A classic part of the cruise experience is the ability to pass time with a few planned activities. Genteel crowds find time to take in a yoga class, learn a language, or pick up some salsa moves. For those, however, who had the opportunity to swirl a glass of natural wine grown amid volcanic rock with LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy and oenophile friend and former rocker Justin Chearno (of Pitchblende and Unrest), who described his tasting selections of as "the garage bands of wines," it was apparent that this was no normal cruise activity.
A "REAL WINE" TASTING LIST
When James Murphy and Justin Chearno wanted to bring a few cases of natural wine aboard the S.S. Coachella, little did they know they’d need to hire a transport truck to legally move the vino across state lines. But we’re glad they did. A bona fide "experience," the tasting included five interesting, very pleasing, and totally polarizing wine selections from the Loire region in France. As the night’s hosts said, natural wine is an adventure with ups, downs and great rewards for the adventurous. Here’s what we tasted…
"Les Annes" Petillant Naturel 2011 from winemaker Jean Pierre Robinot
- A light sparkling wine, Chearno said Petillant wines (or "pet’nat") are what’s known in France as breakfast wine. "You could drink this at any time of day" he said, noting it’s becoming a favored choice in some of Brooklyn’s hipper haunts. Tasty.
Muscadet "Amphibolite Nature" 2011 from winemaker Jo Landro
- Not to be confused with Muscat, which is totally different, this wine was fresh, dry and lovely. A perfect pairing with oysters, says Chearno.
"Contadino" 9 from winemaker Frank Cornelissen
- Produced on land near an active volcano in Sicily, it’s totally fair to take a sip, sit back, and proclaim, "I taste hints of lava rock." The most polarizing of the bunch, this wine was straight-up weird. My tasting partner liked it. I thought he was crazy. Murphy noted that he knew it wasn’t a hit when his family refused to dig into the magnum of Contadino he once brought to dinner.
"Bonne Heure" Bourguiel 2011 from Domaine de la Cevalerie and winemakers Stephani, Emmanuel, and Pierre Caslot
- A cool red, this wine was the closest to anything you’ve ever tasted. Easy drinking, smooth, and delicious, Chearno says this is an example of what the French call "vin de soif," or wine for thirst. Bottoms up.
Le P’tit Rouquin 2011 from winemaker Oliver Lemasson
- This wine is from one of the leading figures of the thirtysomething second-generation natural winemakers in France. With a beautifully designed label and a deliciously complex and interesting wine, this represents what Chearno says is most exciting about the natural wine trend: design conscious young people experimenting in unconventional ways that return winemaking to its purest roots.
On the S.S. Coachella, the desert music festival’s first seafaring experience, the concept of on-board activities took a decidedly indie and star-studded twist. Passengers interested in something more active than lounging by the pool had the opportunity to spend some time engaged in musicians’ favorite hobbies that also showcased the unique spaces on board the Celebrity Silhouette—from nail art with Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss to readings in the Library with Father John Misty’s Joshua Tillman, lazy bingo on the upper-deck Lawn Club with Grimes, and a chance to learn to DJ with Franki Chan.
But by far the most insightful, entertaining, and tasty event was Real Wine with Murphy and Chearno. Staged in the ship’s wine cellar, the evening started with an introduction on what natural wine is, which is based on the principle that there’s nothing but grapes in the wine. Commercial wine, said Chearno, can include upwards of 200 additives, including glycerine, thickeners, and something called mega purple—a grape juice additive that ensures wines from major vintners taste the same year over year, regardless of a particular crop’s output. By contrast, part of the experience of natural wine, which is often made in a winemaker’s garage, literally, is the unpredictability. Murphy noted that when bringing a bottle of natural wine he’s never tried to a dinner party he often warns, "this might get weird." With natural wine, he said, always go with something you know if you’re sharing it with less adventurous souls. "Justin and I have gotten so into tasting wines that at times we just didn’t realize that the bottled had spoiled," Murphy said, eliciting chuckles from the intimate audience. Murphy also dropped some serious wine knowledge. When asked where such wines can be found in cities such as Toronto, L.A., Austin, Miami, and of course, New York, Murphy had an immediate answer. Respect.
While the idea of sipping artisanal wines in a posh room aboard a more than slightly debauched rock ‘n roll cruise might seem a bit incongruous, any air of pretension was quickly stripped away with Murphy’s laid-back vibe and Chearno’s framing of the wine industry in music terms.
"You can’t learn about how to taste something from a book. You can read a book about Stevie Wonder but you’ll never understand what he does if you don’t hear the music. It’s a very similar thing," said Chearno to knowing nods.
Wanting to dig deeper into his music-wine analogies, I caught up with Chearno before he and Murphy went into the cellar for a second round of tasting. Here, he talks in his own words how wine stores are like record shops, why winemakers are like musicians, and why he thinks the natural wine trends is much more that "the dub step of wine."
I always loved food but the more I went to restaurants, I realized I didn’t know what to do when the wine list came. So I started reading a bit about wine but it’s like reading a book about art without photos. I always thought wine was a wanky thing and expensive, but then I was listening to NPR and they were advertising this book called The Wine Avenger. This guy was being bleeped on the air and he was talking about how when you go into a wine store there doesn’t have to be some guy with a gray beard and a corduroy jacket. He was the buyer at store in New York called Nancy’s Wine For Food, so I took the subway up there and the guy that worked in the store looked like me. He was in ripped jeans—this was the grunge era—and I was like, you gotta be kidding me, the whole place was like a record store. Every wine had a description, everything was under $20, and it wasn’t intimidating. That was my big eye opener.
It really became part of my life that a few of my friends got into. But it’s not like we were doing intense tastings—we were still going out and drinking shit beer. But I started to understand that the price of something didn’t necessarily relate to the quality on the menu. I was in bands at the time, temping and bar backing, and got a one-day-a-week job at a wine store so I could get a discount. I was actually really good at it and a year later the buyer of the store left and I was asked to take over the store.
Then I got scared because I realized I wasn’t remembering anything and I suddenly had to catalog everything. When I was a wine buyer I could taste 500 wines a week. You can’t write everything down. But I had to remember who distributed and who made it and what it was called.
That’s when I had this epiphany. I’d worked at record stores before and it was the same thing. You get to know the distributor, you get to know the band, and you get to know their music and you develop a taste. It all sort of clicked for me. There were small distributors of wine that reminded me so much of Factory and 4AD and Matador. When I stopped touring I missed all the eccentrics, all these weirdos in bands I knew. Then I started meeting winemakers and they were eccentric and young and out there. I want to be around these people.
A record label is exactly like a wine distributor in they way that it goes out and signs its talent. They go out and do wine A&R. That’s what I do now, wine A&R. The winemaker is the band, the eccentric character that is taking the risk to make this thing and hoping to god they can sell it and make a living, which is just like indie rock to me. And winemakers make many different wines and that’s like songs to me. Each wine has its own character, just like songs. And these small winemakers are like the garage bands, they have their facilities in garages and in Napa young wine makers share space in strip malls. There’s a word for it: they’re called garagistes. A lot of the guys that were making these wines were punk rock guys so I connected with them.
It’s much easier to find these wines every year. They’re really buzzed about in the industry but some think it’s a fad, like the dub step of wine. But for the people who believe it this thing this is a real genre in our community. It’s a real response to people wanting to be connected to their wine. Every wine tells a story.
Read about the rest of the cruise here.
[Images: Drew Anthony Smith/Fast Company]