Sharing is Everything | Varyer

Sharing is Everything ➰➿

Wine tripping with Matty Colston

Matty Colston has spent the last decade influencing some of Chicago’s most popular and, arguably heady, wine programs. The DJ-turned-somm’s encyclopedic knowledge of wine coupled with his creative application has helped to shape noteworthy spaces for the unpretentious, modern discovery of wine.

Currently living back in his home of Cincinnati, Colston now acts as a vintner négociant, sourcing grapes from friends’ vineyards in Oregon to create bespoke limited-run wines marked by their rugged transparency and cultural temporality. He also DJs and likes to look at wine under a microscope.

We sat him down for a meandering conversation about his journey, tying together his passions and opening up about the path to get there.

Varyer Something that has always been interesting about the way you curate lists and experiences is this idea of wine and music being connected. How did your wine journey begin within the music world?

Matty Colston My first major inspiration was in high school, what I wanted to do then was to put music to movies. I wanted to be the guy that created the soundtrack. I'm still very much connected to that. I started learning throughout my late teens and early 20s while in college that I'm visceral, I’m particular. I think that once I started learning about myself, I started realizing that the music I liked, it was more like I was collecting it. I studied music and I was a musician, but I was more of a music appreciator. When I started working in restaurants, I moved up really fast. I was tasting wines when I was still a busboy at age 20. When I moved to Chicago in 2002, I started DJing in restaurants. I was taking some classes and I was into digital photography and web design, one of my goals was to become someone who helped curate websites and photography for underground bands and artists. I got into package design and all this design stuff while I kept working in restaurants. I kind of hit this point where it's like, okay, either keep going down the food and beverage path, which was a passion, or move towards music, design, culture. The pivotal moment was when I chose to move back home to Cincinnati and open up my own bar, it was called Clique. I fused [music and wine] at this place, which back in ‘05 was pretty ahead of its time.

V+ It immediately makes us think of hi-fi bars in Japan that are super popular and everyone speaks quietly. They are reverent to whoever is mixing at the time.

MC Well this place got loud as fuck [laughs] and it was just smoke and cigarettes everywhere.

V+ It was still an American bar.

MC Monday night was always hip hop night and that became a thing - so Noah Sweeney from the Animal Crackers, an amazing DJ, and the Hip hop clique, would all come out. Tuesday was rock night. Wednesday was drum and bass night. Thursday was world music and Fridays and Saturdays were always a rotation of bigger name DJs regionally. It was heavy on the cocktails, but good wines, lots of tequila— like a dozen different 100% agave tequilas. I was kind of fusing all my things into one. It wasn't really a wine bar, but I tried to pour good things. Eventually I moved away from my business partner, so when 2008 hit I was at another pivotal moment. I was interviewing in New York City and also at Blackbird in Chicago and that just felt like the right thing. I chose once again to dive deeper into food and wine, elevated but definitely not pretentious. Blackbird was a really good fit at the time.

Then I got this job at a small wine bar, Webster's. Webster's was my deep sort-of-college education, going to Austria, Burgundy, Alsace, and learning by experience. It made me realize that it's not about studying your ass off and putting on a suit and wearing a pin and getting your sommelier certificate. To really understand anything, you have to experience, and to experience, you have to go there. It's so much more than just wine. It's the people, it's the food, it's the place. It's the terroir and the climate. It's this never-ending web of connections. I think what I've done my whole life is quietly connecting people and connecting emotions by playing the right song at the right time and having the right wine with the right food.

never ending web of connections never ending web of connections

V+ We were first introduced to your somm skills at Chicago’s Michelin-starred Korean American restaurant, Parachute. You had this ability to connect the wine list to the food, and then also articulate your intentions in a very succinct and eloquent way. There was confident brevity to your wine list, but then there was also your ability to connect the music to the food and to the people and to the feel of the dining room in a very temporal way. Can you talk about how you tapped into that ability and what it means to you?

MC Well, I think that it took a long time for me to realize [that ability]. I realized that, whatever my artistry is, I’m a curator. I work with the senses. Part of that is because I have anxiety and I read the room. I'm empathetic to people. I think about what people want before they even want it. At five o'clock when the dining room opened, I didn't put on Biggie Smalls, you know what I mean? Don't even get me started on...

V+ ...on going hard in the paint while you slurp some Ramen?

MC I go off to no end about that stuff, haha. Like why-- how did that happen? Essentially, with Parachute being as small as it was, I knew that there was a potential sensitivity of diners to how close they were to other people, the sound volume. I knew that it was going to be sensory overload in a way, so we had to temper things by being casual. We implemented so many elements of fine dining, but all kind of repackaged, like you’re at a neighborhood joint or you're in our house. I felt really lucky to be in that position as a curator, that no matter what, people are going to be willing to try something new because a lot of things are new.

I always knew to start off [the night] with something like world music or dub, you build it up. Sometimes even in the heart of a Friday or Saturday night when it's slammin’— play some jazz or something! It’s kind of almost like the yin and the yang of the situation, and that all comes from just my own sensitivities and my awareness. It's hard to believe, but for almost two years I didn't take a single day off. That was partially because that was what was needed, but also we all wanted to have complete control because it was the first two years. And it paid off! The first year, the Beard Awards came to Chicago and I'm in a fuckin’ tuxedo and I'm looking over at David Chang and I'm with my buddies and I feel like I'm [gestures] this big, I'm so proud. We also knew with what we were doing that it didn't matter if we won anything or didn’t. We felt so good that we finally had the opportunity to really shine and I think it ended up being organic.

V+ We have a memory of you introducing us to a wine back at Parachute. It was a Poulsard, which we then went on a journey to find. We have some cellared, that's five years ago now.

MC I’m glad you mentioned that. We're actually all more connected than we even realize sometimes, and it feels good. That's what really makes me move, and be proud of not going to college and getting a degree and having a nine to five.

The Beard Awards came to Chicago and I'm in a fuckin’ tuxedo and I'm looking over at David Chang and I'm with my buddies and I feel like I'm thiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiis big!

V+ When did you realize that being in hospitality wasn't enough and that you needed to make wine?

MC So that was like me putting music to my movie, in a way. I eventually hit the threshold of “I-can't-do-this-anymore.” I’m 20 years in the restaurant industry and I'm watching the position of the sommelier disappear right in front of me at other places. No one can afford to pay a beverage director a salary. Now there's all these younger people that are servers that are wine savvy. Anybody can write a wine list. I just saw it coming and I’m glad I jumped ship when I did, even though it was scary as hell because I had an opportunity in New York to work with the Contra and Wildair guys and I can't believe I turned it down, but I did. I had to do it because I realized that up to this point, I have never really made anything. I've curated the hell out of everything and I've helped this restaurant [Parachute]; I put my own passion into it, and I feel like a lot of people saw that. It wasn't even mine— I wasn't even an owner, which a lot of people thought I was, but I wasn't. So it's like, damn, I'm nearing 40, I’ve got to take some ownership over my career. It's been almost three years and the flowers and the buds are just starting to come out. Even though the wine was completed last year, I still have so far to go, it's still really hard. I don't really make any money.

I guess denying a potential, more professional path like going and working for Contra/Wildair in New York, they opened this place called People's, which is like their retail/wine bar sort of atmosphere. We definitely lined up, and that definitely would have been a great move for my career and probably would get my name out there even more in terms of respect. I'd just rather talk to real people about wine. Wine is for everybody– it shouldn't be this thing that is put up on a pedestal.

Colston Biblio 001

Wine is for everybody Wine is for everybody

V+ So tell us a little bit about Colston Biblio. Why is it special? Why did you choose Brianne Day in Oregon as somebody to work with?

MC I knew I had a passion for Oregon, I thought that Oregon was kind of like the Wild West. There was a parallel to France and Alsace and Austria and other wine regions that I really cared about. Then there is my friend Brianne who has her winery, and I was a harvest intern, but during which I also sourced fruit from a vineyard that I really loved and had a connection with. They sold me some Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc. So I decided I'm going to make this one wine, very specifically, with intention of my philosophy, being more than just about the grapes, the way it was made or the terroir in the vineyard, but the wine being made from the sommelier’s perspective, I'm infusing myself with this.

When I got back to Cincinnati after making the wine, one of my best buds here, Emmit, runs a really amazing branding company called C-90, and he's also an old school friend who used to play the drum and bass night and then eventually started one of the most successful nights at Clique. But the dude knows me, knows how much of a spazz I am, and he knows the shit that I care about. He also knows that I care about design because that's what I wanted to do professionally at one point. So when we started sitting and talking, he pretty much agreed to do the whole thing pro bono, like, how do I create my wine label brand? I had a lot of initial copycat desires. I wanted to sort of look like everyone else, like a safe, natural wine label thing, they're very expressive and colorful. He also knew me as someone that came up in IDM and UK Warp Records-type, experimental things.

L to R: An exploration of skin-macerated Pinot Gris with two of Matty’s biggest inspirations for his first wine. Kelly Fox’s Maresh Vineyard from Oregon and Pierre Frick’s Grand Cru Vorbourg from Alsace.

V+ Someone who knew you holistically.

MC Yeah, we shared a love for the same sort of music and that really drove a lot of the brand, which you can see in the Colston Biblio journals that I created. It started coming out in this really organic way. That's how we hit on 'Biblio' - a bibliography, a personal story. You're pulling all this information from all these places and you're writing your story by what you do, instead of looking backwards at what you've done. It's like, ‘how do I create form in my world and how do I get to collaborate with the other things I love, like music and design?’ And then it just kind of started: writing books or journals, getting other artists to do labels for me, different labels every year. And [Emmit] ended up creating this logo; the ‘Colston’ is a very classic serif and he put a little bend on an oblique which is a classic wine realm thing that you see on labels of traditional wines. Then below that the ‘Biblio’ is kind of an 8-bit that also has that little oblique sort of background. When he showed me those next to each other, my fucking head exploded. I've never really made it about me, it's always about the customer, the person who I'm turning on to something. I go out of my way to be humble, so I was uncomfortable with using my name in the beginning, but I also saw the potential future value of the wine being CB001. That's my first in my catalogue. That's my first record.

V+ And numbers are infinite, you can go on forever.

MC Yeah, exactly. CB002 is the screen-printed posters I made. CB003 is the journal and then CB004 will be one of the wines that I make this fall, and then it will keep going, it’s going to be like my record label. At some point five, ten years down the line, there could be 50 or 100 things. Nothing is just wine. It's all these different things. I can do whatever I want, which is what I always really want for myself.

V+ The wines are all connected, each one sort of springing forth from the last. The journal, too, is such its own amazing, creative product, telling the story of this other thing that you've produced. What else do you do to fuel your imagination?

MC Sommeliers take crazy notes when traveling, when we were visiting a guy in Alsace, we tasted about 80 wines in two hours. It was just madness. I've got stacks and stacks and stacks of notebooks filled with notes, my sommelier journals. I designed the journal to be static in its columns from contributors. There’s the Q&A, there's the pairing piece, focused on putting wine and food together. Then there's the main story, which was “The Gold Bullion” about the Spain trip. So, basically I made the wine and then April of last year was my bottling date, and Emmit and I had a really big idea to print ink directly on the bottle and it was going to be really expensive and just too much work. It's not impossible with a lot of planning, but it just wasn't the right thing. So basically, when I bottled the wine in April of last year, it was in shiners, as they call them— glass bottles with nothing on them.

MC What sucks about that, though, is that I had to pay a decent amount of money later to have all the wine picked up and taken to get professionally labeled because they usually do it all in one shot when they're bottling it. The bottling truck is this line that fills [the bottle] and then slaps the label on and then you put it right back into the case from which you pull it out. It's a quick process, actually, surprisingly quick, but nothing for me happens quickly. I almost always choose to go the bumpy road, haha... But it's kind of like the scenic route, you know?

V+ The more difficult the decision, the sweeter the reward.

MC Yeah. Yes. So I came back to Cincinnati after making my first wine with a case of bottles, unlabelled, and I'm back at the drawing board with a finished product. I immediately started thinking about what's most important to me? Story; transparency is one of the most important things in wine. That's part of what the whole natural wine realm is, though it comes with so many other bells and whistles. Ultimately doing less is about giving a certain respect to the wine and not so much to the person. Transparency in the transference of information, whether that's information of the soil, climate, the place, or me, or the wine, or the combination of the grapes or why I chose them.

So I was like, ‘OK, how do I understand things more?’ You've got to zoom in. Then I was just like, “oh, shit. Zoom in.” What if you zoom way in? I can take this wine— what if I put it under a microscope and see what that looks like? I had seen things like whiskey under polarized microscopy and there's all these crazy images. It's been done before, there's a lot of images out there of certain beverages, but not much used in a design sort of way. Emmit even tried microwaving the wine; turning it into a gel; reducing it, trying to get more out of it. The first thing I thought was ‘where are the microscopes?’ They're probably at the University of Cincinnati, so I went to the website. I saw this guy, Chet Closson, the lab manager. I emailed him thinking there was no way that they were going to let me in there. Turns out he was very curious, wasn’t a super wine guy but was immediately interested. We started talking and shared that I was looking for raw material to create an identity to this stuff. The first pictures didn't show us anything, but he was nice enough to tinker with it. I told him in the beginning I really don't have much to offer other than curiosity, but offered to give him some wine at the end of it. He said it was fascinating to him, not to worry about it, we’d cross that bridge when we got to it. A week later he was sending us images of these visual galaxies, particular things, floating around. We incorporated all of the elements in the journal. The illustrator who did all the drawings - Evan Verrilli, was already working with markers in blue and red, which were the exact colors of my wine label—which I knew I wanted to contrast the ruby-fluorescent color of the wine.

V+ We wanted to touch on that- on the rise and perhaps looming decline of the natural wine trend.

MC We’re arriving there now.

V+ Has it just been overdone and you’re over it, or should all wine should be natural wine?

I started studying wine almost 20 years ago, so before any of that [natural wine trend] happened. The word natural, I think, is just as bullshit as the word interesting or cool. It doesn't really mean anything. We should be looking for the same thing they're looking for: transparency.

They're looking for transparency They're looking for transparency

V+ There's already so much wine. To then think about adding an entirely new layer of wine that is more specific...on the one hand it offers unlimited exploration, but on the other hand, it's like Spotify. Do I need access to a billion songs? No, I need the sommelier to tell me what to do. What you've been saying makes sense, that music is so much of what you do. There are obvious comparisons we can draw from your DJing to your winemaking.

MC My DJ name forever was “-ish” because my music was “Hiphop-ish, House-ish,”. I kind of live in between things and I find ways to go from an Afrobeat record to a minimal techno record. That's always been my realm. I was kind of doing the same thing at Parachute: you're eating a tripe bibimbap and here is an Austrian Zweigelt. It's like, “what?!” And it works! I figured out that it works kind of by accident, like a lot of things. This whole imagery that I used to make this wine label was an accident, right?

V+ Well, it feels very intentional for an accident. Do you miss those experiences in the dining and hospitality world?

MC Yes and no. Yes, I miss turning people on to things, so not having an audience right now has been kind of hard. In the past few years, I've definitely been more Instagram lite, but I do have a lot of people that have always loved following me in my adventures. This year in particular is just not the right time. There's more things that need to be paid attention to than what I'm drinking right now. So I kind of stopped for a while. But if I hear of somebody going to Vienna, I'm like, Oh! You’ve got to go to this place Grünauer. It’s unbelievable, super old school, really humble and the best schnitzel in Austria. I learned that from Johannes Hirsch who's an awesome winemaker. So there's this inherent trust with recommendations. I'm proud to wield that sort of trust, and when people listen to it and then they go to Vienna and they go to Grünauer and they come back and they loved it; that makes my heart explode. It's like, ‘wow, they trusted me’, they got to have the experience that I once had.

What's your next move?

MC Now moving forward, I ask myself, ‘how I can take my past of curating peoples’ dining experiences and move forward and help curate a potential full-circle opportunity for somebody else?’ How can I curate through writing or a wine column, or in my wine journal, or something else? I miss being relevant— I did enjoy being someone that was involved in the community in Chicago. I understand that's partially my ego talking, also that's just what I do. I worked this whole time to get to this point.

V+ What’s the point of knowing all that stuff, if you're not going to share it?

MC Sharing is everything, yeah. It's what wine is all about. It's like social glue.

I figured out that it works kind of by accident, like a lot of things