The controversy of the week was prompted by this article by Vicki Denig at Vinepair assessing the current status of “funky” as a wine descriptor. In interviews with a variety of wine professionals, attitudes about “funky” were all over the map—just like the various meanings the term has acquired.
Because “funky” is often associated with wines that show bacteriological activity like brett or volatile acidity, people striving to promote “clean” wines—meaning wines with pure fruit expression—don’t want their wines described as funky. I guess it works to describe the other guys wines though. Most of the retail professionals thought the term is useful when customers use it, because it indicates something about their preferences. Folks that sell wines that are off-beat don’t mind the term at all.
But what is striking are the quite different meanings the word has acquired in the wine world. Animal, earthy, musty, yeasty, and oxidative aromas are funky. Cloudy wines count. Wines that undergo spontaneous fermentation with native yeasts, unfiltered with low or no sulfur—i.e. natural wines—are funky (despite the fact that some are clearly not.) Some treat the term as a synonym for flawed. Others use it to describe wines that are different or unconventional. ‘Rustic’ was mentioned as a synonym; so was “edgy” and “thought-provoking.”
Is there a core meaning in all this diversity?
On the surface, it doesn’t appear to help much to look at the history of the word. In the 18th Century, it apparently referred to a state of fear in Flemish, and then came to mean a state of dejection in the English speaking world, as in a “funky mood.” That meaning brought it into the music world in the early 20th Century where it referred to the mood captured by the blues and some jazz. Of course, in the 1960’s that musical use morphed into soul music with a particular kind of danceable rhythm featuring strong bass lines, syncopated rhythms on the kick drum, and displaced backbeats on the snare. (Think In a Cold Sweat by James Brown.)
It’s commonly used to refer to an unpleasant odor. (In the past it had an overtly racist intent.) Today, it is routinely applied to musty or moldy aromas as in stinky cheese. But in the fashion world it sometimes means fashionable in a déclassé manner, fashionably lower class. But it can also mean attractively quirky or odd.
Does any of that help sort out its aptness for describing wine?
I think so. In all cases, the term throughout its history invokes the basic, hard facts of physical and emotional life, something down-to-earth, unrefined, damaged, and worn down, and the music that expressed that way of being. Most of the meanings of “funky” in the wine world fit that semantic domain as well, in that they refer to aromas or flavors that suggest something biological and unrefined. Even meanings such as different, edgy, off-beat, and thought-provoking fit if they are contextualized as referring to the gritty details of life as opposed to the refined, desensitized, grand, and lofty. In other words, it’s a certain way of being edgy or off-beat.
So I think complaints about the word being vague or ill-defined are misplaced. It captures well a whole domain of human experience, and a mode of expression for a variety of wines, some of which are natural and some conventional.
In any case, such a useful term will not be regulated by attempts to police its use.