John Conway, 33, has come a long way as a wine lover since his high school days, when he’d unwittingly steal the choice bottles from his father’s collection to drink with his schoolmates. As a founding member and keyboardist for the popular rock band the Bravery, the Santa Barbara native now lives in New York when not touring with the band. A few years ago, his family purchased the Rancho Arroyo Grande winery in San Luis Obispo County—now operated as Conway Family Wines—and he has been spending as much time as possible there, enjoying his family’s Rhône-style wines, participating in harvests and building a music studio on the winery property called Rockus Bacchus, whose walls are made from bottle corks and recycled wine barrel parts. Conway spoke with freelance writer Matt Kettmann while at work in the studio.
Wine Spectator: When did you first get interested in wine?
John Conway: We always had wine around at dinner growing up because my dad was always a wine lover. When I was in college [Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.], my physics professor, Morton Tavel, was a huge wine enthusiast. He was such a great physics teacher that I wanted to take his wine-tasting course. That opened me up to a much bigger world of wine. That’s how I got into Zinfandel.
WS: So you’re a Zinfandel fan?
JC: It’s definitely one of my favorite wines. In the early ’90s, there were a couple of Ravenswood Zinfandels that I really dug. That got me into shopping for wine, so I would focus on a varietal and figure out the differences. That started my education.
WS: Do you tend to focus on California wines?
JC: When I’m homesick, I’ll go out and see who’s carrying something from Santa Barbara. I also like to experiment with wines from everywhere, but in a lot of cases, I prefer California wines, state pride aside.
WS: How do you find the wine culture in New York?
JC: There’s every kind of culture in New York, that’s the greatest thing about it. You can get really specific in ways you can’t get anywhere else. If you want to drink Spanish wines, you have a list of bars you can go to. In New York, I drink a lot of Italian wine at ’Inoteca, which is about a block and a half walk from my apartment.
WS: Have you had the chance to help your family with a harvest?
JC: Yes, I learned that I was a pretty good sorter. Fortunately, we have experts who make the wine, but as a family, we try to be involved with every aspect as much as we can. My siblings are here all the time, and they taught me how to sort the grapes. I hope to have an increasing role in the business. This isn’t a project anyone is doing for a couple years. It’s a lifelong thing and a family thing. As long as we can all get along, we’ll be together for a while.
WS: Do you collect wine?
JC: I seem to collect it and go through it pretty fast. While on tour, we collect wine for about a day and a half. That’s as long as it lasts.
WS: Is wine a big part of the Bravery’s tour culture?
JC: Absolutely. On our rider, we request a couple bottles of wine at each venue. Our guitarist Michael [Zakarin] and I are the most interested in wine, but everybody likes to drink it. I try to get my family’s wine as much as possible, but unfortunately we don’t get to do the shopping ourselves, so we make a general list. Sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised, and sometimes we have to dump it down the sink. But I do always ask for California wine.
WS: In your experience, is wine drinking becoming more a part of the rock music world?
JC: It seems to be growing. More and more, I find people who go out and want to have a nice glass of wine. I think that’s reflective of young people in general. A lot of it has to do with an escalated interest in food, a gourmet niche that’s trickled down from coffee to food to wine. Young people are realizing that they don’t need to be intimidated by wine, that it’s just a good time.
WS: Do you see parallels between winemaking and music-making?
JC: Winemaking is full of musical metaphors. What I’m waiting for is the band that describes their music as a winemaking process.