Just north of San Francisco, past the yuppie chicness of Marin and before the foggy mystique of the redwoods, nestled into a sunny little valley about 20 minutes from the coast lies the town of Sebastopol. One of the area’s best kept secrets, its small town feel hasn’t yet been glossed over by encroaching homogenization like so many other California hamlets. Just off the main street, which is lined on both sides with mom-and-pop shops, parked in the middle of an old wood building, is the train caboose that serves as Claypool Cellars’s tasting room and base of operations.
Wait, you ask, Claypool Cellars? As in Les Claypool? Slap-happy Primus ringleader, member of tripped-out trio Oysterhead, man behind solo albums such as Of Fungi and Foe and Of Whales and Woe? Yep, one and the same.
Not that Claypool hasn’t had many a non-musical side project, including writing novels (South of the Pumphouse) and directing films (jam band mockumentary Electric Apricot). Why wouldn’t the legendarily eccentric musician start a winery?
Claypool harkens his wine obsession back to quitting that other Northern California cash crop, marijuana. “I started to realize that as a big pot smoker, I didn’t want to not remember my kids’ childhood,” he admits, “so I stopped, and started getting into drinking local Pinots.”
Likening it to “living in Hollywood and not being a part of the entertainment industry”, Claypool explained that with all of his neighbors being either coopers or wine makers or vineyard managers, all manner of excellent wine would show up at barbecues. “I just kind of fell into it, and it got to the point where we were drinking quite a bit,” he says with a laugh. “We said, ‘Well, why don’t we start making our own wine?’”
That was seven years ago, and today Claypool Cellars is about to produce 1000 cases, nearly double their volume from last year. They have also hired the legendary Ross Cobb, master of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, and his partner Katy Wilson, owner of the celebrated LaRue wine label, to come on as winemakers. Alongside their signature Purple Pachyderm Pinots, they offer a Rhone-style blend—which is phasing out—and a Rosé under the Pink Platypus moniker.
It’s the Rosé that has Claypool a-twitter today, going so far as to say it’s “the best Rosé I’ve ever had in my entire life—it’s unbelievable. [It’s] so aromatic that it’s hard to even drink it. I just want to sit there and smell it. I don’t like these fruity Rosés. It’s really crispy, perfect for a hot day.” He laughs again and adds, “Now that the sun’s coming out, I want to drink a bottle right now.”
For a NorCal native like Claypool, raised around the opulence of Napa and the big wineries, he admittedly relates it to success, saying, “to me it’s always been a very enchanting thing.”
When he was a boy, his grandmother would take him on vineyard tours, and though he “hated the smell of it… there was just something about it that meant elegance and success, and that’s sort of what put that image in my mind… This is the place to be.”
When Primus’ Pork Soda album took off, he went north, telling the realtor he wanted to go to “wine country”, and he’s been in Sebastopol ever since.
There’s a trend of rock stars courting wine as they gain in fame, with many starting vineyards of their own, including Dave Matthews, Fergie, Mick Fleetwood and even Tool’s Maynard James Keenan. Claypool considers winemaking akin to making a record, noting, “There are all these factors that contribute to the final album, and it’s very similar with wine, all these subtle things you can do, decisions you can make to have it come out bad or good. Most of it is a matter of taste. [For wine], where the fruit is sourced comes into play, but ultimately it’s the little things done in the processing that is where you get the signature of the winemaker”.
While certainly a participant in all aspects of winemaking at his namesake, with Cobb and Wilson now on board, it’s more their signature you will taste in the newer vintages. “I’m the student,” Claypool is quick to point out. “I’m on the fruit; I’m on the sorting tables; I’ve had my days of crunch downs.”
Much of his involvement is based around his touring schedule, which he has insisted this year be open during harvest. He’s missed the past two, though he wryly notes, “Someone’s got to pay for the wine.”
Claypool chuckles, recalling the old saying, “If you want to make a small fortune in the wine industry, all you have to do is start with a large one.”
But with 80% growth in one year, they must be doing something right. And for all of his talk about using the winery as “an excuse to have a bunch of wine and some cool parties”, he’s also not afraid to admit that a large part of his desire to build the business has nothing to do with good times and everything to do with family.
“I have all these people I know that were very successful musicians and were counting on retiring on their residuals, and those things just don’t exist anymore,” he says.
In order for a musician to make it they have to keep touring, he adds. And to stop, they have to have something else to do. “I’m trying to build something for the kids to take over someday because at this point you can’t digitize a bottle of wine and trade it on the Internet.”