On Natural Wine, Punk Rock, and Too Easy Analogies.
April 6, 2015

But the shadows have foes, and like weeds, among weeds, we will grow.
~

Moving in wine circles one often hears natural wine described as the ‘punk rock’ of the wine world, whether in reference to individual enfant terrible producers (such as Andrea Calek, most often) or to the prevailing anti-establishment ethos of a ‘movement’ which, depending on whom you ask, may not actually exist as such. Tim Atkin, a noted British wine writer, recently published an article to this effect which I was pleased to see attempted to pursue this analogy further than usual:

Punk was a reaction against bloated prog rock or packaged pop like Olivia and John. It promised to return to the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Natural wines are a reaction to over-manipulated wines made to impress rather than to drink. They hark back to some sort of prelapsarian past where wine was pure.

Natural wine, like punk, can be understood as a threat against the established orders of taste and cultural production. Its provocation straddles the aesthetic and moral divide, wielding “authenticity” as a weapon in (potentially irrelevant) battles over what even deserves to be considered “wine.” And, as is to be expected, there is an appropriate amount of vitriol and polemic to be found on both sides of these debates.

Atkins goes on to speculate as to whether the decline in relevance and appeal of punk rock contains a lesson for us about the future of natural wine. After all, claims of music journalists aside, was not punk merely a trend fueled by an able hype machine and the seductive allure of youthful iconoclasm, of which only a few credible scraps remain:

In my opinion, punk’s influence is best heard in bands that took the spirit but not the music such as Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Pogues. But natural wine is surely also, like punk, clever marketing no matter how much the organisers of the various natural wine fairs try to deny it.

This is where I think Atkins’ comparison falters – not however on the grounds of the weakness of the analogy but on his ultimate ignorance of his chosen analog. Like the majority of popular commentators on the history of punk, Atkins makes the mistake of conflating the demise of the phenomenon with the expiry of its time in the limelight. Only in recent years have music critics and wider audiences come to be vaguely aware that long after the Ramones and the Sex Pistols burned out or graduated to stadium shows and Spector Sound, there remained growing legions of disaffected, irritated, impassioned youth who continued putting on shows, piling into vans and releasing shitty, brilliant records (or, as often, tapes) for other shitty, brilliant kids.

Where is the emergence of hardcore punk in Atkins’ analogy, or Riot Grrrl? The founding of Ebullition Records and the publication of Maximum Rock’n’Roll and HeartattaCk, to say nothing of the uncountable thousands of DIY zines and labels? Where are Fugazi and Bikini Kill, His Hero is Gone and Los Crudos in this narrative? They are invisible precisely because the account presumes the significance and the relevance of punk rock were coterminous with the attention paid to it by mainstream music journalism.

So what does a revised, better-informed understanding of punk’s history (and present) contribute to such an analogy? While I don’t disagree with Atkins’ suggestion that “Time will tell which producers turn out to be the Boomtown Rats and which the Pogues,” I think that there is an interesting lesson about taste and appreciation to be considered. Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of natural wine, on an intellectual and aesthetic level, may be to destabilize and encourage reconsideration of what it means to be a “good wine” (as punk did with the idea of being a “good band”). While there are numerous natural wines that are excellent by even the most traditional standards, whether it be the turbidity of an unfiltered wine, a whiff of animal funk or the slight spritz of latent fermentation in the bottle, many natural producers have helped to create a space for appreciating qualities otherwise proscribed as faults or flaws – new avenues for experiencing and making sense of the pleasures of drinking, like feedback and screaming, outside of the conventional register of taste.

On a recent visit to Montreal, natural winemaker Olivier Lemasson commented in passing that in France for the most part no one knows or cares who he is – there he is a farmer, it is only in Montreal and New York and London that he is treated like a rock star. Indeed, it is notable that much of the furor surrounding “natural wine” is to be found among the wine critics and journalists, rather than the vintners themselves. So perhaps more important is what the story of punk rock suggests for the future of natural wine – the possibility that when the trend has subsided, there will nevertheless remain a community of committed producers and appreciators who continue to believe in the importance of a vibrant opposition to the standardized and soulless (or what they view as such).  Toiling in relative obscurity and indifference to the market as the primary arbiter of taste, making what they love and loving what they make. DIY or die.

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postscript: If you have no idea what I am talking about re: natural wine, you should just come out to the salon des vignerons naturels – Les Turbulents this Sunday afternoon, April 12th, at the SAT, and drink yourself informed.

another postscript: I do think that there are other ways of pursuing this analogy – the problem of “authenticity” and how its language is mobilized by punks and wine folk; the limitations of thinking of punk as seeking an earlier “pure” form of rock n roll versus wanting to destroy music altogether or interrogate the normativity and machismo of rock n roll tout court; natural wine making recourse to an older, “more” traditional approach to winemaking v. punk treating tradition as itself stultifying and oppressive, etc.