The Quirky Collections of Design Pros—in Their Childhood vs. Now

WINNER TUBES Part of architect David Rockwell’s kaleidoscope collection.
WINNER TUBES Part of architect David Rockwell’s kaleidoscope collection. Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

NOT SURPRISINGLY architects and designers tend to amass visual artifacts early. New York artist and landscape designer Paula Hayes made snowballs and tiny snowmen that she stored year round in a corner of her family’s freezer “like a little town.” Nunturat Robbamrung, now associate design director at Wilson Associates’ New York studio, accumulated fruit seeds—fascinated by their shape—and organized them by size. Here, eight design pros on their youthful hoarding habits, and the collections they focus on today.

The Quirky Collections of Design Pros—in Their Childhood vs. Now
Illustration: THE ELLAPHANT IN THE ROOM

THEN “I collected little fur mice with very specific outfits,” said Lora Appleton, founder of kinder Modern, a children’s furniture gallery in New York. “There was a king and queen, bride and groom, one in a yellow gingham dress…. I still have them. I loved the diminutive quality, how all the detail in their attire and their faces was so real.”

NOW “Vintage children’s furniture is amazing,” said Ms. Appleton. “I love the discovery, bringing it home, cherishing and then displaying.”

THEN “At our beach house on Long Island, we put on bathing suits in the morning, wore them all day and emptied them of sand at night,” said New York designer Susan Petrie. “At 5, I began saving the suits I wore year to year, and they became a collection.”

The Quirky Collections of Design Pros—in Their Childhood vs. Now
Illustration: THE ELLAPHANT IN THE ROOM

NOW “I found a 1920s wool infant’s bathing suit that fascinated me. Who would put an infant in a wet wool suit?” said Ms. Petrie. “I mounted it in a shadow box and hung it. I still collect antique suits—the fabric, pattern, color, weight interest me—and use them in projects.”

THEN “At around 9, I started collecting silver spoons from places I’d go on vacation. I loved the designs on the handles and bowl, with little icons and charms unique to each place,” said Allison Spampanato, SVP of Product Design at Pottery Barn Kids and PBteen.

The Quirky Collections of Design Pros—in Their Childhood vs. Now
Illustration: THE ELLAPHANT IN THE ROOM

NOW “A groom would give his bride-to-be a bracelet at engagement, and a matching one on their wedding day,” said Ms. Spampanato of the Victorian wedding bracelets she seeks out and wears every day. “I think of the woman who wore them and what her life was like.”

THEN “I collected stamps, the most curious of which were from countries like Nigeria that idolized American cultural icons—Graham Bell, JFK—by putting them on their stamps,” said designer Michael Suomi, a principal with New York firm Stonehill Taylor. “I imagined I would be worshiped as a god if I ever visited those lands.”

NOW “Antique door pulls that I install, Russell Wright midcentury American pottery that I eat off. Early 20th-century art I reframe.”

THEN “My family would gift silver to me: my baby cup, filigree baskets, trays,” said MA AlIen, a designer in Raleigh, N.C. “I would display them all on my bookshelves, as I’ve always been drawn to having odds and ends mixed together with books.”

NOW “Italian brass bug ashtrays. I love brass objects and since they were once a functional object, it makes them interesting.”

The Quirky Collections of Design Pros—in Their Childhood vs. Now
Illustration: THE ELLAPHANT IN THE ROOM

THEN ”I loved to arrange my Muffy Bears and Madame Alexander dolls in creative ways,” said New York designer CeCe Barfield Thompson. “One of my best arrangements was a talk-show seating tableau I created on top of my armoire. I was about 8 and obsessed with talk shows even though they weren’t allowed. I watched Ricky Lake every day after school on a tiny TV in my armoire before my mom got home.”

NOW “I’ve become enamored of 19th-century Lustre- and Transferware, beautiful vessels with interesting historical connections and narratives.”

The Quirky Collections of Design Pros—in Their Childhood vs. Now
Illustration: THE ELLAPHANT IN THE ROOM

THEN “As a teenager, I became obsessed with these very odd little figurines they sold in Chinatown. The term of art is Chinese Baby-doll Pencil Sharpeners,” said architect M. Brian Tichenor, of Tichenor & Thorp, in Los Angeles. “Some bemused child festively arrayed on a giant peach with a cheap pencil sharpener glued into a cavity below, or a cartoony domestic mammal looking surprised to be so co-joined.”

NOW “My wife and I just keep building more buildings to house our out-of-print garden and architecture books, as well as stringed instruments. It’s now six libraries, each focused around a general area of interest. This is probably a problem, but we are unrepentant.”

THEN “I always had a lot of building toys and blocks,” said New York architect David Rockwell. “I even made Lincoln Log houses for my hamsters. Our family moved around quite a bit, and this allowed me to have control over creating something and to mediate the world.”

NOW “Since my 30s, I’ve amassed a collection of more than 35 kaleidoscopes,” said Mr. Rockwell. “They are objects of art in their own right but are meant to be used and enjoyed. The endless shifting patterns they form are a personal mini spectacle.”

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Your New Favorite Brown Liquor

From left: Osocalis XO Alambic Brandy; Bertoux Brandy; Argonaut Speculator; Germain-Robin XO; Copper & Kings American Craft Distilled Brandy.
From left: Osocalis XO Alambic Brandy; Bertoux Brandy; Argonaut Speculator; Germain-Robin XO; Copper & Kings American Craft Distilled Brandy. Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal

AFTER YEARS of watching bourbon sales soar, American brandy distillers are ready to get in on the action. The first step: education.

Brandy encompasses a whole range of spirits: Cognacs and Armagnacs, distilled from (grape) wine; Calvados and other apple brandies, made from cider; and fruit brandies derived from berries and tree fruits. The most sought-after brandies are barrel-aged, yielding a liquor as brown and aromatic as any bourbon.

Traditionally, American brandy has been “a bit of an underdog,” according to Thomas Pastuszak, executive wine director for the NoMad Hotel chain. In August, along with Jeff Bell, bar manager of PDT in New York and Hong Kong, Mr. Pastuszak launched Bertoux, a new California brandy intended for mixing into cocktails.

The word premium has long been attached to French brandies, particularly luxe, highly regulated Cognac. By comparison, American-made brandy has been pigeonholed as an unremarkable “value” spirit—a reputation long deserved, on the whole, especially among the largest producers.

In recent years, however, American distillers have been turning out excellent brandies made from a variety of fruits, often in regions not traditionally known for brandy. In Texas, for example, Chip Tate, best known for building the Balcones brand of whiskies, is designing and assembling his own stills and producing brandy made with grapes from the Texas Hill Country wine region. In North Carolina, High Wire Distilling is experimenting with old-school peach and watermelon brandies, made with fruit grown in state.

Even in bourbon central, Louisville, Ky., Joe Heron, co-founder of Copper & Kings, has been garnering attention with his line of grape- and apple-based brandies. Mr. Heron—who founded the popular Crispin Cider and then sold it to MillerCoors—has injected a youthful rock ’n’ roll personality into a category often considered fusty. He names stills after characters in Bob Dylan songs and blasts Queen, David Bowie and Kanye West in the aging cellar (at least, that’s what was playing when I visited), so the pulse of the bass agitates the liquid in the barrels, a technique called “sonic aging.” In January, beer, wine and spirits giant Constellation Brands took a minority stake in Copper & Kings.

“The resurgence is built on the shoulders of an increasingly adventurous consumer within a brown spirits palate preference,” said Mr. Heron. In other words, he said, brandy is “slipstreaming” bourbon. Mr. Heron also credits crossover between wine and brandy—most often made with wine grapes—with helping to introduce the spirit to wine drinkers. Bartenders, too, have played “an enormous role” in raising consumer awareness, he said, and bringing brandy to a place where it is “not traditional and boring.”

He names stills after characters in Bob Dylan songs and blasts Queen, David Bowie and Kanye West in the aging cellar.

In California, America’s most established brandy-making center, a coalition of producers met in April to brainstorm the promotion of the state’s considerable stocks of “America’s other brown spirit.” Participating distilleries at the inaugural California Brandy Summit in Fresno included E. & J. Gallo, F. Korbel & Bros., and smaller producers such as Germain-Robin (since acquired by Gallo), Charbay Distillery & Winery and Osocalis.

Brandy “needs to get out of the commodity box,” lamented Paul Ahvenainen, Korbel’s director of winemaking and master distiller at the summit. “If brandy isn’t sexy, it’s because we’re not making it sexy.”

Ansley Coale, co-founder and principal of Germain-Robin, a craft producer noted for exquisite small-batch brandies, echoed Mr. Ahvenainen’s sentiments. “People don’t know enough about brandy to understand how good it can be, to really believe in it,” he said.

Among the ideas floated for rehabbing California brandy: Emphasize the “terroir” of brandy, similar to that of California wine. Create a “straight brandy” category similar to straight bourbon, with additional legal requirements regarding production, to help drive the premium association. Push more brandy into the cocktail world, where drink recipes are currently far more likely to call for, say, whiskey or rum.

The cocktail push has gained the most traction. Over the last year, Gallo has been touting its Argonaut line intended for mixing into cocktails. The most recent entrant to the fray, Bertoux—named for the inventor of the motorcycle sidecar, an oblique reference to the brandy-based drink of the same name—is a versatile blend of brandies aged three to seven years, sourced from a contract distillery in Parlier, Calif.

Compared to more rigidly defined styles from France (Cognac, Armagnac, Calvados), premium American brandy has yet to find its limits. Expressions range widely, from Copper & Kings’ muscular brandies to the elegance of Germain-Robin to light, easy drinking Bertoux. Among the diverse list of bottles above, any lover of brown spirits should find a winning way into this category.

American brandy “doesn’t have a unique style, so there’s room to play and develop new ones,” said Mr. Pastuszak. “It’s the Wild Wild West appeal there.”

BRANDY, YOU’RE A FINE DRINK / American Bottles to Suit a Range of Tastes

1. Osocalis XO Alambic Brandy (40% ABV, $120)

An outstanding choice to sip straight, fireside. This velvety mix of fresh-cut apple and orange zest mingled with honey, vanilla and sweet spices has a super long finish.

2. Bertoux Brandy (40% ABV, $45)

This bartender-blended brandy intended for mixing into cocktails is relatively light on the palate, melding oak and apricot, and finishing with a flurry of ginger sparks.

3. Argonaut Speculator (43% ABV, $38)

From California brandy giant E. & J. Gallo, this very mellow brandy offers layers of dried fig, caramel and spice. A versatile choice for either sipping or mixing.

4. Germain-Robin XO (40% ABV, $200)

Think elegance and finesse. This is aged longer than most American brandies—about 17 years—yielding a silky sipper accented with vanilla, coconut and roasted nuts. An ideal dessert drink.

5. Copper & Kings American Craft Distilled Brandy 45% ABV, $35)

This robust brandy made in Louisville, Ky., hints at honey and baking spice, with lots of toasty oak tannins providing a dry, puckery finish.

Your New Favorite Brown Liquor
Photo: F. Martin Ramin/The Wall Street Journal
Sidecar

An artifact of an era when brandy was a bartender go-to, this cocktail makes a great showcase for the new wave of American brandies.

Combine 1½ ounces Bertoux Brandy, ¾ ounce lemon juice, ½ ounce Cointreau and ¼ ounce simple syrup in a shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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Why Your Squash Tastes Better Than It Used To

Why Your Squash Tastes Better Than It Used To
Illustration: BETH HOECKEL

MATT Weingarten is the lucky kind of chef who gets to spend time outside the kitchen, on the farms that supply his produce. One day this summer, Mr. Weingarten, chief culinary officer for the Northeastern fast-casual chain Dig Inn, lingered over a harvest of beautiful baby lettuces, some with ruffled leaves, others speckled with crimson and plum. One was sweet, almost succulent; another had a citrusy edge. On the spot, he dreamed up a wedge salad with at least three different varieties, the heads halved or quartered “so that they looked like little jewels” and topped with a buttermilk-herb dressing. “It’s a dish that really celebrates the lettuce,” he said. “Sounds like spring to me.”

The leaves that captured Mr. Weingarten’s imagination were coaxed from the dirt by Larry Tse, farm manager of the 12-acre operation in New York’s Hudson Valley that Dig Inn maintains to supply its 23 restaurants. In partnership with Seedshed, a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening seed biodiversity in the Northeast, the farm is growing lettuce varieties bred for heat resistance and for flavor, too. Their experiments don’t involve any high-tech genetic modification, just old-fashioned crossbreeding. But their goal—truly delicious produce—is nothing short of revolutionary.

In the modern era, fruits and vegetables have been bred almost exclusively for yield (which makes sense for farmers paid by the pound) and to transport and store well (which makes sense for retailers). Taste has been mostly an afterthought.

Seedshed’s Kitchen Cultivars program is part of a wave developing new vegetables to please the palates of chefs and consumers. Earlier this year, chef Dan Barber, of the acclaimed Blue Hill restaurants in Manhattan and Westchester County, N.Y., launched his own seed company, Row 7, with the goal of encouraging chefs to “write recipes from the ground up.”

For years, Mr. Barber sought out heirloom varieties to cultivate on the acres that supply his own restaurants. Though often finicky to grow, they had the distinctive flavors he craved. Then, about a decade ago, he was chatting about the challenges of growing flavorful varieties with Cornell University plant breeder Michael Mazourek. Mr. Mazourek took up the challenge to breed flavor into a new variety. The result was the honeynut: a tubby, mini version of the common butternut squash with a thinner skin, so it doesn’t have to be peeled, and a natural sweetness that intensifies as you cook it.

With Mr. Barber as its evangelist, the honeynut took off. Today, it’s available at many Whole Foods and farmers’ markets around the country. And that was only the beginning. “We need to think of seeds like an Apple iPhone,” said Mr. Barber. “We don’t just introduce new vegetables. We improve on what we’ve done.”

To that end, Row 7, in which Mr. Mazourek is a partner, has introduced a new version of the honeynut, currently dubbed 898. The caramel sweetness is still there, but the plant now produces a better yield and has a slightly thicker skin so it can be stored through the winter.

Breeder-chef collaborations are bearing fruit (literally) on the West Coast too. In 2010, Lane Selman, an agricultural researcher at Oregon State University, invited a few local chefs to taste a gypsy pepper a breeder was working on. The cooks had thoughts on the flavor but also on how the size, shape and color would work on the plate. “It was then that I realized plant breeders needed to hear this, since they are the decision makers, determining which traits to keep and which to discard,” Mr. Selman said.

We need to think of seeds like an Apple iPhone.

The next year, Mr. Selman established the Portland-based Culinary Breeding Network to connect chefs and breeders. Each year, it hosts a Variety Showcase in which chefs pair up with plant breeders to demonstrate the deliciousness of new varieties in tastings open to the public.

Last month, plant breeders and chefs gathered in Manhattan for Variety Showcase NYC. Some 400 hundred people attended, visiting tables featuring varieties such as blue fenugreek, which smells of maple syrup and tastes almost buttery. The menu included an eggplant taco splashed with hot sauce made from the new “Primero Red” chile, and a callaloo-coconut bake featuring the leaf of a new variety of amaranth. Chef Weingarten served variations on his wedge salad—one with a grapefruit “lacquer” and shallots, another with a smoked butter dressing and bread crumbs.

Working in tandem, chefs, breeders and growers hope to show that qualities such as high yield and storeability needn’t come at the cost of flavor. Last fall, the salad chain Sweetgreen began to collect data on the conditions that produce the most flavorful cherry tomatoes. There were 80 variables, from moisture content and soil type to harvest and usage dates. (Contrary to common expectations, tomatoes didn’t taste best right off the vine. If stored correctly, they tasted sweeter five days after harvest.)

This year, Sweetgreen is doing similar tests on the Badger Flame Beet, another new variety bred for flavor. “It’s an investment for us, but we think it’s a competitive advantage” said Nic Jammet, Sweetgreen’s co-founder and co-CEO. “It’s a way to show our customers that when you source a certain way and prioritize where and how something is grown, there’s data to show that it tastes better.”

Honeynut Puree and Crumble
Honeynut Puree and Crumble Photo: David Chow for The Wall Street Journal
Honeynut Purée and Crumble

ACTIVE TIME: 20 minutes TOTAL TIME: 9½ hours (includes overnight baking) SERVES: 2

Blue Hill chef Dan Barber was integral to developing the sweet, thin-skinned honeynut squash. His radically simple recipe is designed to let its pure flavor shine through.

2 honeynut squashes

Sea salt

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Split honeynuts horizontally and remove seeds. Lay face up on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper. Cover with foil and roast in oven until flesh is soft enough to scoop with a spoon, 45 minutes-1 hour. Remove foil and continue cooking to reduce moisture, 15 minutes more.

2. Scoop all flesh from skins and pass through a fine-mesh sieve. Put puréed squash into a nonstick pan over low-medium heat. Cook, stirring constantly using a spatula until all liquid is cooked out, about 5 minutes. Add a generous pinch of salt. If not serving immediately, store in an airtight container in refrigerator and sauté to heat before serving.

3. Make the crumble (optional): Heat oven to 200 degrees. Scrape any remaining flesh from cooked honeynut skins, remove stems and arrange skins on a baking sheet. Bake in oven until fully dry, 8 hours. (Alternatively, use a dehydrator.) Break into small pieces and grind to a rough powder in a spice grinder.

4. Serve warm purée with crumble sprinkled on top or absolutely plain.

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An Insider’s Guide to Napa Valley—100% Cliche-Free

Gargiulo Vineyards
Gargiulo Vineyards Photo: Allie Foraker for The Wall Street Journal

THOSE WHO’VE never been to Napa Valley—or haven’t been in a while—assume this California wine region is a series of clichés: hills draped in grapevines, Cabernet connoisseurs holding court in fancy tasting rooms, fine dining at every turn. The reality can be a little different, however: bumper-to-bumper traffic and throngs of tourists wedged shoulder-to-shoulder on winery tours. Those fine meals ring true, but they usually come with a grisly bill. To sidestep the stampede and the searing price tags, you’ll need the guidance of shrewd locals. We’ve asked four insiders to divulge their favorite places, from old-school hideaways to worthy newcomers. Unsurprisingly, many of the new spots they recommend are in the town of Napa, at the entrance to the valley. Once a drab county seat, it’s now a cliche-free destination in itself.


A Guide to Napa Valley’s Off-the-Beaten Wine Trail

Insider tips on drinking, dining, hiking, shopping and taking in the vineyard views in this revived wine region

Chef Charlie Palmer’s second restaurant in downtown Napa, Sky & Vine Rooftop Bar, opened on the roof of the year-old Archer Hotel in April 2018.
Allie Foraker for The Wall Street Journal

An Insider’s Guide to Napa Valley—100% Cliche-Free

THE ENTERTAINER

Dave Graham

CEO of Latitude 38 Entertainment, producer of BottleRock Napa Valley music festival

PLUCK AND POUR / Oenotri This husband-and-wife-owned place serves southern Italian cuisine made with ingredients from their garden. The sommelier can guide you to great affordable wine. 1425 1st St., Napa, oenotri.com

IN A JAM / Blue Note Napa You can see world-class jazz musicians in this intimate, small-town venue. 1030 Main St., Napa, bluenotenapa.com

Erin Martin Design Showroom in St. Helena.
Erin Martin Design Showroom in St. Helena. Photo: Allie Foraker for The Wall Street Journal

FUN HOUSE / Erin Martin Design Showroom You never know what you’re going to see in the eccentric showroom of this cutting-edge interior designer. Right now it’s a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. 1350 Main St., St. Helena, erinmartindesign.com

GAINING PERSPECTIVE / Gargiulo Vineyards This boutique winery abuts the legendary Screaming Eagle vineyards, but their wines are much less expensive and the views are stunning. 575 Oakville Crossroad., Napa, gargiulovineyards.com

An Insider’s Guide to Napa Valley—100% Cliche-Free

THE WINEMAKER

Deneen Brown

Co-owner and president of Brown Estate Vineyards and Brown Downtown Tasting Room

GO GREEN / Hudson Greens & Goods This produce purveyor at Napa’s Oxbow marketplace has the most dazzling market-fresh produce I’ve seen anywhere in the Bay Area. 610 1st St., Napa, oxbowpublicmarket.com

NOTES OF OAK / Whetstone Wine Cellar Outside of downtown Napa, the tasting room is in a French-style château set amid giant oak trees. It has a laid-back vibe; you feel like you’re visiting a fancy friend’s home. 1075 Atlas Peak Rd., whetstonewinecellars.com

CALL TO CHARM / Pennyweight It’s an artfully curated gallery of gifts like corkscrews, wine keys, candles and charms.1337 Main St., St Helena, pennyweightnapavalley.com

OLD-WORLD LARDER / Napa Valley Olive Oil Company A true time capsule, this must-see market has been around since the 1930s and is exactly how I remember it as a kid. It’s perfumed by cheeses and salamis. 835 Charter Oak, St. Helena, nvoliveoilmfg.com

An Insider’s Guide to Napa Valley—100% Cliche-Free

THE BAR OWNER

Colleen Kretchmer

Co-owner of Cadet Beer & Wine Bar

LATE BLOOMER / Miminashi This Japanese izakaya has a really cool design and an awesome cocktail program. It’s open until 11 p.m. on weekends, which would have been unheard of just a few years ago. 821 Coombs St., Napa, miminashi.com

The bar at Miminashi.
The bar at Miminashi. Photo: Allie Foraker for The Wall Street Journal

BEER ME / Mad Fritz Brewing The owner sources his hops and wheat from a lot of small farms nearby and makes wonderful wild ales and farmhouse-style ales. 393 La Fata St., St. Helena, madfritz.com

GET SCHOOLED / The Culinary Institute of America at Copia At this campus next to the Napa River you can take classes on wine, baking or pasta-making, or just grab a sandwich at the deli. 500 1st St., Napa, ciaatcopia.com

TALL ORDER / Sky & Vine Rooftop Bar This bar at the Archer Hotel has a great view of the valley—a rarity since there aren’t many tall buildings in Napa. Go at sunset. 1230 1st St., Napa, archerhotel.com

An Insider’s Guide to Napa Valley—100% Cliche-Free

THE CHEF

Christopher Kostow

Executive chef of the Restaurant at Meadowood, chef-owner of the Charter Oak

SERIAL MILLER / Bale Grist Mill Historic State Park On weekends, you can watch flour-milling demonstrations. It’s fascinating to see the craftsmanship that goes into the process. 3369 St. Helena Hwy, parks.ca.gov

SCREEN TIME / Cameo Cinema Originally built in 1913, the theater has love-seats and sells wine and beer. Sometimes I take over the concession stand and do the food. 1340 Main St., St. Helena, cameocinema.com

Bothe State Park
Bothe State Park Photo: Allie Foraker for The Wall Street Journal

HERBAL SUPPLEMENT / Bothe State Park The trails run alongside creeks and remnants of an old apple orchard. You’ll see wild plums, bay leaves, lemon balm and mint. 3801 St. Helena Hwy., Calistoga, parks.ca.gov

PLAY DOUGH / Redd Wood The menu is always changing, but I really like the chorizo and pineapple pizza. It’s also pretty kid-friendly—the staff will give children a ball of dough to occupy themselves. 6755 Washington St., Yountville, redd-wood.com

Fried Chicken to go at Addendum.
Fried Chicken to go at Addendum. Photo: Allie Foraker for The Wall Street Journal
Plus, Don’t Miss…

Meadowood Napa Valley On 250 acres, the hotel offers a three-star Michelin restaurant, hiking trails, golf, tennis and a spa. For assured privacy, reserve one of the secluded Estate rooms or suites. From $750 a night, meadowood.com/Addendum Tucked behind Thomas Keller’S Ad Hoc restaurant is a fried-chicken shack that also serves ribs and pulled pork sandwiches. Take a boxed lunch to go or dig in at one of the outdoor tables. 6476 Washington St., Yountville, thomaskeller.com / Napa Valley Bike Tours Rent wheels at one of the two shops, in Napa or in Yountville, and spin car-free along the paved 12.5 mile path between the two towns. napavalleybiketours.com/ The Charter Oak Brunch family-style at this new spot in a historic building, where the open-hearth cooking is modern and hyper-seasonal. 1050 Charter Oak Ave, St Helena, thecharteroak.com

Hip-Hop Is Huge, but on the Concert Circuit, Rock Is King

‘You don’t really make a lot from record sales anymore,’ says Patterson Hood, onstage left. His band Drive-By Truckers, shown last month at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, generates the vast majority of its income from live performances.
‘You don’t really make a lot from record sales anymore,’ says Patterson Hood, onstage left. His band Drive-By Truckers, shown last month at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, generates the vast majority of its income from live performances. Photo: Melissa Golden for The Wall Street Journal

Everyone thinks hip-hop is king, but in the concert business, rock rules.

Older rockers like the Rolling Stones get most of the credit for driving North America’s $8 billion concert-touring industry, but an underappreciated reason for live music’s boom is the strength of smaller acts.

Drive-By Truckers is one example. The Athens, Ga., band, which has released 11 studio albums over 20 years, isn’t dominating streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music. Yet it has a loyal following that spends $30 a ticket every year for its shows.

The group, which revolves around singer-songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, plays literary, punk-infused rock. Unlike pop stars, Drive-By Truckers doesn’t leave the road for long: It averages 100 shows a year, usually two to three hours long, selling 1,000 to 3,000 tickets in most markets.

The Drive-By Truckers, from left: Jay Gonzalez, Brad Morgan, Matt Patton, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood.
The Drive-By Truckers, from left: Jay Gonzalez, Brad Morgan, Matt Patton, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood. Photo: Melissa Golden for The Wall Street Journal

Touring provides more than 80% of the band’s livelihood. “The way the music business is—that’s our income,” Mr. Hood says. “You don’t really make a lot from record sales anymore.”

The record business has rebounded after years of decline, thanks to royalties from streaming-music providers like Spotify. Hip-hop and R&B, America’s most popular genre, accounts for 38% of U.S. on-demand audio streams, versus 20% for rock.

But in the live-show realm, rock is thriving. When Billboard ranked last year’s 50 highest-earning music acts, using U.S. record sales, streaming, publishing and concerts, there were three times as many rock acts as hip-hop ones. The reason: Touring accounted for nearly 80% of the 50 acts’ combined earnings, compared with 8% from on-demand streaming.

Rockin’ Out

Among last year’s 25 top-grossing music tours, more than half of them were rock.

2017 Worldwide Gross (millions)

Guns N’ Roses

Bruno Mars

Depeche Mode

Paul McCartney

Ed Sheeran

The Rolling Stones

Garth Brooks

Celine Dion

Justin Bieber

Roger Waters

Billy Joel

The Weeknd

Tim McGraw,

Faith Hill

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Ariana Grande

Tom Petty &

The Heartbreakers

Elton John

Neil Diamond

Robbie Williams

2017 Worldwide Gross (millions)

Guns N’ Roses

Bruno Mars

Depeche Mode

Paul McCartney

Ed Sheeran

The Rolling Stones

Garth Brooks

Celine Dion

Justin Bieber

Roger Waters

Billy Joel

The Weeknd

Tim McGraw,

Faith Hill

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Ariana Grande

Tom Petty &

The Heartbreakers

Elton John

Neil Diamond

Robbie Williams

2017 Worldwide Gross (millions)

Guns N’ Roses

Bruno Mars

Depeche Mode

Paul McCartney

Ed Sheeran

The Rolling Stones

Garth Brooks

Celine Dion

Justin Bieber

Roger Waters

Billy Joel

The Weeknd

Tim McGraw,

Faith Hill

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Ariana Grande

Tom Petty &

The Heartbreakers

Elton John

Neil Diamond

Robbie Williams

2017 Worldwide Gross (millions)

Guns N’ Roses

Bruno Mars

Depeche Mode

Paul McCartney

Ed Sheeran

The Rolling

Stones

Garth Brooks

Celine Dion

Justin Bieber

Roger Waters

Billy Joel

The Weeknd

Tim McGraw,

Faith Hill

Red Hot Chili

Peppers

Ariana Grande

Tom Petty &

The Heartbreakers

Elton John

Neil Diamond

Robbie Williams

In terms of concert-tour revenue, rock accounts for 55% of the $5 billion generated by last year’s top 100 highest-grossing tours worldwide, excluding nonmusic acts, compared with 11% for R&B and hip-hop, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the trade publication Pollstar. Of the 25 highest-grossing tours globally last year, only two—Bruno Mars and the Weeknd—were hip-hop and R&B acts.

Collectively, smaller rockers have considerable clout. While the top 25 is full of household names like Paul McCartney and Billy Joel, the top 200 in North America, excluding nonmusic tours, is half rock acts, including bands like Muse, the xx and Deftones. In that ranking, rock still represents over half of revenue.

There are many reasons that rock remains so powerful on the road, including that, as an older genre, it had a head start on pop and rap. Giant tours by older rap icons like Jay-Z aren’t as common. Fans of newer hip-hop artists skew younger, including teens with less disposable cash, making festival gigs more economical than lengthy, sprawling tours.

Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots onstage in Los Angeles.
Josh Dun and Tyler Joseph of Twenty One Pilots onstage in Los Angeles. Photo: Getty Images

“Drake can do four Madison Square Garden shows, but Phish can do 17,” says Peter Shapiro, a New York-based independent concert promoter. Especially in the day-to-day business of clubs and theaters, rock bands, he adds, “still have a huge impact.”

Rock is also a big tent. There are touring veterans like My Morning Jacket and the Killers, which Jay Marciano, chief executive of concert-promotion giant AEG Presents, calls “the biggest unknown rock band”; older emo bands (Fall Out Boy); newer retro acts (Greta Van Fleet); jam bands (Lettuce); metal bands (Ghost); punk bands (Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires); along with indie rockers (Courtney Barnett), folk rockers (Avett Brothers) and Christian rockers (Casting Crowns, which grossed $12 million in North America last year).

Twenty One Pilots, a Columbus, Ohio, duo that incorporates rap, pop and reggae, is one of rock’s most commercially successful newcomers, graduating over the past seven years from 200-capacity rooms to 10,000- to 18,000-seat arenas.

‘It’s schizophrenic,’ says Phoebe Bridgers, who played at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium last weekend. ‘I’m small, but I get to open for big people.’
‘It’s schizophrenic,’ says Phoebe Bridgers, who played at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium last weekend. ‘I’m small, but I get to open for big people.’ Photo: Angela Owens/The Wall Street Journal

“Building a live business does not always align with what, on the surface, might be called ‘pop-culture’ success,” says Chris Woltman, Twenty One Pilots’ manager. “You are creating your own culture.”

Today’s rock acts may not fill the void when legendary acts like Elton John, U2 and Metallica call it quits. And it isn’t easy to make a living on the road. Smaller acts often lose money. If you tour too often, fans stop buying tickets.

Phoebe Bridgers, 24, a Los Angeles singer-songwriter, performed as a teenager at a farmers’ market in Pasadena, Calif., making $35 to $200 a day. Last year, “Motion Sickness,” one of her singles, won over critics. She shared a bill at a festival last month with the rock band the National. Next month, she starts a co-headlining tour with singer-songwriter Julien Baker.

“It’s schizophrenic,” she says. “I’m small, but I get to open for big people.”

Patterson Hood plays during the Drive-By Truckers show in Atlanta.
Patterson Hood plays during the Drive-By Truckers show in Atlanta. Photo: Melissa Golden for The Wall Street Journal

Messrs. Hood and Cooley, now in their 50s, first tried to be rock stars in Alabama in the late 1980s. This year they resurrected their original band, Adam’s House Cat, releasing a “lost” album in September and performing a few shows.

Drive-By Truckers, which they founded in 1996, toured relentlessly, playing as many as 250 shows a year and running four vans into the ground. In 2003, a few years after their 2001 breakthrough album, “Southern Rock Opera,” they upgraded to a bus.

The road took a toll on them, too. Band members fought, and some departed. Touring “has broken us a few times,” Mr. Hood says.

Now the group tours in three-week spurts so members can go home to their families. “I don’t want to be a shitty parent,” Mr. Hood says. “I may be about to play a show, but I’ll be answering an email from an eighth-grade math teacher.”

The 11 band and crew members pile into a single tour bus. It can be hard to find one’s shoe at times, Mr. Cooley says, but it’s rare everyone is awake.

“It’s not like being in a station wagon going to Disney World with your wife and kids,” he says.

Drive-By Truckers recently finished recording the follow-up to its 2016 album, “American Band,” but it isn’t planning to release it until next year. Messrs. Hood and Cooley are booked solid through the spring and need family time next summer.

“We’re too busy to put it out,” Mr. Hood says.

So far this year, the band’s ticket sales are up 10% over the same period in 2017.

In November, the Truckers play three nights at Saturn, a 525-capacity club in Birmingham, Ala., roughly 100 miles south of Florence, Ala., where Messrs. Hood and Cooley first shared an apartment in 1985. The next day, it’s back out on the road.

Write to Neil Shah at neil.shah@wsj.com

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Is It Ethical to Choose Your Baby’s Eye Color?

Is It Ethical to Choose Your Baby’s Eye Color?
Photo: Photo Illustration by The Wall Street Journal; iStock

Blair and James are trying to start a family. Like many parents, they hope their future offspring will be healthy. They’d also like the baby to have blue eyes.

The couple, both 35, describe themselves as type-A personalities who research everything. When they decided to try for a baby, they looked into DNA testing to rule out disease-causing genetic mutations they might pass along to their child. Then they learned about a test that might help predict a future baby’s eye color.

Blue eyes, says James, who has brown eyes, “is icing on the cake.” (The couple asked not to reveal their last names to maintain their privacy.)

Many prospective parents already use DNA testing to check for potential genetic anomalies that could lead to serious medical conditions. But as technology advances, they may also learn about characteristics that have less bearing on a future child’s health, like eye color.

In the area of reproductive medicine, parents wield great discretion in making decisions about their future children. But the notion that parents might someday select embryos based on what some deem as aesthetic preferences—a future child who is a certain height or good at sports or looks a certain way—raises challenging ethical questions. Perhaps, some ethicists argue, DNA testing will create a society that further values certain types of children more than others.

Many in vitro fertilization clinics that once offered genetic testing of embryos to prevent sex-linked medical disorders now also allow prospective parents to select the gender of the embryo because of a personal preference.

Eye color pushes the debate further. Like many human traits, it isn’t determined by a single gene, but a complex interaction of many genes. The test that Blair and James took emerged from work done by forensic scientists trying to predict eye, hair and skin color for unknown suspects in criminal cases for which minimal amounts of DNA is available. In published papers, these researchers determined that testing for six key DNA markers allowed them to predict if someone had brown or blue eyes with greater than 90% accuracy.

The scientific advances enabling predicting traits that involve multiple genes go beyond eye color. A company called Genomic Prediction received regulatory approval in New Jersey in September to market its Expanded Pre-Implantation Genomic Testing in many states. It will cost $400 per embryo. Genomic Prediction says it can accurately predict which embryos are at high risk for complex health conditions, like diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

Researchers at the company demonstrated how the approach could be used to predict height in a paper published this year in the journal Genetics. Someday, new techniques might allow predicting the likelihood of an embryo’s future academic potential.

In a blog post, Stephen Hsu, a founder of Genomic Prediction, posed an ethical question: An IVF doctor has two healthy, viable embryos and must choose which to implant. One has a hypothetical risk score that indicates the embryo is at high risk for struggling academically in school. The second embryo has a score indicating the future child likely won’t struggle. Do you tell the parents?

“It seems ethically not defensible to withhold the information from the parents,” he says, “and ethically defensible to reveal it to them.”

Some IVF doctors say it’s too soon to routinely offer people risk scores about their embryos. Mandy Katz-Jaffe, a reproductive geneticist and scientific director at CCRM, a Denver fertility clinic, says that outcomes are often a mixture of genetics and environment. Moreover, the data sets upon which the algorithms are based involve geographically and demographically narrow groups.

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Nathan Treff, chief scientific officer of Genomic Prediction, says the company is only offering risk predictions involving disease and has no plans to predict an embryo’s eye color or level of educational attainment. “It is not always black and white what people consider a disease,” he says, “but we pay attention to what the community thinks is ethical.”

Jeffrey Steinberg, founder of the Encino, Calif.-based Fertility Institutes, believes his group is the only one offering the test Blair and James took. His team is working to develop the technology to test embryos for genetic markers related to eye color at the same time as genetic-disease screening. For now, the clinic only offers the eye-color test to some prospective parents. The institute charges $370.

Paula Amato, a fertility doctor at Oregon Health & Science University, and an ethicist, says the general view in the field is that genetic testing to prevent disease is ethically permissible. So is sex selection, although it is more controversial.

No one has inquired about eye color at Dr. Amato’s clinic. But thinking about sex selection has changed over time, and the same may happen with other traits, she says. Still, when it comes to eye color or other nonmedical traits, she says, “Not a lot of clinics are interested in getting into that business.”

Josephine Johnston is director of research at the Hastings Center, a Garrison, N.Y.-based bioethics research institute. She studies genetic testing in embryos. To her, selecting embryos based on traits like eye color “can seem awfully close to a eugenic mind-set, where we thought we can sort the worthy and fit from the unworthy and unfit.”

Parenting often comes with “the understandable desire to give your child advantages,” like height, or musical talent, she says. Yet people are part of a society that fights prejudice. “These kinds of decisions can feed into the discrimination, not fight against it,” she says.

While genetic testing of embryos is considered safe, there may be unexpected long-term effects. Many people feel uncomfortable about selecting embryos for aesthetic traits, worried about the difficulties of drawing a line about what should be left to chance. Dr. Steinberg, for one, says he already gets calls from people who want to know if it is possible to also select embryos with an aptitude for music or athletic ability. (He says he tells them not yet.)

One late September afternoon, Blair and James meet with Dr. Steinberg and his colleagues at the Ferny Clinic in New York City, where Dr. Steinberg also sees patients, for the results. “We’ve got some pretty good news for you,” Dr. Steinberg tells the couple. Based on the results of the testing, he says, “You absolutely can make a blue-eyed baby.” The doctors say that they estimate that in a group of five of their embryos, one is likely to have blue eyes.

For now, the couple plans to try to get pregnant the traditional way. “We will be thrilled to start our family,” Blair says, no matter the eye color.

When they told their parents and friends they were doing a DNA test to determine if they can have a blue-eyed baby, they got mixed responses. James’s father was fascinated. But Blair says that some family and friends thought using technology to learn about a baby’s eye color was a step too far.

She views things differently. “It’s screening to see what’s possible,” she says. Her husband agrees. Once you start looking at an embryo to rule out diseases, he says, what’s one more thing like eye color?

“You are there already,” he says.

Write to Amy Dockser Marcus at amy.marcus@wsj.com