa Valley and wine


This Sunday, Feb. 9, marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.


I watched it, live, with a bunch of my friends. If you’re not old enough to remember the impact of The Beatles, you can’t possibly imagine what it was like. I don’t think there was an entertainment phenomenon like it before, and certainly there hasn’t been one like it since.

The entire country, it seemed, was in thrall to the Moptops (as they were lovingly dubbed, for their bowl-shaped hairdos). I don’t think we understood, at the time, exactly why The Beatles were so exciting. All we knew was that something amazing had happened in our lives, in the life of the country and of the world, for that matter, and that we were privileged to be a part of it.

That pregnant moment in U.S. history saw the birth, not just of a new era of rock and roll music that was to become the soundtrack of millions of people’s lives, but of cultural shockwaves that still are unfolding today. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated less than two months previously; his vigor remained with us, but we were still in shock that such a thing as a Presidential murder could occur in America. The Beatles helped nurse us through to recovery. Of course, the Civil Rights movement also was rapidly changing the face of America, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who that same year, 1964, won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In California, an echo of sorts was happening–one that was a West Coast, distinctly American version of the revolution that had arrived from England to New York City. Curiously, it was another English import, expat Peter Newton, who founded Sterling Vineyards that same year, 1964. The conventional historical wisdom is that the modern boutique winery era began with Robert Mondavi’s launch of his winery, in 1966. While that is a romantically appealing notion, it’s not strictly true. (Recall that Joe Heitz started his winery in 1961.)

Ironically, 1964 also was the year that one of a handful of truly historic boutique wineries, Ingelnook, was sold, to Heublein, which ran the winery into the ground, causing it to lose the luster it had acquired since its glory days under Gustave Niebaum and, later, John Daniel, Jr. One way to look at this yin-yang inversion (Sterling being born, Inglenook dying) is to see California at that moment in wine history as in a state of ferment (no pun intended). As in all revolutions, things came into being, and other things began their inevitable process of disintegration. In retrospect, we can appreciate that The Beatles helped demolish Doo Wop music, and also contributed to the demise of Elvis Presley (with all due regard to his legions of fans), or, if not the actual Elvis, at least his old-fashioned style of music. The Beatles bore much in common, in fact, with boutique wines: They were artisanal, honest, natural, fresh, innovative and above all interesting. Their music showed a complexity (there’s no other word) that Doo Wop, for all its teenaged pleasures, never did. Sterling’s first Merlots (the first to be varietally labeled in the U.S.) lifted the average Napa Valley red wine to unprecedented heights, in much the same way The Beatles elevated the quality of pop music.

One more comparison seems apt. The Beatles left us with a legacy of some of the most wonderful, unforgettable rock and roll songs in history. In much the same way, even as their careers unfolded throughout the 1960s, so too did winery after winery come into being in Napa Valley during that period and into the 1970s: great names like Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, Cuvaison, Clos du Val and Mondavi. Those names, to me, carry all the artistic lyricism of great Beatles songs: I Want to Hold Your Hand, I Saw Her Standing There, All My Loving. It is the winery as art, as dynamic human creativity. Robert Lewis Stevenson said, on those signs that frame the northern and southern ends of Napa Valley, that wine is bottled poetry. Perhaps it can also be said that wine is bottled music.

Have a lovely weekend!

  1. Thanks for the trip down memory lane! – before the Ed Sullivan show, my brother and I saw a clip of the Beatles playing at the Cavern Club on the Jack Parr Show – then we waited for the breakout of their first US single [I want to hold your hand] – staying up late – listening on our shared transistor radio. The world changed for all of us that year. It was a great healing from the year before.

  2. Wow, what a head-snapping post today. Who else in this world could find a parallel between the Beatles and Sterling Vineyards, and make it stick? Just one tiny correction: Re: JFK, it’s not “his vigor remained with us” but rather his vig-ah!

  3. Watched this (on Netflix) and felt old.

  4. Great post Mr Steve, Wine is bottled music. I was lucky to have seen the show and later to see them live in 64 with the opening act of The Everly Brothers, and the Roy Orbison band. Feeling older and happier each day!

  5. Yes ..great post and great analogy. I too was lucky to see them live in early Aug. ’64 at Atlantic City Convention Hall—where the Righteous Bros. opened for them. Once they came onstage the sound of 20,000 screaming teenagers was beyond deafening. And Steve—you know they did borrow and build on the music of the 50’s—-Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, the Isley Bros. etc.

  6. Those were exciting times. Not too much later I saw Jimi Hendrix at the Kings Beach Bowl in Lake Tahoe and then a Can AM race at Laguna Seca. All of these still excite me today and I remember them like they were yesterday. Thanks Steve

  7. I’ve always felt the English invasion signaled the demise of the beach music gender.

  8. I was 12 years old when the Beatles performed on the Ed Sullivan Show. It seems that the entire country was glued to our televisions. The impact was enormous and Beatle-Mania swept the nation. What a time!

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