Stained Glass: Curiosity Rules the Day | Varyer

Stained Glass: Curiosity Rules the Day

One of the best parts about wine outside of its sensory elements is that there is no wrong way to talk about it. Everyone grows up eating and drinking differently; our tastes develop subjectively lending to a world of experience and perspectives, yielding plenty of productive disagreement. Music is similar: over time we develop a taste. Mine developed when I started to collect records at a young age and eventually learned how to DJ, always keeping a wide-open mind and eschewing the confines of specific genres, scenes, or cultures. Sharing my love for discovery through music became a core value that naturally translated into a curiosity for wine while working in restaurants. Wine and music intersect, contrast, and complement each other, and they’re increasingly suggested as partners: Instagram accounts dedicated to a bottle arranged in front of a vinyl album suggesting a pairing, and musicians, artists, and other personalities collaborating with winemakers. While it’s clear to most people that music has a soul because of its relatable, creative, and expressive nature, my hope is that more people see the soul of wine.

Beyond music and wine as one of life’s great discussions, curiosity always rules the day.

Egon

A few years ago at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival, I was backstage before Madlib played and I spotted Eothen Alapatt, also known as Egon (Now-Again Records/Rappcats LA) toting a bottle of champagne. I introduced myself and told him I was curious about what he was drinking and when he showed me the Bourgeois-Diaz label it was a moment duly delighted to share a common love with a favorite producer. We connected over the understanding that asking the right questions to artists, musicians, and winemakers alike opens so many secret doors because it’s more than a secret handshake, it’s trusting that we can all be understood. He agreed and added, “Beyond music and wine as one of life’s great discussions, curiosity always rules the day.”

There’s an immediacy to most things that strike our senses and communicate to us with urgency, ‘That is DELICIOUS,’ or, 'What the heck am I listening to!?’ I asked Egon about what those moments are like for him. “It’s visceral, and it is immediate when you hear something special or taste something profound. I’ve heard this before; I’ve tasted this before. That could be a sound – say modal jazz – that’s perfect, though something you’ve not heard. Or it could be Pete LaRoca’s ‘Basra,’ and you know it by the first phrase. It could be a smell, say Musigny, which I find to be, in the best instances, unmistakable. Or it could be Mugnier’s Musigny, which the great Russell Hone called ‘perfumed, perfumed.’ You experience these cascading sensations and they are just remarkable.”

Modal jazz is jazz that makes use of musical modes often modulating among them to accompany the chords instead of relying on one tonal center used across the piece. Source

It’s easier to recognize the soulfulness of wine next to music, especially after reading about some of Egon’s tales from the road. Both are expressive, honest; they force you to be present and evoke feelings in the mind, body, and heart.

“I am generally a happy person, and I like music and wine that makes me feel immediately melancholic. So that’s the deepest jazz, the saddest soul, the wistful folkloric music from any place, or great Burgundy and sometimes very old Riesling.”

Music is mostly consumed by hearing and listening. Wine requires the use of sight, smell, and taste. Things like vibrations, rhythm, and meter, tug on palpable senses that require more cultivation to perceive in wine. There is plenty of music that takes patience to understand what it’s trying to convey. With something strange or dissonant, it’s easy to be inclined to just change the song, sort of how one might dismiss a wine.

“I’ve been searching for obscure old records far longer than I’ve searched for old wine, but the parallels are there: it takes someone, or some people, who have the acumen and following, to acknowledge something obscure as great before it becomes valuable. Before that point, it’s just dismissed.”

“Back in the 90s when I was finding records for the first time and showing them to people as valuable, I was often pushed to the side, as many things I liked weren’t fashionable, or hadn’t hit that point where they could be accepted into the canon. It’s the same thing with wine, and fortunately so – I won’t go into the leagues of négociant burgundy from the past, for example, that I adore and that I find most people skip over, but there is plenty of it, and for that I am grateful, ”

I couldn’t resist asking, because I’m a fan of Freddie Gibbs, how musicians get bit by the wine bug. Since I knew they tour together, I asked Egon what he thought about wine that they latch on to.

“I think that Freddie was very pleased to be on the road with me because I always had good wine with us, wherever we went. I remember Mugnier in Moscow, and once secured some 1934 Collares that he drank from the bottle on stage at a moving festival in Porto. I’ve found that it’s hard for people to resist great wine, they just have to be curious.

The other week, I was in Utah, with Logic and his crew, talking about wine with them, and I started waxing poetic about how cosmic La Tache is. I’d previously found a 2004 bottle at a French restaurant when I was last there with Madlib and we had left it there. I so badly wanted to go try it, a maligned vintage that I had hope for, because it was, of course, La Tache. It didn’t take me more than a few minutes of describing the wine, its improbability of still existing at the restaurant in the foothills outside of Salt Lake City, and how interesting it would be for us to try it for Logic to insist that we all go, and experience it. We did. And it was everything I’d hoped it would be, and everyone there, I think, got a glimpse into what great wine can be.”

Putting on a record is exactly the same as pulling a cork: you never know where the experience will take you.

Robert Dentice (aka @soilpimp on IG), also a cohort of Egon, Madlib, Mike D (an avid Burgundy collector), and the like, works closely with Stephen Bitterolf of Vom Boden for his Source Material Imports and RieslingStudy events. I asked him about some of the things he’s been up to involving our mutual interest in the amalgamation of food, wine, and music.

“We had a big one in LA where we had food by Chef Kat Turner who trained at Blue Hill and is now Chef/Owner of Highly Likely Cafe in LA, three DJs from Memphis, DC and NYC and a band assembled by Carlos Niño to back up legendary Spiritual Jazz musician Phil Ranelin and mysterious soul icon Edward "Apple' Nelson, we even had a surprise appearance by TOBI the JUNO 2021 Hip Hop artist of the year. It was a magical night attended by many Los Angeles luminaries. We’re doing a similar event in Chicago on December 5th at Dorian’s.” The RieslingStudy dinner and tasting portion of the event sold out quickly but the after party is open to the public and will include music from Damon Locks of the Black Monument Ensemble, the Kimba Unit, Skinny Pablo, and DJ sets by King Hippo, Joe Bryl and Soilpimp.

To some of my other questions, Robert insisted, “Yes, winemakers are artists and both can be soulful with everything they do! They can take you on a journey and change your whole vibe. Putting on a record is exactly the same as pulling a cork: you never know where the experience will take you. Wine collectors and music geeks love the thrill of discovery. Researching obscure music, discovering new music, getting to know winemakers and musicians is all part of our passion and another reason I am so excited about Source Material.”

Music can also be used in the process of making wine. In Jerez, Spain at Bodegas Valdespino the seemingly endless fields of barrels, upwards of 25,000, are peacefully accompanied by subtle classical music playing throughout the massive cellar. Our guide Jaime Gil referenced a scientific study that took place analyzing the interaction between music and yeasts when considering how to apply it to their wines. The way the sound resonated and echoed throughout the room was easily one of the most memorable experiences in my wine travels. It instigated other conversations about Georgian polyphonic singing and how integral it is to the Supra, a distinctive celebration of feasting on extravagant amounts of food, wine, and toasting. At Domaine Comte Abbatucci on the French island of Corsica, Jean-Charles hooks up speakers to his tractor and drives it around the vines while playing traditional Corsican polyphonic songs (similar to Georgian), which continue into the cellar where the fermentations and wines are treated to the same vibrations.

Chai (pronounced "shay") is a French word for a wine storeroom; usually it refers to an aboveground room rather than an underground cellar. Chai also has the connotation of a barrel storage room vs. bottle storage. Source

During a tour of Burgundy in 2012, a few of us were visiting Domaine Alain Burguet with Jean-Luc Burguet, who, with his brother, had just taken over the reins from their dad that year. Tradition is deep-seated in Burgundy, but many times when the next generation takes over, things get updated. Jean-Luc, with no shortage of personality, rocking dreadlocks, and an overall jubilance, guided us around the cellar, tasting wines out of barrels. Before departing I had to ask him about the set of turntables connected to a legit sound system I saw upstairs in the chai. He responded (in his best imitation of a Jamaican accent) that he likes to spin Drum & Bass and Reggae for the wines. Not exactly traditional practice in Burgundy but one of many examples of winemakers utilizing music in the cellar; there are even stories of playing heavy metal around stuck fermentations with fruitful results.

Chai (pronounced "shay") is a French word for a wine storeroom; usually it refers to an aboveground room rather than an underground cellar. Chai also has the connotation of a barrel storage room vs. bottle storage. Source

Jeremy Quinn, sommelier and former wine director of Webster’s Wine Bar in Chicago chimed in on some of his own experiences. “When we were in Eastern Japan, tasting with a Sake brewer and watching the washing of rice, we heard singing coming from another room. A group of workers standing around low wooden tubs, which held rice pulp; were rhythmically mashing the rice with long posts, also of wood, two per tub, and singing traditional Japanese songs alongside the beat of their bodies and the smack of wood on wood. Taken with the beauty of their music, and the scene, we repeatedly asked the head brewer about the songs’ significance. We assumed that they were singing about the joys of sake and details of the workday but he seemed surprised that we were interested. ‘It’s simple, we sing to keep our rhythm as we work, our arms moving together, to keep working in unison. That’s the object, it’s very simple. It’s the old way.’ The subject of the song, he insisted, wasn’t so important yet he humbly, but confidently replied that the working in unison like this, the music, mashing the rice in this particular way, in the old wooden bins, exposed to the air would make a difference on the flavor of the finished sake.”

It’s simple, we sing to keep our rhythm as we work, our arms moving together, to keep working in unison. That’s the object, it’s very simple. It’s the old way.

Before his recent chronicles in Japan, Jeremy along with filmmaker Emily Railsback, filmed Our Blood is Wine in the Republic of Georgia, a beautiful and deeply personal film that carefully captured their longstanding love for what many consider the oldest records of human winemaking, nearly 8000 years ago.

“Across the country, in disparate regions, the polyphonic song finds different expressions: in the coastal west, for example, the rhythms are quick and staccato, with fast alterations of pitch, and the lyrics are comic; in the landlocked eastern plains, the style is more hypnotic, marked by long, bass drones and narrative lyrics. The geography mirrors the music: sudden peaks and valleys in the east, sheltering isolated villages, and flat wide horizons in the west. One afternoon, in a wine bar in Tbilisi, we staged a tasting to gauge a third mirror: We gathered a group of singers, and as they shifted between regional classic songs, we tasted a set of wines from those regions and found that the strong resemblance held between the music, land, and wines, that in fact the eastern wines, were more playful, showing flashes of bright acid between moments of tannin, while the western wines were clearly more brooding, with longer skin contact, and required more focused contemplation. The Georgians agreed, and we sat with that and discussed which could have come first in the sensibilities of these small family winegrowers - the view out of their cellar door (foreshortened or wide), the local tavern songs (jovial or grave), or the family wine style (playful or brooding) - where the music fit, vis-a-vis ‘origin’ and a definition of place, and opined together that after the primal landscape and its final expression in the wine, music played the crucial middle element, crystallizing the winegrower’s outlook and style.”

I recently gathered in Chicago for a wedding and there was a reunion that included a huge swath of other Webster’s Wine Bar alumni. Memories of the wine bar take me back to a time when learning more about wine every day rarely ever felt like work. It was an inspiring environment to learn and make a living. One of my single favorite parts of the job was how everyone had their chance to put whatever music they wanted in rotation, it was never radio and rarely mixtapes. We listened to albums from start to finish throughout service that created a presence within a single artist's sound, our physical space, and a common thread of wine as a catalyst to a vibe in the room. I haven’t felt anything quite like it since then.

there are indecipherable, magical things happening inside the ether of the bottle there are indecipherable, magical things happening inside the ether of the bottle

No matter how many times I’ve listened to favorite albums they always have a way of taking me back to the moment of discovery, sort of like time travel, but more significantly it reveals the evolution of self that encompasses all of the time in between that first listen and the wisdom that’s been earned in between. A recording essentially stays the same, a constant, and we are the ones that evolve, like wine. Can a recording age well? While vinyl records essentially deteriorate with every play, they can be remastered or revisited in a historically relevant moment in time. A favorite record in my collection by the Horace Silver Trio (Blue Note 1520) is on the condition grade spectrum somewhere between fair and poor, but the static crackle has become something endearing. Even some handwriting on the sleeve that reads .39¢ (not what I paid for it) lends to the experience of vinyl records being physical and living pieces of musical history. I’ve seen a copy for $125 in very good condition and was tempted but I’d rather spend that money on wine.

Wine is something that ages and changes over time. Many contributing factors can be deduced as to whether something will age more gracefully than something else, which can be difficult to understand because there are so many elements and potential influences. Much of it is science and chemistry, but certainly there are indecipherable, magical things happening inside the ether of the bottle. Sneaky things happen with aged wine, defying expectations and confirming that wine is a living being with its own set of progressive wisdom. We as humans might be a closer parallel to wine than music but the interaction between all creates harmony in stereo.