When LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy announced last month that he would be opening a wine bar in Williamsburg named the Four Horsemen, the biggest surprise may have been just how matter-of-fact the general response was. ‘Food is the new rock’ is an accepted fact these days; it’s a shift that’s brought a new cachet of cool and musical acolytes to a number of epicurean realms — including wine, whether it’s Beastie Boys’ Mike D. penning a popular wine blog or former Rilo Kiley vocalist Jenny Lewis creating a custom wine to pair with the release of her 2014 LP The Voyager.
But one particular type of wine has attracted more than its fair share of adoration from the indie musician set: natural wine. Murphy’s bar, co-founded with his wife, Christina Topsoe, will dedicate much of its 160-bottle list to the category, which is defined by a minimum of human intervention in the vinification process — i.e., the rejection of everything from chemical fertilizers to cultivated yeasts to, in more hardcore sects, any addition of sulfur dioxide. What’s drawn musicians like Murphy, fellow LCD Soundsystem alum Nancy Whang, Jenny Lewis, Pitchblende’s Justin Chearno and others to natural wine is a common sensibility between their worlds.
“There’s a feeling that natural wine is similar to what indie rock was in the 1990s,” says James Casey, founder of Swallow magazine and a filmmaker who’s directing a documentary about wine. “Compared to conventional wine, this stuff is kind of obscure. It appeals to a certain type, a subset that likes to dig.”
While natural wine has been in vogue in France (where the movement started) and Europe at large for over a decade, it’s only over the last half-decade that it’s begun to spread to consumers here in America, thanks in large part to a rising tide of importers, wine store buyers and sommeliers dedicated to the wines. Yet despite its growing popularity, natural wine is still largely on the margins, with some estimates putting sales of the category at less than 1 percent of total wine sales worldwide. That’s part of the allure for artists whose tastes lean toward the unconventional and avant-garde. “Natural wine is very narrow, niche, weirdo and esoteric,” says Whang. “It’s an easy thing to obsess over, just like a drum sound or a vintage analog synthesizer.”
Natural wine and indie rock are ultimately in search of the essence of a thing, having grown out of a larger industrial culture that recognized greater profit potential in uniformity and predictability. “That era [the 1990s] of indie rock came out of the mid-1980s in reaction to the dominant musical culture of the time, which was hair metal,” says Jon Fine. “It was all about the party, all about artifice. It was terrible. What really spoke to me about indie rock was that it said: ‘All that stuff is bullshit, all that stuff is lying to you. What is the real expression of music?’”
Natural wine inspires this pitch of passion in part because it telegraphs a larger set of ideals and beliefs that transcend wine — respect for nature, individuality — much in the same way that claiming Sonic Youth or Bikini Kill as your favorite band was a statement of sociopolitical identity in the 1990s. But natural wine’s seductiveness is as much sensual as it is ideological, the unique production process leading to a singular, funky flavor profile that beguiles many from the first sip. “I always have the same reaction — oh wow, this is something, something’s happening here,” says Whang. For both Whang and Murphy, their introduction to that first taste came from one man: Chearno, the patient zero for the music world’s natural wine mania.
Supplementing his income as a guitarist by working at the small Williamsburg wine shop Uva in the early 2000s, Chearno caught the wine bug, eventually becoming Uva’s buyer and letting his tastes shaping the shop’s — and his friends’. Wine was soon the main social lubricant of choice in a circle that included Murphy, Whang, Jon Fine, Turing Machine’s Scott DeSimon and the members of Holy Ghost and Hot Chip.
“When musicians are back from tour, the last thing they want to do is go to another bar; they want to be home,” says Chearno. “So there became more of a scene being at our friends’ houses, drinking wine.” Most of them were not already wine fans, so Chearno’s introduction of bottles that were often fresh, low-alcohol and unlike anything they had ever tasted was a welcome surprise. Touring became an opportunity for Chearno’s friends to expand their wine horizons, and turned the discovery process into a two-way street.
“When you’re in big cities where bands are spending time — Copenhagen, Japan, London, Paris — you drink wine and it often turns out to be natural wine,” says Chearno. “My friends would come back and tell me about wines, take pictures of labels, ask if I’d had it, and all that led to me and James working on this wine bar.” When Chearno and Murphy hosted a natural wine tasting on the S.S. Coachella in 2012 to an audience that included dozens of other musicians, it was a flash point that drew the two worlds closer, laying bare the parallels between them, with Chearno introducing the tasting line-up as “the garage bands of wine.”
Both movements are ultimately in search of the essence of a thing, having grown out of a larger industrial culture that recognized greater profit potential in uniformity and predictability. “That era of indie rock came out of the mid-1980s in reaction to the dominant musical culture of the time, which was hair metal,” says Jon Fine, who has played in underground rock bands for 30 years and recently published Your Band Sucks: What I Saw At Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution. “It was all about the party, all about artifice. It was terrible. What really spoke to me about indie rock was that it said: ‘All that stuff is bullshit, all that stuff is lying to you. What is the real expression of music?’”
The desire to eradicate the unnecessary barriers — additives, high-tech machinery — between grape and glass in the winemaking process is also what motivated punk and indie bands to want to reach audiences without the distorting influences of major record labels. “It has to do with removing all the accoutrements, all the stuff that gets in the way,” says Fine. “It’s that attitude of, if we strip all the bullshit out, then what is it really about?”
Chearno sees the transparency of natural wine as the main reason that musicians have flocked to it, much more so than a taste for geekery or the obscure — a pretension he says they abandoned in their 20s. “The thing that interested a lot of people I knew in these wines was simply how close you are to the person that makes it,” he says. “It was the fact that it was literally made by a human being that they could talk to, that it was the product of somebody’s hands.”
Just as music on the edges of popular taste can over time shape the mainstream, so natural wine has already begun influencing the larger wine industry, with major producers turning to more sustainable methods. That influence happens thanks to proselytizers and the avant-garde, those who restlessly seek newer, purer, less manufactured expressions of the thing they love. “For us, we were never going to be satisfied with the stuff that was on the radio,” says Fine. “Once you get the bug, you’re always trying to find the other thing. You’re always asking, ‘Where can I learn more? What’s the next and better way to get that thing?’”