One look at the wine list at Brooklyn’s June is enough to get Sharon Van Etten excited. After ordering a bottle of Brendan Tracey 2013 Le Capitalisme Rouge, a Gamay-Côt blend from France’s Loire Valley, the ambitious songstress opened up about how wine fits into her touring life and her inspiring path to becoming a wine lover.
You got into wine pretty early on. What first inspired your interest?
When I was in high school, I was an exchange student in Spain and the family that I lived with, on one of our last trips together, they took me on a drive. We ended up on their family’s vineyard in Rioja. They gave me a bottle from their vineyard, and I brought it home to my family. It was a gift to my parents and I told them that when I graduate, we’re going to have this bottle.
And did you?
My dad drank it by accident one day, not knowing anything about wine and just forgetting. It was really funny, but that was the first thing I remember—it was a very specific taste—and I got into wine just because of how beautiful the family was and my time in Spain. It was actually a very autobiographical moment in time for me.
And then you actually started working in wine.
When I moved back with my parents in my early 20s, I got a job at the local wine store. I was in a transition in my life. I’d just moved from Tennessee. Bad breakup. I was commuting to New York to play a lot, and I hated to leave [the store] because I had so much freedom and [the owners] were so kind, but how was I going to pursue music out of my parent’s basement? I moved to New York after they gave me a recommendation to Astor Wine.
Do you ever miss it?
I like having the drive to seek out things myself, and I bump into some people from the store every now and then, and I’ve thought about opening a store with a friend [selling] wines that we enjoy that are kind of left of center, which is still one of my many dreams. I never pursued being a sommelier, and I kind of like not having it be an ambition. It’s kind of like a pleasure.
Is there anything you reach for when you’re writing?
It changes based on what I’m obsessed with. I’m still learning the profile that tickles me, kind of like the Liatiko grape from Greece, a medium-bodied, acidic and stony red, and the Pineau d’Aunis from the Loire—a little light, but in some ways, crisp. Usually in my workspace, I don’t really drink. But when I get home, I have a piano and an acoustic guitar where I can space out without forcing it to be anything. Those wines definitely help me do that.
What was the obsession for your latest EP [I Don’t Want to Let You Down (2015)]?
That would probably have been when I was obsessed with the Carignane from Coturri. It was the one that happened by accident during the forest fires because [the winemaker] lost a lot of his grapes. This one Carignane was from 2008, and it was literally infused with smoke. It was the smokiest Carignane I’d ever had, but it was so special. I tracked down the last case in New York at Discovery Wines.
“When I get home, I have a piano and an acoustic guitar where I can space out without forcing it to be anything.”
Are you still hanging on to any of those?
They’re gone… [Laughs.] I actually left on tour in the summer and I had what was left in my kitchen, and half of them—well, about a third of them—went bad. The corks were popping out because I forgot to shut a window. Really freshman mistake.
That’s a huge bummer. Have you started cellaring or collecting any wines?
It’s kind of hard in New York to do that. But I also wouldn’t really know where to begin. I’m still learning what I like and I think they were made to drink now, so I wouldn’t know how to cellar anything. But if I ever had a space to do it, I would probably learn how to do it and what to look for.
When you’re touring/traveling, do you tend to seek out wine bars? Have you come across any that have surprised you?
My friend had sent me a link a while ago to listings of all the organic wine bars in the U.S., but my sister lives an hour outside of Denver, and she took me out to a couple of really nice places. Denver, I would associate with beer more so than wine, but it’s a huge culinary city.
On my phone, I use the Google Maps and I star things. I star all over. I read Eater religiously, and any time they list a place that I’d like to go check out or that’s controversial, I’ll star it so if I’m in a random neighborhood, I just pull out my phone and say, “Oh, that weird place! I’ll go there!” As a band, we Google together and try to find good spots.
Do you like to have a bottle on hand for shows?
I ask for a bottle of wine on my rider, and depending on where you are, you’re going to get total crap or you’re going to get something very easy. It’s hard to get [good wine] in a lot of areas. When we’re in France, I can tell, you know?
I went on a press tour before the record came out and our label manager [in France] took my band mate Heather and I out to this specific bar. He knew that they had a few of the organic, biodynamic, funky wines I’m really into. He treated us and we just chowed down on incredible food. If I could sustain on that diet, it would totally be my diet.
Are you working on anything new right now?
I am working on new stuff. It’s kind of all over the place. Some of what I’m working on is a score for a new movie, which is really mellow and ambient and very special.
I have stuff that I’m writing for me, too, that’s very weird and quirky. I don’t feel like it’s a real genre. My songs are too long and dark to be pop, but they’re kind of funny and dry and weird.
Sharon Van Etten’s Music & Wine Pairings
We asked Van Etten to share which wines she thinks would best complement each of her full-length albums. Pop open a bottle and get to know the songstress one sip at a time.
Because I Was in Love (2009)
“This is where I started to get a little sassy and I got a band together. It’s a little more upbeat, but still a little biting. I’d probably do this with a Rioja wine, because it was big. It was a big jump from the last record to this. It’s big and spicy and sassy. I was still finding my identity, so I identify that with more of my high school years, probably.”
“I would go with the Carignane from Coturri because it’s medium bodied, but [also] because of the smoke, it’s not as juicy or fleshy as you think it will be. It was the first time there was a bit more seriousness to my songs. I was letting myself be a bit more dark and not as jokey. I was still finding myself a bit.”
Are We There (2014)
“It’s kind of like a slow burn, so I might size this one up to a Txakolina, more of a white that still comes off as effervescent and light, and as it opens up, it gets a bit more complex and unfolds. Slow burns.”