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Wine Talk: The Manhattan Transfer's Janis Siegel

The singer in the Grammy-winning vocal group reminisces on serenading a Sicilian winemaker, her Moroccan wine discoveries, and the bottle of Yquem that started it all
Photo by: Janis Wilkins
From California sippers to German TBAs, Janis Siegel's wine journey has been as prolific as her singing career.

Lexi Williams
Posted: April 13, 2018

Janis Siegel has been on tour for 45 years. A member of popular and prolific vocal group the Manhattan Transfer, the nine-time Grammy Award winner is always in this country or that city, performing jazz, pop, doo-wop and more, with stops at her home base in New York City in between. Throughout her many journeys, the alto singer has come to learn and love wine, and even after all these years, she continues to seek out new styles, producers and regions whenever she can.

And Siegel has no plans of slowing down. On March 30, the Manhattan Transfer released its first album in 10 years. The Junction—which debuted at No. 1 on iTunes' jazz chart—is both an homage to Tim Hauser, the group's founder who died in late 2014, and a welcome to bass vocalist Trist Curless, the newest member of the group. The Manhattan Transfer stars in a PBS special starting April 26 and will take the new record on tour worldwide; Siegel is already mapping out her own personal wine-and-food stops along the way.

Wine Spectator assistant editor Lexi Williams sat down with Siegel in her Manhattan apartment to talk wine, food, music and travel—and how they're all connected.

WS: When did your interest in wine begin?
JS: I started really understanding and learning to love wine from a boyfriend when I was in my twenties. He was British. We would cook together, and that's where I started to learn about cooking and chemistry and aesthetics, and mixing them together, and combining that with wine.

But it really developed when I started to travel the world [with the Manhattan Transfer]. When we would play in France, for instance—holy mackerel! I remember one spectacular experience: There was a dinner for us, and it was a full-on foie gras, broiled in its own juices, with Château d'Yquem paired with it. And I thought, "Oh my God. This is opening up a whole new world!" Sauternes, with the sweet mustiness of it, and the liver, the unctuous, kind of fatty flavor of the liver—that blew my mind.

We were on Atlantic Records [at that time], which was run by a pair of brothers from Turkey, Ahmet Ertegun and Nesuhi Ertegun, and they were also foodies and wine lovers. Whenever we would go out with them, it was always an education, and I paid attention.

WS: Early on, you were touring in areas that were just getting recognized in the wine world. What was that like?
JS: When we were recording in L.A. in the '70s and '80s, we were drinking Jordan Cabernet like every night, because it was inexpensive, and it was so good. '76 Jordan Cabernet. I never had any snobby attitude about [American wine] ever. I remember Sutter Home made a Cabernet-Merlot blend that was $8 a bottle, and it was so delicious.

WS: How have your travels abroad influenced your taste in wine?
JS: For me, it's always been the wine that helps me understand the country. But they do work in tandem, I think. We played in Germany a lot. For our second album, our producer, Richard Perry, was collecting German white wines; that was his passion at that time. So whoa— Spätlese and Trockenbeerenauslese.

And Italy, of course. We've toured all over Italy. [I got] to learn about the local wines, the stuff that you don't really find too easily here. To learn about Italian white wines other than Pinot Grigio—Arneis, white wines from Sicily in that incredible volcanic soil, Fiano di Avellino in Campania, Gavi di Gavi and all the different kinds of Gavi.

WS: Are there any specific wine moments that have really stood out to you?
JS: I remember being at Donnafugata in Sicily. We were invited to the vineyard and the whole family was there, including the paterfamilias, the old man of the vineyard, the guy who started it all. And I remember singing to him, "An Older Man is Like an Elegant Wine," which is a song that I sing occasionally. It's just a wonderful, clever song about comparing a young man to a Beaujolais and an older man to a robust Bordeaux with a sumptuous glow. That was memorable for me.

[There] was also this insane dinner in L.A.; Tim Hauser was getting rid of some of his wine cellar. He gave me a '76 Château d'Yquem. … Tim did love wine. I think that our excursions to Europe sparked his interest, as it did mine.

WS: How does wine fit into your life now?
JS: If I'm cooking a meal at home, even just a weekday meal, I'll have a glass of wine with it. My life is not made up of exceptional bottles every day; I think you'd get burnt out on that. My life in wine is just everyday bottles.

I have some friends that I cook with. The three of us confer for weeks about what we should do, and we pick a theme. For instance, the last one we did was a Moroccan dinner, so we researched all of these Moroccan wines—and the Canary Islands, Mallorca, too. I spent like three days making a pigeon pie; I used squab.

WS: Do you see any parallels between your love of wine and food and your love of music?
JS: I think that they feed the soul. I definitely see correlations among food, music and wine. They're all pleasurable, and they can complement each other ferociously. Ethnic music comes from the terroir of the country—the land, the living conditions, the history—and so does the wine. That was really the pivotal "a-ha" event [for me], realizing the depth of the term "terroir" and how you could taste a country through the wine. That's how I get to know these places. A lot of dishes of a country have historical meaning to the people, and the music does also. Everything is connected there, I think.

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