Man, winemakers can get down. “I think I was just dancing with Foillard!” one wine blogger shouts over the music. Among the people who don’t care is Jean Foillard himself: The French winemaker is too busy dancing. This is the after-party for New York’s first natural-wine fair, and balding grape growers from European countrysides are swaying with the young wine sellers who represent them in the New York market. They’ve all been drinking for the better part of the day. It’s 2 a.m., and most of the bottles are empty.
Jules Dressner, a scruffy, fair-haired guy in rectangular glasses and a T-shirt, is working the room with lilting ambient electronica. He doesn’t look up from his turntable or otherwise hype the crowd. As one of the most influential importers of natural wine, he knows just about everyone here, except maybe a couple of twentysomething guys who, as far as anyone can tell, don’t actually know anyone but seem thrilled just to be in the room, like high schoolers who made it into the frat party but don’t dare venture past the keg.
For the very small but very dedicated population that’s into natural wine — an undefined term that broadly signifies wine made with minimal intervention on the part of the winemaker, wine’s farm-to-table analogue — this party is the coolest thing happening in New York on a Saturday night. For an outsider who might wander in, the mob of farmers and sales reps jamming to EDM provides a glimpse into the unlikely intersection of the Brooklyn music scene and the world of bespoke wines. Diddy’s got his vodka; LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, his beaujolais.
The overlap makes sense: Both music and wine reward obsession. And the cultural explorer who enters this rarefied microclimate will discover an Instagrammed landscape of sommeliers and collectors and vintage bottles — backlit, shot from below — posed next to, say, vintage Coltrane or Donald Byrd vinyls. “Sick juice,” reads one caption. “Saxophone emoji,” says another.
It’s estimated that natural wines make up about 1 percent of total sales. In this sector, scarcity counts more than price. A sought-after bottle might cost $40; part of what you’re paying for is cool, and there’s always a market for cool in NYC. More than a decade before natural wine went wide here, its earliest evangelists were a pair of dudes in a band in Williamsburg who worked at a shop called Uva.
“At the time, everyone who worked at Uva was in a band. Everyone who came in there was a musician,” Justin Chearno recalls. Chearno is the wine buyer for the Four Horsemen in Williamsburg, a restaurant he co-owns with his buddy Murphy. In the early Aughts, Chearno was a punk rocker, playing guitar in bands like Pitchblende, Turing Machine, and Panther, acts he describes as “weird and arty” (and that the Village Voice at the time called “sonic Devo-on-speed new-wavey”; “groundbreaking dissonant HC with Rolling Stones swagger”). These words mean nothing, but it’s easy to imagine them applied to a wine, like the one that Chearno has chosen at the Four Horsemen. “Whew!” he exclaims, taking a sip. “That’s a wild ride!”
Chearno wears Seventies-inspired glasses and a sensible wool sweater and has the gentle composure of a punk kid gone soft. That he managed to turn a life of touring in mildly successful noise bands (“Nobody liked us, but we got to make records”) into a viable career buying and selling wine still seems to amaze him. “This was 2002. Uva was the first liquor store that opened without bulletproof glass,” he claims. “People were like, ‘Oh, there goes the neighborhood. We gotta move. It’s over.’ ”
But the people, the “hundred of us” that Chearno mentions, early-twenties musician types, didn’t move, at least not then. “They would come into the store and be like, ‘You’re the dude in that band. You were next to me at that weird bar. And you talk like me when you talk about wine.’ ” Chearno eventually rose to buyer at Uva, stocking the shelves with wines he came across while accompanying Murphy on tour.
One V.I.P. wine groupie is Damion Reid, a jazz drummer and wine collector in his own right. Reid, who is of West Indian descent, suspects he would never have found out about this wine stuff had he not been into music. Now he speaks of winemakers with the same fanboy excitement they might use to describe him. He recalls meeting another importer who marveled at this successful musician’s seemingly random obsession with natural wine. “Random?” Reid replied. “Motherfucker, this makes sense to me.”
Uva became an incubator of sorts; it wasn’t the only one. Across the bridge in Lower Manhattan, jazz clarinetist David Lillie had opened Chambers Street Wines twenty years prior. In a pre-Ikea Red Hook, Arnaud Erhart, a tour manager in the Eighties, poured natural wines at the cult restaurant 360. On the Lower East Side, DJs met at the Ten Bells to drink then-revelatory beaujolais. Some turned it into a day job.
Fifteen years later, the neighborhood has gone, the punk rockers are raising kids in rent-stabilized two-bedrooms, and a few blocks away from Uva, at the Wythe Hotel, the natural-wine festival has sold out. Dressner, the DJ from the after-party, recalls the night of the tasting as “one of the most fun parties I’ve ever played in my life.” For a few years now, Dressner has been throwing parties under the moniker Santé Motherfuckers, which he hosts with another wine rep, Tess Drumheller. (A recent “wine rave” in Greenpoint, with glowsticks and “wine shotz,” proved a bridge too far: “People who came because they were into wine weren’t necessarily into a psychotropic light show.”)
Dressner initially wanted nothing to do with wine. Having grown up in a family of wine importers, he moved to San Francisco to make it as a DJ. He wound up pouring at one of the earliest natural-wine bars, where he was working the night Murphy walked in. They stayed drinking until four in the morning. That musicians Dressner admired thought what he knew about was cool came as a revelation: “These musicians would never have hung out with me if I was just some groupie dude.”
Many of the people in this story describe wine, like music, as a way to organize the world. There’s a noble, aesthetic purpose, sure, but also some remnants of the kid wondering where he should sit in the lunchroom. Recognizing a wine is like seeing a band sticker on another kid’s notebook and knowing immediately you want to be friends. And in an industry that is mostly white and male, there’s something refreshing about the idea that music can be a point of entry, because even if it’s self-selective, at least it’s selecting on the basis of something other than the name of the hedge fund in your email signature. There’s a vague awareness of not being on the list, but it’s OK; you’re with the band.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 15, 2016