As co-founder of I.R.S. Records in 1979, Jay Boberg worked with such label signees as R.E.M., The Cramps, Oingo Boingo, The Go-Go’s, English Beat and The Buzzcocks, among many others. In the 1990s, he became President of MCA Records working with such platinum-selling acts as The Roots, Sublime, Mary J. Blige and Blink-182. Throughout all these years, the California music exec had an equal passion for wine, even owning a Napa Valley vineyard in the early 1990s. This love of viticulture finally culminated in a winemaking project worthy of his passion.
In 2013, Boberg partnered with Burgundian winemaker Jean-Nicolas Méo of Domaine Méo-Camuzet to produce pinot noir in Oregon’s beloved Willamette Valley. The project, named Nicolas-Jay, introduced its debut 2014 vintage a few months ago to critical and commercial success. In particular, Wine Spectator awarded the wine 93 points saying it “brims with cherry, plum, licorice and cashew flavors.” How does a man go from running record labels to launching a high-profile new vineyard? PRØHBTD spoke with Boberg to find out.
How did you and Jean-Nicolas Méo come together for Nicolas-Jay?
People often ask, "How did you manage to land the rock star winemaker?" Well, it wasn't quite like that. He went to college with my sister, so I met him in the late ʼ80s when I visited my sister in Philadelphia. I went over to the house for dinner, and there's a Frenchman there. I was talking about wine, and he said, "Oh, my family has a winery," and I said, "Wow, I know that winery. Your winemaker is Henri Jayer." We struck up a friendship that we maintained for what is now almost 30 years.
For this opportunity, I had an idea for Oregon that came as much from Véronique Drouhin and [Domaine Drouhin vineyard] general manager David Millman, who, in terms of things that tie together, was my publicist at I.R.S. Records. He started doing PR for wineries and chefs and ended up runnings things in Oregon for Véronique Drouhin, and I've known Véronique for many years. David and Véronique were saying, "Why don't you and Jean-Nicolas do something in Oregon?" I approached Jean-Nicolas, and that's the story.
Why are French winemakers like Nicolas coming to Oregon?
One, there's the geography. Oregon has the same positioning from a latitude standpoint as Burgundy, so if you go straight across the latitude, the positioning of Oregon is the same as Burgundy, and they have very similar weather patterns. Secondly, [Willamette Valley] is a region known for pinot noir, and it's cool, for the most part, although the last couple years have not been that cool. That environment is very attractive to the Burgundian style of winemaking. It is true people from Burgundy have been heading over to Oregon, but really there are only five Burgundian vintners who decided to make wine in Oregon thus far: Véronique Drouhin, Dominique Lafon, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, Jacques Lardière and Jean-Nicolas.
What is the relationship between pinot noirs and Burgundy?
France is different than America. The grape is limited by region, so for instance, if you're in the appellation of Bourgogne, you can only grow chardonnay and pinot noir. If you said, "I've got this vineyard in Burgundy, and I'm going to rip out the pinot noir and plant cabernet," they would say, "No, you're not." The agriculture department is like zoning, if you will. If you're in the Loire Valley, you can only grow Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc as a white grape and cabernet franc as a red grape. You can't grow pinot noir, and so on and so forth. In France, the region is what dictates the grape, where in Napa Valley you can grow whatever you want. Same thing in Oregon.
Why did you pick Willamette Valley as opposed to something closer like the central coast?
Two reasons: one, climate, all the same reasons why the French like it, and two, accessibility and cost. Oregon's farther from where I live, but purchasing vineyards in California is more cost prohibitive than it is in Oregon. California is also a more mature business in the sense that it's harder to find great land that's not planted, and if you try to buy a vineyard that is planted, it's very expensive, especially in Sonoma and Russian River and Napa. Central Coast is also expensive, though maybe not quite as much. For instance, the vineyard we bought in Oregon, the Bishop Creek Vineyard, was planted in '88, '89, so it's almost 30 years old. We paid probably 20 percent of what we would have paid in California.
How and when did you get passionate about wine?
My roommate when I was at UCLA did some work for a local wine distributor, and he turned me on to wine. Usually the transition from beer and Jack Daniels to wine is a little later—mid-20s or even late 20s—but I made it earlier because I got exposed to it and really enjoyed it. I became passionate about the process and befriended a lot of winemakers. I actually owned a vineyard up in Napa in the late '80s and early '90s, sold most of those grapes and made a little bit of cabernet sauvignon. A friend of mine up there at Chateau Montelena taught me how to do it. My wife of 24 years, now ex-wife, used to say, “As much as Jay's a total music head, he has more magazines on wine in the house than he does music.” It's a very strong passion.
There are casual wine drinkers who don't understand how some people can be so obsessed. What is it about wine that inspires you?
Wine is, in many ways, similar from a creative standpoint to music or art. Wine is truly the expression of both a place, in terms of the soil and the plant, and how you grow and treat your plants and grapes. How you make the wine is the expression of a multitude of decisions. It's a perspective. That's why you have a lot of difference between different winemakers and wines and places. I'm very attracted to those differences and understanding what goes into it, much like I am with music or art or the creation of food.
To quote the Notorious B.I.G., "Don't get high on your own supply." How does that work out owning a vineyard?
I think it does work out. I have a bunch of wine, as it is, from being a wine geek for all these years, but I would take that lyric and apply it to not believing your own bullshit. Yes, we think the wine's great, and we really believe it's something special, but much like when I was promoting bands I thought were special, you have to read the marketplace and the reaction of your consumers. Unfortunately, plenty of bands I thought were the next coming, so to speak, the marketplace didn't necessarily agree. I think it's important that we're humble and constantly trying to improve and take the feedback from our customer base.
With all the music artists you worked with, was there anyone in particular who really shared your passion for wine?
Yes. For example, the manager of R.E.M. and a couple of the guys in the band are interested in wine.
I would've thought Danny Elfman, no?
Danny Elfman might be very much into wine, but he was not into wine in 1980 when I signed [Oingo Boingo]. I think he could be very much into wine now.
You were a major part of the music scene in the '80s when it seemed a lot of the new wave bands, like The Go-Go's on your label, had their roots in punk rock. How did that transition happen from punk rock to new wave?
These definitions are always somewhat dubious to me. If you're saying some bands started with imaging that was maybe tougher and more rough around the edges, they evolved artistically and smoothed over some of those edges. The Go-Go's in particular, as they became more successful, had opportunities to appeal to a wider and wider audience. To some degree, you could argue The Go-Go’s became less punk and more new wave from the first single to the album, to the second album and then to the third album. I think that's natural.
Still, that wasn't always the case. The Cramps were definitely punk and edgy at the beginning, and they were definitely punk and edgy at the end. Dead Kennedys, the same thing. There was no softening of the edges on Dead Kennedys, so it varied from band to band. With R.E.M., clearly the first EP and the first album were a little less polished. As the albums progressed, they became more polished and broader and deeper, but it was just an evolution artistically. Musically, they stayed pretty constant and consistent.
What happens to bands mentally when they score a huge hit off the bat and then have trouble duplicating it?
A sophomore record is always extremely difficult for an artist because they spent their whole life with no pressure creating that first album that got them attention, and now they're on the road doing press, shows, the TV stuff, and they have to create the next chapter. It's a very challenging situation, and that’s where we tried to help. I wanted to be the guy working with a band who knew I would tell them the truth. They wouldn't necessarily agree with me, and there were times when they didn't want to hear the truth, but I would say, “I don't think you have a song with the kind of commerciality you had on the last record," or "I think this record's not as good."
Even when they would get really pissed off with me, I would try to tell them because you've got to have somebody in your camp that's willing to say you've got an issue. Otherwise, it's a business in which people blow a lot of smoke. Everyone tells them they're great and brilliant because they want to be close to them. No one wants to say to Beyoncé, "That song really isn't up to your standards." I tried to develop the kind of credibility and mutual respect with the artist that they would actually listen. I would always say this is just one man's opinion and I could be wrong, but if I didn't speak up and the record doesn’t do well, you're going to look at me and say, "Why didn't you say something?"
When I was a teen, I often heard adults complain about how music was better in the 1960s and 1970s. It annoyed me, but now I find myself doing the same thing comparing today’s music to bands in the 1990s. Does music need another revolution, or are we just getting old?
As much or more music is being created today as there ever has been, but the problem is that it's hard to find. I don't mean it's hard to find on Spotify or TuneCore or whatever - I mean there's so much of it. You don't have the filters that help you separate the chalk from the cheese. We used to have a more robust press and radio, and the channels were both narrower. I know that was seen as a bad thing because it made it harder to get your music into that channel, but it helped the cream rise to the top. Now there are fewer systems. I guess you could argue that there are particular people with playlists on Spotify who do that, or you get turned on to certain DJs or curators. They provide that filter because they've gone through the 76 million songs created every two months and pulled out 200, but I think it's tougher to discover new music today. It takes more time.
And we’re getting old.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.