“Masterfully commanding Brazilian, Latin, jazz, and rock grooves, global-pop guitarist/singer/songwriter Eliane Amherd explores her roots in a song cycle based on Swiss wines of the Valais region." John Burdick
Swiss-born and New York-based, the guitarist and songwriter Eliane Amherd has made a career out of touring the world, literally and stylistically. American jazz and roots, Latin, Afro-Cuban, and the great traditions of Brazil inform Eliane’s stylish, sophisticated global-pop sound. Recalling the lyricism of Carlos Santana at times and the angularity of Marc Ribot at others, Eliane’s deft guitar improvisation is as much a focus as her virtuosic, soulful, and cheeky singing. But at the core of her cosmopolitan world-music concoction lies a singer-songwriter interested in self-exploration, resonant stories, and matters of the heart.
On her forthcoming release La Dégustation, Eliane’s inspirations remain broadly international, but as a songwriter, she turns her lens to her home soil: the complex and diverse "terroirs" of the canton Valais in Switzerland, where wine is business, culture, science, and (nearly) religion. Each of La Dégustation’s tracks is named for a wine produced in her home region. Using her own research and experience, Eliane weaves the science, the politics, and the myths of each into an imaginative and unlikely portrait of her homeland and of her identity.
Intoxicating, all-consuming, and socially unifying, wine provides the focus for Eliane’s witty explorations of culture, gender, love, politics, and art. The album-opening "Gamaret"—a psychedelic funk workout with musical and lyrical references to Hendrix—takes its cue from the red wine’s year of origin, 1970, and from Gamaret’s refusal to remain a blending wine forever, asserting its individuality like the children of the counterculture.
The sly, sophisticated samba of “Pinot ou Fendant,” co-written and sung with Pauline Lugon, explores the dichotomy of red and white. In a series of three vignettes, wine is revealed as the great unifier of a diverse culture. In the first, everyone in the town ends up drinking in the same dive at 3:00 AM; next, they meet for an “Apero”, following church. Finally, after the vintage (collecting of grapes), they promise to meet again nine months later to harvest the fruits of the night’s indiscretions, les enfants des vendanges.
One of several tracks with feminist overtones, the dark, moody funk song “Johannely Fy” celebrates the ambiguous myth of a woman tavern owner in the 1680s accused of stretching wine with water. The deliriously complex Afoxe groove of “Lafnetscha” provides the backdrop for one of La Dégustation’s key moments: the story of almost extinct grape, rediscovered and saved by one wine-maker. A sour, potent wine, its name means “needs time—don’t drink it yet.”
“It is so similar to music,” Eliane says; “so much work, so much passion, it needs time, and you don’t even know what you’re getting out of it. You don’t need either to survive—wine or music—but they both make life so much richer.”
As much a linguistic polyglot as musical, Eliane sings La Dégustation in French, English, and Walliser Titsch, the Swiss-German dialect spoken in the upper valley of canton Valais. Locked down in New York City during the Covid era, Eliane found she had the time to rehearse her trio “like some kids in the garage,” playing weekly for months with bassist Amanda Ruzza (Amy Lee, Jill Sobule, Leni Stern) and the grammy award winning drummer Rosa Avila (Andy Williams).
With an assist from the legendary A-list percussionist Bashiri Johnson (Miles Davis, Michael Jackson, Sting), the band’s chemistry and astonishing musical range are on display throughout La Dégustation and its three-bonus track appendix, Quarantini Time, a virtual toast to the weirdest year most of us will ever know.
It is the story of a grape that would not stay in the background. Developed in 1970, Gamaret was initially used as a blend wine but was soon discovered to be a great soloist in its own right. Eliane salutes the liberation of Gamaret in a psychedelic funk workout that moves effortlessly between period garage rock, wailing solos, and ultra-precise ensemble polyrhythms, setting the stage for La Dégustation’s contrast between exacting musical sophistication and pure, unbridled fun.
An early grape, productive and disease-resistant. Initially planned to add color to blended wines but was soon discovered to be a great soloist. Developed in 1970 by André Jaquinet as a cross between Gamay and Reichensteiner.
Nose: Aromas of black fruit, spices.
Mouth: Very rich in color, dense yet lively, black fruit aromas over slightly spicy, grainy tannins.
Almost in response to the naïve abandon of “Gamaret,” "Humagne Rouge" celebrates the refined, the subtle, and the seductive, showcasing Eliane’s deft way with angular melody over a winking cha cha rhythm that never descends into parody. Drawing inspiration from this wine’s aroma of wild fruit and its subtle smokiness, the song tells the story of a memorable seduction, a one night stand, playing off the multiple meanings of rouge as the singer fondly wishes, “may your lipstick never be erased from my glass.”
A vigorous grape that ripens late and makes wines that seduce with rustic aromas of wild fruits, wooded undergrowth, bark and violets. An old cross made in Val d’Aosta, Italy, between Cornalin and an unknown variety, which came to Valais via the Great Saint Bernard pass at the end of the 19th century.
Nose : Floral aspect ( gentian or violet ) with a “venison” presence, cocoa and Suze bitters.
Mouth : Oak bark is characteristic. Supple but the finish is tighter.
Known for weakening the legs, this potent wine was first produced in the mountain village of Visperterminen. Before a wicked New Orleans backline groove kicks in, Eliane honors Visperterminen with a drumroll—an homage to the traditional pipes and drums—as well with an actual recording of the village’s church bells. The song explores the complex myth of Holy Theodore, the patron saint of wine-making and a Bishop who tricked a devil and prevented the pope from committing a grievous sin.
Heida or Païen, comes from the Savagnin grape-which is also known as Traminer. First grown around the village of Visperterminen at up to 1150m altitude, some of the highest vines in Europe. Its pagan name implies that it appeared before Christianity. It is said to be the “pearl of the Alps” and has a reputation for “weaken your legs” before you know it.
Nose: Gently aromatic with wild, rustic notes of stale rye bread, dried fruit, citruses and exotic fruit.
Mouth: Good length and associated vinosity, refreshing liveliness and structure. Sustained acidity. Can be consumed young, as well as after a few years in the cellar.
PINOT OU FENDANT
Pinot and Fendant are the two most planted grapes in Eliane’s home region of Valais. In the hands of Eliane and co-writer/singer Pauline Lugon, they become a metaphor for the diversity and the wine-focused unity of their homeland, exploring the definitive choices one makes, or doesn’t make, in life: red or white? Lugon’s lyrics paint the ritualized centrality of wine in a series of three poignant vignettes. In the first, all of the community, from aristocracy to commoners, find themselves drinking and debating in the same dives at 3:00 AM. In the second, the entire community convenes for Apero after church as the singer wonders how much less crowded church might be if not for that ritual drink. In the third verse Lugon addresses the “fatal flirt” common in the season of the vintage, and the euphemistic agreement that everyone will meet again in a year to harvest those fruits, i.e., the children of the vintage.
An early harvest. Resistant to dryness and cold. A success in Valais with its chalky soils and its diversity of terroirs, mirrored in its very varied wines.
Nose: Strawberry, raspberry. Subtlety and elegance. A riper fruit offers impressions of wet leather, tobacco, dead leaves, and forest floor.
Mouth: Intense fruit blended with natural glycerine and noble tannins.
Chasselas, called Fendant in Valais, gets its name from a feature of the ripe grape: the skin and pulp melt or split ( fendre ) when pressed gently between fingers. An early, vigorous plant, able to adapt to many soils and micro-climates, reflecting the subtlety of each terroir.
Nose: Floral aspect tending towards lime tree. Can be fruity with a mineral character (flint, hazelnut ) due to the terroir.
Mouth: Often slightly bubbly. Playful, light and easy to drink. The fruit tends towards lemon or well-ripened apple.
Pinot and Fendant are the two most planted grapes in Valais. They are part of any social occasion.
As on many of La Dégustation’s tracks, the language of “Cornalin” comes directly from that used by wine-makers, a language rich in metaphorical suggestion and personification. Over a tango buoyed by a dub bass (in homage to Grace Jones), Eliane personifies this difficult, demanding and ultimately triumphant wine as a bad boyfriend, one who saps your patience with his ego and outrageous demands but ultimately redeems and repays you by becoming the star of the show, the grand wine of the Valais.
First mentioned in the 14th century. Matures late, capricious during production and therefore nearly abandoned in the 20th century. Thanks to the perseverance of visionary producers it has become the king of the Valais reds. Deep cherry red color with rich purple highlights and fruity strength. When young it is impudent, wild, with a tonic and fresh body. With age it grows smooth, elegant, and classy.
Nose: Spicy and fruity black cherry notes.
Mouth: Intense, long, smooth fruit with elegant mouthfeel and well developed tannic structure.
While Petite Arvine is one of the signature wines for which the Valais is most known, this song features the dimension of Eliane’s art that is perhaps most often overlooked—her harmonically rich, lyrical, and patiently developed guitar soloing, with echoes of Jobim and nods to modern jazz and soul masters. Over a subtle, moody groove spiced with Eliane’s love of odd meters, the song personifies the wine as a kind of princess and muse, capricious and demanding but sublime.
Internationally renowned wine, grown in Valais exclusively since 1602. A delicate grape, sensitive to wind, ripens late. Gives an exquisite range of wines: nervy and dry with aromas of wisteria and grapefruit; slightly sweet with notes of rhubarb; and sweet flétris wines, often exceptionally concentrated, with intense aromas of exotic fruits. Said to be the “muse of the Valais”.
Nose: Floral hint of wisteria or gentian. Pineapple, mango, passion fruit, grapefruit.
Mouth: Complex, concentrated, virile, and intense. Acidity can be high. Rhubarb notes. Subtle iodine-like character.
This angular, buoyant, and funky track showcases the Ruzza-Avila rhythm section as Eliane celebrates the ambiguous myth of Johanna, a successful tavern owner around 1680 in the Simplon Pass region, accused of stretching wine with water. After her death, she had to repent her sins for eternity in the alpine glacier waters. Legend has it that you can still hear her laments at night (here sounding like a wild, tormented guitar solo). The ruins of her tavern still exist today.
This Latin-jazz waltz provides one of La Dégustation’s smoothest moments, a showcase for Eliane’s command of elegant harmony with layers of rhythmic texture courtesy of the great percussionist Bashiri Johnson. “Bashiri is the secret oak barrel that makes any wine taste better, the game-changer.” says Eliane. The lyrics tell of an emotional reunion of two friends and the connection they feel to the terroir, their home turf, and to each other.
Sylvaner, known as Johannisberg in Valais, originated in Austria but is mainly planted by the Rhine river in Germany. It came to the Rhone valley in the mid 19th century. Sensitive to disease and cold, but nevertheless a vigorous plant. At home on light, schistose, and gravelly soil. Ages well beyond 20 years. The perfect Apéro wine.
Nose: Notes of infused flowers over a base of orchard fruits and almonds.
Mouth: Vinous with a voluptuous mouthfeel. A pleasant bitterness of almonds lingers, coated by fattiness. Fully ripe harvests can tend towards pineapple. Tender, low in acidity. A dry or sweet wine.
In this difficult, slow-developing but ultimately rewarding wine, Eliane found the keynote metaphor for her other passion, music, with its grueling ratio of effort to reward, its endless apprenticeships and delayed payouts. But both—wine and music--also result in satisfactions of the heart and the peak moments of life: taste, pleasure, love, community, and expression.
An ancient grape from Upper Valais dating back to 1627. A natural cross between Completer and Valais native Humagne Blanc making complex, age-worthy wines. Its name derives from “Laff nit scha”, which is the Wallis dialect for “Don’t drink yet” – a reference to the wine’s high natural acidity and consequent cellaring potential.
Nose: Densely structured, with nectarine, elderflower, chamomile, and Golden Delicious.
Mouth: Pronounced acidity and a very persistent floral finish.
QUARANTINI BONUS TRACKS
In recognition of the Covid year and its incalculable impact on musicians, Eliane included three bonus tracks with nothing to do with wine but plenty to do with drinking. In “Flee Flailing,” Eliane uses the image of the inflatable dancing tube man commonly seen outside of car dealerships as a symbol of the life of the grounded, idle musician (and everyone else) in the last year. “Glued to the ground,” she says, “limbs flapping, procrastinating, purpose deflating, going nowhere.”
“Voyage, Voyage” is a cover of the Dubois/Rivat song that was a hit for Desireless in the 80ties. An advance single, Eliane’s version is brought to life in a stunning, swanky psychedelic video by Onome Ekeh. “It just makes me think about the longing for travel we all feel this year--especially touring musicians.” Finally, the playful, short “Quarantini Time” accentuates the inevitable connection between enforced isolation and drinking, a virtual toast for friends, family, and bandmates.