Sammy Hagar, 59, began his music career in 1973 with the band Montrose, and was a successful soloist from 1975 to 1985. In the decade that followed, Hagar held the job for which he's perhaps best known, lead singer of the iconic rock band Van Halen. Hagar left Van Halen in 1996, but has rejoined them on occasion, as well as started a number of other projects, musical and nonmusical alike. Along with a club and restaurant in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Hagar owns the Cabo Wabo brand of premium tequilas, including the soon-to-be-released Cabo Uno tequila blanco, aged in barrel for three and a half years. But through all his ventures, Hagar's passion since his days in Montrose has been wine. From his first sip in 1975, he has always been interested in trying new regions and producers, and more than 30 years later remains as enthralled about the rare, high-end bottles in his collection as he is about the New World wines that are big on flavor and easier on the wallet. And, of course, tequila.
Wine Spectator: How did you first get interested in wine?
Sammy Hagar: In about 1975 I went to England to do a record, and there was an old English gentleman who was married to my first child's schoolteacher, and she'd moved back to England. They invited us over for dinner. He had a little cellar, and he pulled out a 1927 Martinez Port, a 1960s Yquem and a 1950s Latour. I had never had wine before. I went to the moon and back. When you're introduced on that level … it changed my life.
WS: So after that introduction to wine did you come crashing back down to earth?
SH: You bet I did! I came back from England and started building a cellar, and I still have some of the wines from that time. My first misconception was that the older the wine, the better it's going to be. I was under the impression that I had to age all these wines forever. That was because of that Port. I started putting everything away, and then I started figuring out later in life that not everything ages that well. Like when I first got into Beaujolais, I bought some and laid them down, and they were awesome until about three years later!
The first wines that I found I liked were Rieslings because they were sweet and fruity, because that Port had just knocked me out. I was in search of that forever. It really kept my quest going to be experimental rather than to just find a wine I liked and stick with it. Every time I bought a new bottle, I always tried something I'd never heard of. For a long time, I wasn't interested in something I'd already had.
I saved my money--I wasn't rich back then--and I got hip to prearrival Bordeauxs, because they were about nine bucks back then. I've always tried to buy a case and put one bottle away. I have an area of my cellar that's one bottle from each case I've ever bought, unless I found as I drank the case that the bottles didn't hold up. A lot of the '73 Bordeauxs didn't hold up too well. I think I have a 1973 Mouton left because of the Picasso label. But back then I was buying some of the fourth or fifth growths, and they weren't holding up.
WS: How many bottles are in your collection?
SH: I have probably close to 10,000 or more bottles. For the last 10 years I've been collecting Vega Sicilia, especially since a while back you just couldn't find them. So I'm expanding into areas of Spain and Italy. I hate to say this, but I haven't come back around to Bordeauxs in a while now. I've got 'em all: '61s, '45s and '49s. I've got 1947 Cheval-Blanc magnums--I have a lot of '47 Bordeauxs in magnums since it's my birth year. All my wine buddies keep saying, "You just wait, they're the greatest wines ever made." But you give me a good Barolo or a '75 Vega, I'm goin' with that.
WS: What wines are you enjoying most these days?
SH: For the past five years, I've been going through a Sauvignon Blanc phase rather than Chardonnays. They're better with food and more fun. I always like Cloudy Bay--Sauvignon Blancs out of New Zealand are the best on the planet. I love the strawberries and the kiwi fruit that come out of New Zealand, and you taste that in those Sauvignon Blancs. [The aromas] just come flyin' out at you. They're really consistent--every year they're great, and then there's some years they're just phenomenal.
WS: Have you visited many of the world's famous wine regions?
SH: I've never visited any wineries in Europe. When I'm on tour, I'm on tour. And when I'm finished I'm going to an island rather than to wine country. I'm a coast guy. But here in California I've been to pretty much all of them. I used to love going up there because I knew the people, and I knew the Bundschu family. Dick Arrowood became a good friend. [And] I used to go up to Caymus when Chuck Wagner Sr. was selling wine out of his kitchen. But lately if I go up there, I just go to one of the restaurants and just eat and drink … and take a limo home!
WS: Do you work with other musicians who share your appreciation of wine, or are you the guru and they just trust whatever you pour in their glass?
SH: I'm kind of the guru, but in the old days I met Al Stewart, the guy who sang that song "Year of the Cat." I was with the original bass player from the band Boston, Fran Sheehan, who has a palate and a collection that will blow your mind. He was buying '45 Bordeauxs, like four or five of them at a time, and we'd do blind tastings. So one time we were at a restaurant in Boston, probably in 1979, and Al Stewart walked in while we were doing a blind tasting of six Bordeauxs, in decanters. He asked, "What're you drinking?" and we said, "We don't know, it's all blind." He said, "Mind if I take a sniff?" So he takes a glass, sniffs the first one and says, "That's '66 d'Estournel." The next one, "That's '76 Mouton." He nailed every single one of them just with the smell! I've never met a guy in my life who could do that. He's the man!
WS: Which is harder, making a great-tasting tequila or a great-tasting wine?
SH: It's much harder to make good wine! Tequila you just have to pick it when it's ripe. The agaves are hand-selected and you make sure they're completely ripe. No scrawny ones, since they'll be bitter and won't have the richness. You get a big, fat ripe agave and trim it up really well, because any junk hanging off it would add to the bitterness. Put each one in the ovens and go to the other side, and open that oven up and take them out one at a time, and check them. If they had a rotten part in them, you throw them out. You then crush them, add water and ferment them. If you do all that, anyone can make tequila.
WS: So are there parallels between making wine and tequila?
SH: Well, what I like about tequila is it's really earthy. You have to put something great in there to begin with. That plant has been in the ground for 10 years. They don't water them--it's all natural. If it rains, it swells up a little bit, and if it doesn't, it stays scrawny and gets packed full of flavor. When you taste tequila you get an earthiness that you can't even get from a good Armagnac. It's part of what comes out of that ground. It's already in the flavors when you make blanco tequila. No one on the planet can do with vodka what Al Stewart did [with the Bordeauxs], but tequila, you can tell Cabo Wabo from Don Julio or Patrón. … it's got character like [wine]. The mountain regions have a little more of a fruity vibe than the lower regions, which have more of an herbaceous, scrawny, wild taste. Almost like the difference between game and a cow.
WS: So have you ever thought about making your own wine?
SH: No, there are guys who've been making this shit for thousands of years, and I'll let them do it. There's no way I'm gonna make better wine than Vega or La Tâche or Richebourg. Actually, I'm a La Tâche guy. … I wouldn't bother making something that would be inferior. But for some reason, our people are making the best tequila. It's my palate that's saying, "That's ready to come out of the barrel," or "That blanco is perfect, don't put that in a barrel."
WS: So you make all the taste decisions on the tequila?
SH: Ninety percent of it I do. Every time we do a new batch, they send me a little container, and I taste it and smell it. The new Cabo Uno I tasted probably every six months. I tried to get them to take it out [of the barrel] after about a year and a half, that's how good it was. At 38 months, everyone agreed this is the one. I was calling it the Golden Eagle when it was in the barrels, but at the time we were taking it out of the barrels we kept saying, "This is the one, this is the one!" So it became Cabo Uno.
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