Anyone involved in the wine business, at least in cities where there is also a vibrant music scene, knows that there is a lot of overlap between the wine world and the music world. In Los Angeles, where I work, the number of wine shop and bar proprietors and staff who currently work or formerly worked in music is staggering and, without any real statistics to make this claim, seems to eclipse that ubiquitous Los Angeles retail/hospitality employee staple, the un/under-employed actor in prevalence.
And while this is not to say that perhaps one day Lana Del Rey won’t open a natural wine bar in Highland Park, in general the genres of music that wine pros are involved in tend toward those which skirt the mainstream: jazz, blues, bluegrass, punk, folk and the many variations and hybrids of the above which dot the (non-existent) alt airwaves these days.
Even for those wine pros who don’t themselves harness of up with a sitar or lute, music pervades wine shops and wine bars and the music being played is not the innocuous satellite radio nonsense I remember from my table-waiting days but ranges from college radio chart-toppers like MGMT and Arcade Fire to alternative hip-hop like The Roots and Black Star to my personal folk-punk favorite Two Gallants.
(I would be remiss to not mention that it is a violation of copyright to publicly play recorded music without the appropriate license. Nevertheless….)
Which is no small reason why these wine shops, bars, and restaurants readily embrace the wines that are so far from the mainstream. The simplicity and homogeneity of popular wine (like popular music), is so comfortably banal that over the last decade a desire for the new and different has grown into the modern wine bar explosion of the last several years. We’ve “started our own fraternity,” as the cliche goes.
The recent popularity of “natural wine” (and the adjunct excitement for other weird wines like those of the Jura or Canary Islands) is sort of the early apotheosis of this movement, an attempt to differentiate the real wine geeks from the poseurs, even if the real wine geeks were just as excited about Arcade Fire as everyone else when they were still playing Bottom of the Hill and the Echo Plex in 2005.
“You’re just now discovering the joys of pre-phylloxera Romorantin? Shit, that’s old news. Now it’s all about un-grafted Cannonau–and don’t you fucking call it Grenache!”
But this is, of course, the narcissism of small differences, and it does a disservice to the efforts to bring more of the Rombauer and Silver Oak drinkers over into our fold as drinkers of honest, authentic wines of small-to-medium production, great substance and interesting history.
I’m a natural wine enthusiast, but for me a natural wine is simply a wine that is made from responsibly-farmed indigenous grape varietals that are naturally fermented with native yeasts, aged with limited use of new oak and bottled without additives save for the natural, safe and imperative sulfur dioxide at the lowest levels necessary to ensure stability.
Because ultimately, how obtuse is too obtuse when it comes to wine? This came up in conversation a few weeks ago when I was at a tasting of “natural” wines from France where two of the five wines had undergone secondary fermentation and a third was overloaded with Brettanomyces as to smell of nothing else. While a small amount of secondary fermentation does offer an interesting petillance on the tongue, the accompanying sweet chemical aromas soon become overpowering. The same can be said for Brett which, in moderate amounts, can lend complexity to the aromas of a wine but can also easily become dominant, stinky and destructive.
For me, good wine and good music are always rough around the edges, lacking the artificial, finished veneer of the mainstream. But they also must retain the fundamentals of what makes an aesthetic experience pleasurable (at least from my Western Millennial bias)–namely, harmony, balance and fundamental structure. Distortion, dissonance and atonality can all be pleasurable additions to wine or music as long as its identity as wine or music is maintained. Punk rock was revolutionary not because it pushed the boundaries of music with excess but rather because it stripped music down to its simplest identity–what is the absolute minimum required to make a rock song that is still identifiable as a rock song?
Which is the same question that every natural wine proponent should ask, no? What’s the absolute minimum amount of intervention required to produce a winethat is still a wine?
Because merely being an unusual fermented grape juice-based sensory experience (UFGJBSE), while often interesting, is not enough to get me to go for a second glass or shell out $20+ for a bottle and yes, while 20 minutes of noise music and primal screams on a loop might be a disconcerting addition to your latest art installation, no I will not buy your 7-inch.
While modern innovations should always be looked at with a healthy skepticism lest we eliminate traditions that have lasting worth, there is perhaps something of value in what we’ve learned over the millennia we’ve been making wine and music to suggest that we don’t need to leap all the way back into pre-history to find authenticity.