The Blacksmith Barebones Cinsault and R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi Fi
I was introduced to R.E.M. pretty late in the game relative to their first EP that came out in 1982. My first cassette tape was “Monster” which was the album that was released when I was nine years old in 1994. I was immediately in love and obsessed. I devoured each and every song. My favorite was “Crush With Eyeliner”. It rocked my little nine year-old world. It didn’t even fully resonate with me that we shared the same hometown, Athens, Georgia, until later on. I was just blown away by the music and I have continued to be ever since, still today, over seven years after my favorite band called it quits.
So I entered the world of R.E.M. after their mega hits “Out of Time” and “Automatic for the People” - two completely glorious records - and way after their early college rock mumbly Southern Gothic era that marked when certain fans stopped listening to R.E.M., something I can’t help but roll my eyes at when I hear. Those records are amazing and some of their best, but if they’re all you’ve heard by this band, you’re missing out.
After exhausting “Monster”, I had a pretty substantial catalogue to explore which was thrilling, so I started working my way back chronologically through their records. Before I could get too far, their next album “New Adventures in Hi Fi” came out. “New Adventures” is a treasure, but flies under the radar to anyone who isn’t a fanatic. It’s an on-the-road album, written during the “Monster” tour where songs from it were performed to the first audiences who would hear them. It also was drummer Bill Berry’s farewell album before he retired from the band, and was an extremely high note for him to leave on. But because of a questionable lead single and the shadow cast by three massive commercial hits before it, “New Adventures” can be criminally overlooked.
Like “New Adventures”, Cinsault as a single varietal wine is also something of an underdog. Cinsault is primarily used as a blending grape in reds and rosé from the South of France, but it is a killer if allowed to shine as a solo act. The wine I’m pairing with “New Adventures” beautifully proves it - The Blacksmith Barebones Cinsault from the Western Cape in South Africa.
Tremayne Smith is the Blacksmith winemaker who earned his chops at the acclaimed Mullineaux Family Winery in South Africa. He sources grapes from remote areas of Coastal South Africa, which seems fitting for the new frontier feel of “New Adventures in Hi Fi”. He’s also committed to making natural, restrained wines even in the region’s warm climate which traditionally results in big, high-alcohol wines.
The Blacksmith wines are imported by Pascal Schildt, a company that focuses on independent and family-owned wineries that are dedicated to organic, sustainable and biodynamic practices. I had the pleasure of meeting Pascal at a 3 Parks Wine Shop tasting in Atlanta, and he was a passionate, kind, down to earth, good-natured dude. Though I haven’t really met* the members of R.E.M., I can’t imagine they’re anything but thoughtful and considerate Southern gentlemen who are social and environmental activists. It’s nice to know the people behind the art you love share passion and values.
The Barebones puts the bright and charming Cinsault grape on display. The color is light, transparent ruby that looks like a beautiful jewel. On the nose, there’s fresh red cherry with some earthy, stemmy notes, a touch of barnyard funk and literally dead leaves and the dirty ground. It’s light but still structured on the palate. It’s dry with lots of fresh red berry fruit and prominent acidity. This is a fun and quirky red wine you’ll want to chill before having on the porch in the summer or with friends and a cheese plate while dinner’s being prepared.
“How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us” opens “New Adventures” and like the Barebones Cinsault, it’s inviting, featuring bright piano and Michael Stipe’s signature sexy gravelly voice. The chorus is expansive and the lyrics suggest going through some tough times before conquering new territory, which may be a nod to the injuries sustained on the “Monster” tour that landed three members in the hospital, most severely Bill Berry who suffered a brain aneurysm during a concert in Switzerland.
“Wake Up Bomb” does just that - a great rock song making a Kramer-like entrance. Peter Buck’s riffs drive the song and Stipe embraces and mocks the rock frontman persona here with snarling vocals that channel T. Rex and Iggy Pop: “Get drunk and sing along to Queen/ Practice my T-Rex moves and make the scene/ Carry my dead, bored, been there, done that, anything.”
“Undertow” is another great song where all the elements - vocals, bass, drums and guitar - shine and are in harmony, like this wine where the weird secondary notes are as distinctive as the fruit.
The fifth track, “E-Bow the Letter”, is the album’s lead single, and a bold and curious choice at that. The legendary Patti Smith contributes vocals on the song and there’s stream of conscious style lyrics which lean toward sad and warning of the dangers of the rich and famous lifestyle. Because to me, R.E.M. can do no wrong, I think it’s a beautiful, compelling song, but it’s admittedly not the most accessible, at least for a first single. It may have been part of the reason this album wasn’t as successful as its predecessors, but it was a risky move that the band made according to their creative license and artistic integrity. That’s a respectable quality that I think Tremayne Smith shares in making a single varietal wine from the humble Cinsault in a wine region not first associated with the grape.
The second half of the album is full of treats. I love “Leave” so much - it’s moody and epic with a melody and Peter Buck’s enveloping guitar that take over. “Departure” is a great, energetic, straightforward rock song with Mike Mills’ wonderful signature back-up vocals. It reflects the fun, rock and roll aesthetic of the wine seen with the skull and crossbones label and the cork emblemed with a skeleton hand throwing up the rock sign. So metal.
As a somewhat hopeless romantic, I love “Be Mine” and it’s definitely shown up on one or several mixes I’ve made. It’s a pretty literal love song, but I love it. I mean, c’mon with these lyrics:
That if you make me your religion
I'll give you all the room you need
I'll be the drawing of your breath
I'll be the cup if you should bleed
I'll be the sky above the Ganges
I'll be the vast and stormy sea
I'll be the lights that guide you inward
I'll be the visions you will see
The visions you will see
You will see
The closing song, “Electrolite” is a stone-cold classic. It’s beautiful and poppy and dreamy - almost out of place compared to some of the somber-sounding and straight-up rockness of the rest of the album. I think that’s a testament to the complexity of the album which is on the same level as this bottle of Barebones. Like the wine that’s friendly and approachable, it’s a lovely way to wrap up this fantastic record, especially the final lyrics: “I’m not scared. I’m out of here”.
* I met Mike Mills briefly as a clumsy and flustered 17 year old fan girl when I saw him at a show at the 40 Watt and have awkwardly made eyes at Michael Stipe at the Go! Bar and other drinking establishments in Athens.