Looking for a ticket to paradise
Singing sommelier John Burdick had a pruning epiphany
Paradise sometimes shows up in situations we least expect. It was pouring rain on a February morning, and John Burdick, one-time guitar player, would-be rock star, was preparing to join a pruning crew in a vineyard at Shone farm. And that was when he realized he was smack dab in the middle of something that didn’t quite feel like the paradise he’d been pursuing, but was somehow still an epiphany that would reshape his life.
Burdick had spent most of his life becoming increasingly convinced paradise was going to come with guitar strings. But on that wet winter morning in 1998, music was on the back burner and the flame had been turned off. It had been a long slow slide because, ever since 1964, when he saw the Beatles play the Ed Sullivan show, Burdick thought he saw his destiny. He bought a guitar the next day and the dream took wings.
Born in Costa Mesa in the 1950s, Burdick moved from town to town with his folks while they searched for corporate success. His mother was a piano teacher on the side, and music was always part of his life.
Burdick started writing songs soon after that Liverpool epiphany, and the doors began to open. In every town he lived there was a new band and new players. As he got older, he settled in Chicago, played the college circuits and picked up the blues. From there it was on to Colorado in the late 1970s, where acoustic and country music ruled.
Colorado remained home base for Burdick and his band for several years. He had a nice life as a session player until he walked into Free Reelin’ studios and recorded a five-song demo. After hearing the tracks, a good friend named Scotty told John, “Listen, you belong in Los Angeles. I’m going to pay your way out there.”
With stars in his eyes, his demo reel and an acoustic guitar in hand, Burdick arrived in L.A. only to find that grunge rock and hair bands ruled the music scene. It took 12 years for Los Angeles to finally wear him out. With the music dream tattered and torn and not much left to hope for, he headed to San Francisco with a casual acquaintance who had some friends in Berkeley. Eventually he made his way to Marin and took up the “in-between gig” of every struggling artist—waiting tables.
That’s how he found himself at Scoma’s in Sausalito, and since he still hadn’t awakened the sleeping music muse, he was essentially clueless about his next move. With the persistent memory of L.A.’s failed dreams in his mental rearview mirror, Burdick clearly needed something to inspire him. It was 1998, and a co-worker suggested a wine course at Santa Rosa Junior College. The rationale: “Hey, you like wine, right?”
It was the first chapter in the rest of his life. Burdick was basically a city boy, and standing in a vineyard, or any sort of actual nature, was something he had never experienced. After a three-year certification course in vineyard management, and some tutorial time with Rich Thomas, he took the Sommeliers Certificate course, passed, and soon became wine buyer for the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. The inn’s general manager occasionally had Burdick take VIPs out on spur-of-the moment tours to show them around the wineries. That eventually led to tour schedules and, to pass the time, Burdick brought his guitar to play while the guests were sipping chardonnay and having lunch. Before long guests began to ask him to “play some of that slide guitar.”
During a particularly inspired event, Burdick had the whole crowd dancing while he sang, played and talked about the wine, the food and the winery. That’s when a co-worker told him, “John, you should be doing this for a living.”
First he laughed, but then he began to wonder: Could he really make a living doing all the things he loved? The answer was a definite maybe.
So Burdick decided to rent a van and give it a whirl. But it wasn’t quite that simple. It took him a year and a half to acquire all the permits. But in 2000, Burdick Vineyard Tours was born. Like most small businesses, it started small, with just a van and a guy with a guitar. But after a couple of years, Burdick had acquired a small fleet of SUVs to deliver his guests to wineries off the beaten path, and he even arranged for helicopters to drop guests into hard-to-get-to wineries.
He says part of his success in the tour business came from his contacts in the industry, enabling him to introduce guests to remote, little-known wineries the large tour companies just couldn’t get to.
But it didn’t stop there. The songwriting bug and the itch to play music had returned. At first it was just an extra treat on some of the tours, and not even his friends had a clue that Burdick had been a professional musician for almost 30 years. Eventually he assembled 12 or so songs, and in 2005 the disc Somewhere was released.
Burdick is a passionate player and songwriter, and many of his tunes reflect the feelings of lost love and the trials that follow. In the song “Down Your Street,” he describes the feelings of a forlorn lover driving past an ex-lover’s house, just hoping she might look out the window and see him. The song inspires the question, “Ever done that?” And then provides the answer, “Thought so.”
Now Burdick has a CD’s worth of new material and plans to be back in the studio after the finish of the fall wine-tour season. He’s still wondering if maybe, just maybe, there’s a second chance for that ticket to paradise.
From the Summer 2009 issue of SONOMA