Thursday, October 4, 2018
Over the past five years, one of the music world’s most famous people has been quietly immersing herself and her family into the fabric of the Santa Ynez Valley.
Depending on the season, Alecia Moore can usually be found tending to her vineyard, cutting wooden vines during pruning season, pulling leaves to let in more springtime sun and summer breezes, and tasting the grapes as they ripen. In the mornings, she drops her daughter off at school, hits El Rancho Market or New Frontiers for groceries with her baby boy, and then sometimes rides motorcycles through the oak trees with her husband. And in the evenings, Moore — the Grammy-winning, chart-topping pop star who’s known from Auckland to Amsterdam simply by her stage name, P!nk — makes dinner in her kitchen, or dines out at S.Y. Kitchen, or shoots pool at Santa Ynez Billiards & Café as the owners hold her kids.
This is the new life that Moore has built, away from the spotlight, safe from the peering eyes of paparazzi, woven into a tight-knit community. As she prepares to release the first wines from her Two Wolves estate next month, Moore is naturally conflicted about letting this tranquil, hidden, rather normal side of her life become public. “It’s been my secret for five years,” Moore told me in June, when I spent a couple of hours with her exploring the Two Wolves property and hearing her stories. “I don’t get to have many secrets.”
Moore, who turned 39 on September 8, has lived her entire adult life in front of the world: Upon releasing her first solo album at age 20, she scored two Billboard Hot 100 top-10 hits and launched a career that won’t quit, full of world tours, a half dozen more albums, even the Super Bowl national anthem. “My dream,” she said, “would have been to release the wine anonymously.”
Such a strategy would disconnect this part of her life from the stage and avoid the cynical aspersions cast upon celebrity winemakers. But unveiling a winery anonymously wouldn’t make much sense: As wealthy as she is, wineries still need to pay bills, and she hopes to develop Two Wolves as a profitable concern that her children and even their children can continue. So this coming out leaves P!nk — a symbol of powerful women who don’t give a darn — actually scared of what people will think.
“You see her onstage or sit down with her at dinner, and she’s one of the most confident people you’ll ever meet, not cocky but confident,” said Chad Melville, a longtime winemaker who’s become good friends with Moore while helping her navigate the business. “This is one of those moments in her life where she’s vulnerable, and that’s a healthy feeling. She’s not sure how it’s all gonna go. I think that’s what makes her work hard and makes her be even more dedicated. Failure is not an option. It never has been for her.”
As Moore and I sit down at a table in a small room adjacent to her winery, with an array of empty glasses and three full bottles in front of us, Moore admits that I am the first journalist, really the first person outside of her inner circle, to try the wines. A cabernet franc, a petit verdot, and a cabernet sauvignon from a block that she hand-pruned herself, they are all excellent, showing both depth of fruit and bright acidity, a combination that conscious vintners across the world strive to achieve. Wearing a Michael Jackson Thriller T-shirt; a red-and-black flannel; torn jeans; tall, jangly boots; and a slightly pinkish spray of short blonde hair, she certainly doesn’t look like most vintners I meet. But my bet is that she’ll do fine.
“It’s the only other dream I’ve ever had, other than music and trying to have a happy family,” Moore explained. “I’m very excited, and I’m sort of sad,” she said of the Two Wolves debut. “It feels like I’m ripping the Band-Aid off.”
Dropout to Un-Diva to Domaine Owner
Before she won three Grammy Awards, scored 15 Billboard Hot 100 top-10 hits (including four No. 1s), amassed more than $110 million in earnings from album sales and world tours, or ever donned the name P!nk, Alecia Beth Moore was born in a working-class Pennsylvania town north of Philadelphia on September 8, 1979. Her parents — dad a rugged Vietnam vet insurance salesman of Catholic upbringing, mom a Jewish nurse — fought a lot and divorced when she was young. That led to early rebellion, evidenced stereotypically by dyeing her hair, getting tattoos and piercings, skateboarding, and skipping school.
She dropped out of high school and started frequenting Philadelphia clubs in her early teens. That introduced her to the dark side of nightlife: She was held up at gunpoint, multiple friends died of overdoses, and she too nearly overdosed on drugs at just 15 years old, but then she stopped using altogether. On the bright side, those days also opened her eyes to a life onstage: She sang solo regularly at Philly venues, provided background vocals to hip-hop tracks, and formed bands that caught the interest of talent scouts.
One of her groups sent a track to LaFace Records in Atlanta. The song made it into a movie soundtrack, but LaFace’s founder, R&B legend L.A. Reid, encouraged Moore to go solo. She signed a deal in 1999 and adopted the name P!nk. It was a childhood nickname, though origin stories vary widely, from her frequent blushing to that dyed hair to Steve Buscemi’s character in Reservoir Dogs.
Her first solo album, Can’t Take Me Home, blew up the charts in 2000, and she was suddenly opening for *NSYNC. Over the next decade, while crafting a unique girl-power, anti-diva, self-empowerment image, Moore released six more albums that were both popularly successful and critically acclaimed. She embarked on world tours and used her soapbox to be a progressive, if at times brash, voice against Republican regimes and skinny-girl pop-culture fads that undermined real-life women.
In the meantime, she was becoming a bit of a wine snob. “I used to think of wine as a punishment from my Jewish mother for Hanukkah,” said Moore. But suddenly, she was surrounded by a “boys’ club” — her manager, agent, promoter, and so forth — of male associates who were older and more worldly and had developed fine palates. They shared their wines with her, starting with Penfolds Grange, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and super-Tuscans, all powerful wines that would “kick my ass and make me sleep,” recalled Moore.
She grew to appreciate lighter wines from Burgundy and Provence, and started taking online courses in the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, or WSET, a program that led her into winemaking courses at UC Davis. She also explored the classic wine regions of the world while on tour, from France to Australia, getting a valuable first-hand education that others can only dream about.
At one point, she and her husband, motocross star Carey Hart, pondered buying property near Healdsburg in Sonoma County. But then Moore and Hart fell in love with the Santa Ynez Valley, where he’d raced at Zaca Station and they’d tasted wine for many years. It was also conveniently close to their other home in Venice Beach and to work obligations in Los Angeles.
In 2013, they purchased an existing estate east of Highway 154, near the western edge of the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara appellation. It had already been planted with 18 acres of vineyard, all certified organic, and also featured a modest house that was funky rather than opulent. “It’s tweaker Venice Beach,” said Moore of her instant affection for the home. “It looks like Dr. Seuss threw up.”
Since then, Moore, Hart, and her team have been working day and night to enhance the property. They’ve planted seven more acres of vines (including a section called Right Left Vineyard), built a small winery, and purchased an adjacent estate, where they hope to plant ever more vines in the future.
“All in all, this is the best that this property has looked since we got here,” said Moore as we drove through the vines, past a motorcycle ramp sitting in the middle of a field. “We’ve put a lot of heart and soul into this place.”
Celeb Winemakers and Dirty Fingernails
The celebrity winemaker phenomenon is a double-edged sword for the wine industry. On the positive side, it brings greater attention to wine in a competitive beverage market and often shines light on specific regions, grape varieties, and styles, helping to boost sales and improve reputations on an international scale. On the other hand, it inspires cynical snarls from both inside and outside the industry, provoking claims that the celebrities in question are only attaching their names to the project and aren’t really involved.
As a journalist, I’ve dealt with this cynicism first-hand. Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed Kurt Russell, Kate Hudson, Drew Barrymore, and NBA star Dwyane Wade about their wine projects. They were all very knowledgeable about wine and expressed passion about their projects, but they didn’t give me the impression that they were out in the fields getting muddy or getting sweaty and sticky while doing punch downs in the cellar. (An afternoon of determining a pinot noir blend with Russell at Ampelos Cellars was admittedly intense, however.)
Moore is a completely different animal. She’s endured serious sunburns while hand-pruning a block of cabernet sauvignon right outside her home. She made small batches of wine in her garage to get a feel for the process. She’s involved in every vineyard and cellar decision, constantly pestering her teams of experts with questions both basic and thought-provoking.
“Out of all our clients, she’s worked in her own vineyard more than anybody,” said Ben Merz of Coastal Vineyard Care, which manages the agricultural aspects of Two Wolves as well as most of the high-end estates in Santa Barbara County. “She wanted to be assigned all the difficult tasks. She immediately connected with the land and with her vines and has a real respect for the craft of farming.”
Though he was already managing the property for the previous owners, Merz was subject to an intense interview when Moore took over, told by her business manager that the new, unnamed owner was, “for lack of a better word, a ball-buster,” said Merz, who laughs at the idea now. “Oh my god, she’s the sweetest person. When I first met Alecia, she immediately calmed my mind. She is the opposite of a diva.”
While Moore is hands-on, she is still touring the world and recording songs as P!nk and doesn’t have the time or skill set to be the official day-to-day winemaker. For that, she hired Alison Thomson, whom she met through Melville. Thomson previously worked for Samsara (Melville’s former brand), Palmina, JCR Vineyard, Sine Qua Non, and the Piedmont legend Sergio Germano, and she runs her own label of Italian variety wines called L.A. Lepiane. Despite that résumé, Thomson is still learning from her work with Moore.
“She comes at winemaking from a very different perspective,” said Thomson. “It makes me question the norms and question what I have been doing.” Often, Thomson realizes that the accepted way isn’t the only way. “It’s really pushed me in my thinking with winemaking,” she explained. “She’s a very detailed person, so she wants to ask a lot of questions and have a lot of options and understand them. But she’s also very trusting, and that trust has been built up, which means a lot to me and, I think, to her.”
Though simply a part of Moore’s natural curiosity, that level of engagement provides a strong buffer to the cynicism that will no doubt ensue. “At first, it’s easy for someone to just write her off as a celebrity winemaker, another person who’s just putting her name on a label,” said Melville, who met Moore during an Easter brunch, when she gushed to him that his Samsara pinot noirs were some of her favorites. “But she was conscious of that from the very beginning. She is still conscious of it.”
That explains why P!nk’s first release of wine will not include a rosé — although the one she made for private consumption is fantastic — and also why the Two Wolves labels will not feature any indication that she is behind the project. “She wants her wine to speak on its own,” said Melville. “That’s admirable.”
Perhaps more so than celebrity winemakers who came before her, Moore’s pop-star pedigree is preparing her for this sort of scrutiny. She’s surrounded by divas whose songs are scripted for them, whose images are carefully fabricated, and whose strategists aim at making the most money in the fastest time without regard for decency. P!nk, meanwhile, not only writes her own songs but also has done so for Celine Dion, Faith Hill, and Cher, and she persists as a symbol of self-powered creative success. That’s something that Melville’s, Merz’s, and Thomson’s daughters — even my own daughter — can look up to for years to come.
“It took 10 years for people to realize that I could sing and that I wrote my own songs,” said Moore. “It’s a lifetime of proving the dirt beneath your fingernails.”
All for the Kids
Geologically speaking, Two Wolves’ dirt is quite varied and unique. The original plantings, which date back to 2005, are in soils that are typical of Happy Canyon, where a high clay content is strewn with serpentine rocks. But the new Right Left Vineyard is on redder soils that are slightly acidic. “It’s really a spice rack of soils, along with different topographies,” said Merz. “That’s the kind of thing you want on a vineyard.”
Currently, the 25 acres are planted in 10 different grapes: More than 30 percent is cabernet sauvignon, followed by decreasing percentages of grenache, sauvignon blanc, graciano, cabernet franc, syrah, petit verdot, merlot, semillon, and grenache blanc. Much of the fruit is sold right now, to Sanguis, Desperada, and other handcrafted boutique brands, but more and more of it will be consumed by the Two Wolves project as it grows in the years to come.
The upcoming release of the cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and petit verdot only amounts to slightly more than 100 cases, and another release next spring — likely including a sauvignon blanc, a Bordeaux red blend, and, yes, a rosé — won’t bump that amount much higher. Thomson expects about nine different wines to hit the market eventually, though nothing is set in stone. What everyone seems to agree on, for now at least, is that the upper production amount won’t exceed 2,000 cases a year.
Even at that amount, Two Wolves would remain a very small production, which is the point for Moore. She hopes that her 7-year-old daughter, Willow Sage Hart, and nearly 2-year-old son, Jameson Moon Hart, will embrace the estate as they grow up. “I want it to be fun for them and for me when I’m 65,” she explained. “I don’t want to hand them my previous life. I can’t. I feel like this is something they could grow into.” Even her husband is part of the operation, when he’s not building bikes or participating in charity rides. “Carey is our janitor,” she said. “I’m finding out that 75 percent of this is janitorial.”
Toward the end of my visit, Moore explained the reasoning behind the name Two Wolves. It’s based on a Cherokee parable about the two wolves we have battling inside of us, one full of fear, anger, and jealousy, the other full of compassion, love, and hope. “Who wins?” Moore asked rhetorically. “The one you feed.”
Whether she goes by P!ink the pop star or Alecia the vine-trimming school mom, Moore is loading up that hopeful wolf with all the nourishment she can find, and she’s already reaping the rewards from her Santa Ynez Valley neighbors.
Of her music career, she explained, “It took me a long time to figure out my niche and to develop a village around me of people I could trust.” That’s happened much quicker in wine country. “I have an incredible village, and I’m finding my way,” said Moore. “I love it.”