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Let’s Talk About “Funky” Wine

August 03, 2021

Story: Danny Chau

photo: Mallory Heyer

Wine

Let’s Talk About “Funky” Wine

August 03, 2021

Story: Danny Chau

photo: Mallory Heyer

How do we navigate the line between love and revulsion in natural wine?

Just seconds into a phone conversation I was having with Lou Amdur, his aging cat vomited. Amdur, the proprietor of Lou Wine Shop in Los Angeles, apologized for his pet’s spontaneous fomentation. In that moment, the wineseller straddled a fine line between love and revulsion, the same line he navigates daily while evoking flavors for his customers who often have no idea how to articulate what they want, so long as it’s funky.

With the explosion of natural wine has arrived a thirst for surprise—something that makes the eyes bulge and the nose shrivel—a deviation from established wine norms, which often gets lumped into the “funky” descriptor. But what is funky, and to whom? Is it a flavor? A strange showcase of an uncommon grape variety or a winemaking technique? Or something else entirely? In June, the comedian Jake Cornell illustrated the funk-seeker’s plight in a TikTok: Nothing is quite off enough, save for masticated raw onion.

“When I hear funk, I think of certain flavor profiles,” Amdur tells me. In his experience, funk, for most customers, is about the novel sensory moments that are not present in, say, a bottle of Rombauer Chardonnay, which is designed for consistency. Funk can come from brettanomyces, the strain of yeast that can produce flavors as diverse as plum and barnyard; it can be the result of reduction, the natural accumulation of sulfur compounds that, at best, contribute a savory weight and, at worst, mustiness (a “poopy” element, as Amdur says); it can be the result of volatile acidity, which can bring out sharper fruit flavors while en route to vinegar. It can also present as an ethos, a wine made with a character and narrative that stray off the beaten path.

Funk is all of those things in a constant give-and-take, and perhaps that’s the problem. “I think it’s a little bit of a monster that we’ve created,” Amdur says. “It’s so indeterminate of what we mean when we say it. As someone interfacing with customers, you’re always trying to perform this sort of heuristic dance of recoding what people say internally so you yourself can do a better job of giving them things they might find delicious.”

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Perhaps the pitfall lies in the word’s origins. In the early 1700s, “funk” had become a word popularly used to denote the emittance of a strong and foul odor, its roots from the Latin word fumigare, which meant “to smoke.” By the end of the century, the Bart Simpsons of London would stuff cotton and asafoetida (the essential Indian cooking spice derogatively known as “devil’s dung”) into a cow horn pipe and light it close to a door, blowing the smoke in through the keyhole. The allium-rich aroma of asafoetida can permeate a room and linger. This childish prank was known as “funking the cobbler,” as recorded by lexicographer Francis Grose in his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, a gallery of terms gleaned from late nights in London’s taverns and brothels. The use of “funk” in reference to Black American jazz music traditions in the early 20th century is believed to be derived from the term lu-fuki, which in the West African Kikongo language represented the bad body odor of someone who worked hard on their craft.

How can one capture an essence of deliciousness with a word that, at its very core, conveys the opposite?

Its foray into wine vocabulary, however, came later. One of its first mentions appeared in the 1991 edition of Oz Clarke’s New Classic Wines, in which the British wine writer chronicles Greg Upton, the late Napa Valley winemaker who, beginning in the late 1980s, used only wild yeasts in his vintages. “Sauvage walks the edge,” Upton told Clarke. “Funky wine. I want people to keep returning to the glass and say, ‘Did I really taste that?’”

But as the fascination for funk has captured a more mainstream imagination, it becomes more exposed to meme-ification. If TikTok users are spoofing recent natural wine converts, calling for wines with notes of human disaster, it mirrors previously fetishized traits in wine history—heavy oak, the fragility of pinot noir, so-called unicorn releases and the allure of skin contact. Of course, as Amdur attests, “funk” is not simply a quality intrinsic to low-intervention wines. It can be a stylistic choice or a symptom of problematic winemaking.

The expression of funk, then, becomes a moving target, mutable in both intention and perception. The fleeting mystique of natural wine often lies in a near-impossible balance of flavor, melding obvious and less obvious delights. And when funk becomes an increasingly prevalent quality, it risks flattening the range of delight and becoming a certain inverse of funky: boring. “One thing that wine shouldn’t do,” says Amdur, “but unfortunately does a lot, is bore you.” It’s an irony, of course, this looming possibility of tedium, which gave birth to a desire for funk in the first place.

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Tagged: natural wine, wine