Operation: Wine Time (and Coffee, Too)

Former longtime bandmates in Queensrÿche, Geoff Tate and Michael Wilton, now are spending some of their down time creating beverages.

Rock stars are supposed to be connoisseurs of Jim Beam and Jack Daniels, not pinot noir and French roast cappuccino. So, it’s a bit odd listening to Geoff Tate and Michael Wilton, former bandmates in Bellevue’s multi platinum progressive metal band Queensrÿche, discuss the subtleties of their latest passions — wine for Tate and coffee for Wilton. Although, it shouldn’t be.

Both are now men of a certain age, and their tastes have matured since they first played together nearly 40 years ago.

The heavy metal connection

“I am a big coffee guy,” said Wilton, still looking like a classic rocker, dressed in a black band tour T-shirt and sporting elbow-length hair. “I have more fun with coffee now because it works so well in the Northwest. There’s a lot of gray, gloomy days. It just works. It gets the wheels spinning in the mind.”

Michael Wilton

Michael Wilton. Photo by Gael Herve

Wilton first dipped his toe into the coffee waters in the early 2000s, when he joined forces with a local roaster and released three different coffee blends. But that venture was short-lived. Fast forward a dozen years, and another opportunity arose.

“Just last year, I get a call from Dave Ellefson, the bass player for Megadeth,” said Wilton, “and he has a coffee-roasting company — Ellefson Coffee — and he said, ‘Didn’t you used to do coffee?’ And I said, ‘Why yes, I did; why?’” Within the week, Wilton was sampling a half-dozen roasts to choose one that would be his signature blend.

“Here at home I’m a big Peet’s Coffee fan, so that’s the taste I was going for. I may not have the most discerning taste, but I can tell the aroma, the crema on top, how it hits the front and back of the tongue, and the levels of bitterness,” Wilton said.

The result is Whip’s Pacific Blend, a French roast. The name stems from Wilton’s nickname, “Whip,” which he received back in his days at Interlake High School playing guitar with his buddies, who regularly told him, “Man, you whip on guitar!”

The man loves wine, Scout’s honor

Wilton’s love of coffee is understandable, what with his Northwest roots and the countless late-night gigs that require the necessary boost to keep you going. But his former bandmate Tate’s exploration into the world of wine, however, is a little more unexpected. And charming.

Geoff Tate

Geoff Tate. Photo Courtesy Geoff Tate.

“For some reason, I found myself making my first wine when I was a Boy Scout, at 14,” Tate said, “simply because you could get a merit badge for developing a food or beverage product. I have no idea if it was any good or not. I didn’t have anything to gauge it against at the time. I gave some to my parents and grandparents, and they said it was drinkable. I think it was a good first effort.”

Speaking with Tate over the phone — he was calling from Barcelona during a rare off-day on his most recent tour — you can tell the man is passionate about wine. He loves the culture and the experience.

“It’s always great to be with people who appreciate wine. And to find a great bottle that everyone agrees is amazing. And especially in a situation where we’re all sitting down to a meal where you can really focus on how it works with food. I’m a fan of food and wine pairing.”

Tate first fell in love with the chemistry of wine-making, and later on he developed a taste for it through sampling different wines from around the world whenever he would go on tour. But it wasn’t until 2005 that he finally got a chance to craft a vintage that others beyond his immediate family could enjoy.

That’s when he joined with Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla to release his Insania brand of wine. The partnership was successful and satisfying, but Tate had dreams still unfulfilled.

“I love European wines; they really speak to me,” he said. “And what I found with Three Rivers was even though we’d developed a really wonderful blend, it was still a blend and I wanted to focus more on the single grape expression, so it just seemed to make sense to switch so I could really make the kind of wine I wanted to make.” So Tate headed east. Really east. To Germany. “I’ve always been incredibly fascinated with Pinot Noir and have been working with my German partners, the Rinklin Winery in Eichstetten, Germany, at developing this particular Pinot Noir grape that does well in the German climate, so I can make the kind of wine I feel it needs to be.” Tate currently makes two wines: The Insania red is a Pinot Noir, and the white is a Pinot Grigio.

Winemaking isn’t simply a hobby for Tate. “I’m a fingers-in-all-the-pies kind of guy,” he said. “I really love the farming aspect of it. I love tending the grape vines and the pruning. I like harvest quite a bit.” These days, Tate is in Germany roughly four times a year, but his favorite visit is for the harvest. “That’s when a lot of the heavy lifting is done,” said Tate. “When we get the grapes in on time before the weather shifts, we have a celebration with wine, food, and music. I’ll usually play a set with friends, and it becomes a big rock and roll jam at the winery. We had about 800 people at the last one.”

Their day job

Ahh yes, music. The day job for both Tate and Wilton. “That’s all we do is tour,” says Wilton. “That’s what bands do these days because nobody buys music anymore. What you make on the streaming side is basically enough to buy yourself a cup of coffee.”

Wilton laughs, but he’s only half-joking when he says this. “We still make records; in fact, we’re just wrapping up our next Queensrÿche album, which will come out either this fall or early next year. After the album is released, we’ll probably tour on that for two and a half years.”

Until the album comes out, Queensrÿche will do a lot of what it calls fly-gigs, where the band flies out and performs over a weekend and then comes home. Recently, the band performed with The Scorpions and still plays a lot of festivals, some with crowds as large as 100,000. “I’ve been doing it for so long,” says Wilton. “It’s exhausting, but I love it.”

Tate has a similar sentiment. As of press time, he was in the midst of a special tour celebrating the 30-year anniversary of Operation: Mindcrime, arguably Queensrÿche’s most famous record. “We’re performing that album in its entirety every night,” said Tate. “It’s been like reliving my past. What a treat. I have a great band of younger musicians who grew up listening to the music.”

Wilton’s coffee, Whip’s Pacific Blend, is not available locally, yet but you can find it online through Ellefson Coffee. Tate’s Insania wine just landed a local importer, so it shouldn’t be long before you can find it at the local Bev-Mo.

We’re all a little older and wiser than we were in our youth. We don’t take as many chances, and staying up past 10 is about as crazy as our nights have become. But the next time you find yourself curled up with a nice warm cup of coffee or a crisp glass of white wine, it’s nice to know that courtesy of Michael Wilton and Geoff Tate, you are truly living the rock and roll lifestyle, Bellevue edition.

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