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A Riff on Riesling

Like the orchestral jazz she composes, Maria Schneider's namesake wine hits all the right notes

Conjure, if you will, the most unlikely improvisation on the classic human pleasure triad of wine, women and song: a crisp Teutonic vintage, a free- spirited daughter of the American Midwest--and her sprawling orchestral jazz. The wine, Reichsrat von Buhl's Riesling Kabinett (a Maria Schneider Selection), tastes a bit like a flowering peach orchard on a late, sunny afternoon--with a few storm clouds to the west. The woman it's named for is a little more complex. Like her music, jazz composer Maria Schneider is full of witty juxtapositions: she has the face of a Willa Cather heroine and the sangfroid of a cliff diver.

On a warm Manhattan afternoon, Schneider stands tall, smiling and improbably cool in white cotton shirt and linen pants. Her long hair is the color of straw rinsed in rosé. Her Upper West Side apartment is crammed with keyboards, cassette and CD racks and the insistent fax machine necessary to a woman known internationally. In the bedroom is a cache of slim brown wine bottles with labels showing an elegant saxophone blowing bubbles. Below it is the disciplined but spirited cursive: Maria Schneider.

Ask how it is that a 39-year-old woman from the tiny town of Windom, Minnesota, came to have a German wine named in her honor, and you must confront a question that recurs in many aspects of this singular woman's life: what are the odds? For instance, what were the odds that a fabulous red-headed jazz and classical pianist named Evelyn Butler would blow into Windom from Chicago in the mid-Sixties, widowed, rootless but full of élan, and turn five-year-old Maria to a life in music? Who'd guess that after a proper education in music theory and technique, after writing for a big band in college, young Maria would take herself off in 1985 to the jazz cauldron of Manhattan?

How likely was it that her first job in music--photocopying scores--would provide the serendipitous connection that led to a job as assistant to one of her greatest heroes, jazz legend Gil Evans? What betting man would lay even a $2 chip on an unknown female's putting together a full jazz orchestra in 1992 to play her own music? Or that band's winning a regular Monday night gig at a Manhattan club and recording two Grammy-nominated CDs (Evanescence and Coming About)? And even if you concede that jazz is a genre born of inspired improv, who would reckon on a German wine maven's dropping in one night as the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra blew the ennui off another blue Monday?

What are the odds? Schneider laughs--as she does often--at the improbabilities that have afforded her a really great life writing and recording her own music and conducting it with big bands all over the world. She says that she's never had a plan, except to keep all her options open. In jazz, money just can't be your muse. Schneider says that for the Monday night gig at the now-defunct club Visiones she paid herself all of $15, reserving the princely sum of $25 each for her band members, who juggled more lucrative jobs and family life to abet Schneider's aural odysseys. But there were other rewards.

"People would come in who weren't musicians--like this man, Rudi Weist, who's a distributor for German wines," Schneider says. "Whenever he traveled to New York he'd come to hear the band, and he'd always bring me a nice bottle of wine." One week he arrived with Nicole Rebehn of the Reichsrat von Buhl winery. Rebehn sensed in Schneider an appealing addition to her company's select vintages named for musicians. As it happened, Schneider was headed for Frankfurt with her music; Rebehn invited her to visit the vineyard. And there, on October 18, 1997, Schneider picked the Riesling grapes for what became her wine.

Schneider explains, "I went through the vineyards with the winemaker, the one who really tastes everything, decides how they're going to ferment it. You can compare winemaking to music because with both you can go the commercial route--put in flavoring and make it this consistent kind of cheap, commercial thing..."

Like the hit-dependent, harmonically challenged Top 40 music Schneider rails against? Exactly.

"In the wine world, the equivalent would be your infamous sweet German whites, aggressively promoted to an American public that presumably wants its wines as standard and cloying as its air fresheners," Schneider says. "People think German wine is too sweet because of wines like Blue Nun," she adds.

And the vintner's path less traveled? Rieslings that are dry and different. Even if she were blindfolded, Schneider says, she could discern her own: "I know the character of my wine. For me it has a personality. It's a dry wine with an incredible floral aroma. I like it with things that are a little spicy, because the wine has a great acidity that kind of cuts through the food."

The vineyard bottles some Schneider signature wine every year, and she visits whenever she can. Such happy immersions in the process have led her to expand her wine education: "My ability to taste and smell has increased, especially with German wines. I've tasted a lot of different wines now, and I'm starting to really understand what's special about them. They [the best German winemakers] don't do things to change the fruit. They make a really honest wine." Mindful of her own former misconceptions, she says she has become a bit of a Riesling evangelist: "You can get the driest wines in the world in Germany, with all this beautiful fruitiness." Her taste for Rieslings has also led to a fondness for dessert wines, especially Eiswein: "Some of them are almost like a syrup. They're really good."

An avowed sensualist who has always appreciated really good food, the musician says having her own wine has given her a deeper appreciation of the vintner's art: "It seems to me that making a wine is like composing a piece. There's a certain amount that's technique and a certain amount that's taste and innovation. There's a certain amount that's nature, depending on the weather and the year. In music, too, the emotional climate of your life affects what comes out." And, of course, she adds, having her own wine is just plain fun. "When I give it to other musicians, they just look at the label and crack up."

Gerri Hirshey is the author of a history of women in rock-and-roll music to be published by Grove/Atlantic in the fall.

Published March 2000
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