Funk is the New Black

Markham Heid explores the hermeneutics of “funky” in the wine world.

Traditionally, funky meant that something was off,” says Linda Bisson, a professor emeritus of enology and viticulture at the University of California, Davis. “If something was funky, that’s when you brought in the quality control people to see what was wrong.” But times have changed. While some still use “funky” to describe a wine that has obvious or unpleasant flaws, many now employ it as a synonym for “unconventional,” or as a sort of catch-all adjective for those hard-to-pin-down qualities that make natural wines unique and appealing….In other words, “funky” is a wine that surprises you.

I’m old enough to remember when “funky” referred to James Brown and his Famous Flames. But long before that the word referred to a pungent odor.

So here we are today; consumers are coming to wine shops with funk on their minds.

I for one am very happy with this development. We’ve had enough of nice, pleasant wines—round, soft, polished and conventional—pretty things with nothing of difficulty about them. Real beauty is less comforting, more disruptive. A pretty face becomes beautiful when animated by something tumultuous and tense just below the surface. Same with wine.

Great wines are deviant, they don’t conform, they have an otherworldly quality, depraved but interesting, like that guy you decided not to marry.

The fact that fermented grape juice can smell like bacon, sweaty saddles or decomposed leaves is a source of endless fascination. Lemon zest is lovely but doesn’t scream originality.


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