During LCD Soundsystem's final concert in 2011, James Murphy, the front man of the now-defunct punk-dance band, bid farewell to New York. "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down" was the last song he sang before the lights went dim. The song bemoans the Disneyfication of New York and its inexorable pressure to commercialize, conform, and clean up.
This June, Murphy opened The Four Horsemen, a wine bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the spotlight is once again upon him. But this time he's doing what he can to make New York a place he, and all of us, can truly love.
The Four Horsemen is a glittering unicorn among rock-star business ventures—it actually has a soul. Part of the reason is that alongside Murphy (who does happen to be damn serious about wine, by the way), his wife Christina Topsøe, and chef Nick Curtola are the other team members: Katrina Birchmeier, Randy Moon, and Justin Chearno. They are wine experts who, in their own laidback, non-supergloss-megastar way, are on the forefront of revolutionizing the New York City wine scene.
These "other" horsemen behind The Four Horsemen want to turn you on to so-called natural wines. But they don't want to freak you out with the culinary equivalent of an existential crisis in the process. They simply believe that these wines are the best they can offer, and think you will too.
But the world of natural, organic, and biodynamic wines is a nebulous one indeed, filled with obscure nomenclature and overlapping categories.
"Natural wine" is a loose term that stands for wines made with minimal intervention, particularly while the wine is being dealt with in the winemaker's cellar. Does it mean there are absolutely no sulfites in the wine? Not necessarily. Is it always made from organic grapes? That's not the easiest question to answer.
Labeling a wine organic, the pundits say, has to do with the treatment of the grapes as they grow. Organic wine should be made without pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or synthetic fertilizers. The definition of organic wines and the certification of them, however, varies from country to country. Much like halal, there is no single international standard.
Biodynamic wines, on the other hand, refers to a rather arcane system created by Austrian esotericist Rudolf Steiner, who lived during the early part of the 20th century. It's been noted that strict adherents of Steiner's philosophy follow some black-magic, voodoo-level shit, like "burying cow manure in a cow's horn over the winter, unearthing it in the spring, diluting a minute amount of the substance in 34 liters of water, 'dynamizing' it by stirring it by hand in alternating directions for an hour or so and then spraying the mixture over one's vineyard." While a lot of people think that this sounds like a Werner Herzog fever dream, others argue that the proof is in biodynamic wine itself, which is gaining in popularity and earning some great reviews.
With some understanding of these burgeoning (if confusing) categories of wine, I recently spent an evening at The Four Horsemen to find out why some of the team members love natural wine, and why their affection for it is spreading throughout New York's restaurant community.
The wine bar is inconspicuously located under a bodega sign and next to a graffiti-strewn wall, while the inside looks like a Japanese-Scandinavian crossbreed, with a minimalist vibe thanks to lots of natural wood and white paint. Everything—from the chairs to utensils to lighting—seems carefully curated and, of course, acoustically superior. The restaurant only seats about 40, and is packed most nights.
Katrina Birchmeier, the general manager of The Four Horsemen, hurriedly greeted me at the bar before rapidly disappearing once again into the blurred mass of dimly lit tables. She is new to New York by way of Tasmania, Australia, where she co-owned and operated a restaurant called Garagistes, which she called, without exaggeration, "a pioneering and boundary-pushing restaurant." Garagistes gained its reputation not only for its innovative and interesting menu, but also for its focus on natural wines and artisanal sakes.
Birchmeier helped introduce natural wines to the Australian market. "What I love about these wines is that they represent a moment in time," she explained. Each vintage of wines is a product of the earth, the weather, the overall climate conditions, and the winemaker. These conditions will vary year to year and they are not masked by manipulation, but rather they are captured in the bottle."
Birchmeier is a particular fan of the subset of natural wines known as skin-contact wines—white wines made like reds, with the grape skins present during fermentation. She says that to introduce a newcomer to the natural wine scene, she might serve them a La Stoppa Ageno from Emilia-Romagna in Italy. "This was the first skin-contact white wine that I tasted," she said. "It blew my mind."
In Birchmeier's estimation, the most popular wines that The Four Horsemen is serving are skin-contact white wines, which are also known as "orange wines." Most of the ones they serve are from Italy, but Birchmeier is also fond of some she has found from Slovenia and Georgia.
Promoting the natural wine scene is "not about any dogma," she insisted. "I feel that there is often subtlety, balance, and purity in natural wines that work well with food."
Co-owner Randy Moon then joined me at the bar. He has as diverse a background as any of The Four Horsemen team members; he worked in privacy and intellectual property at a tech company until 2011, and then travelled around Australia and Europe drinking wines since. He and James Murphy met in LA, where they bonded over natural wine.
Moon poured me a glass of Bartolo Mascarello Freisa, something Will, one of the front-of-house staff members, brought in. He explains, "When it comes down to it, we're a bunch of nerds and we get excited about anything that's delicious."
Birchmeier told me later, "There are often wines that we list that are on tiny allocation—sometimes just three bottles for the year—and overall the wines that we serve are made in very small quantities. It is just fun—for the staff and for regular customers—to change things up on the list often."
To pair with my juice, chef Nick Curtola, formerly of Franny's, prepared the first of several small plates. Out came beef tartare, lightly dressed in buttermilk with a sesame cracker. The dank, earthy nature of the beef tartare worked perfectly with the foresty wine, both of which tasted elemental and ancient.
The bartender then poured me a glass of Susucaru, an Etna Rosato by Frank Cornelissen. The winemaker has said it is the most difficult wine he makes because it is hard to figure out "how much of the aromatic varieties, how much Nerello Mascalese, some ripe, some not so ripe, depending on what happens with the aromatic varieties." Like everything else at The Four Horsemen, a lot of thought and care went into making this wine.
Bright and crisp, the Susucaru paired beautifully with a small plate of cantaloupe, stracciatella cheese, culatello, and lovage. The dish was fresh, vibrant, and harmonious.
Moon then walked me down to the bar's wine cellar, which was designed by Murphy and wine consultant Justin Chearno. Row upon row of natural wines lined the walls.
Chearno goes back the farthest with James Murphy. A former musician—he played with Pitchblende and Unrest—Chearno has known Murphy since the 90s. He left the music world in the early 2000s and became the wine buyer at Uva Wines in Brooklyn. "I was a bit of an evangelist about natural wine then and I somehow managed to get all of my friends onboard," he told me. "James and I went to France together a few times and we went to all of the natural wine spots and had some amazing experiences." When Murphy decided to open a wine bar, collaborating with Chearno was a no-brainer.
Chearno said he can't remember exactly when he first got into natural wines but he knows why he became enamored with them: "I like the wild flavors, the bottle variation, the way that they were nothing like any other wines … Up to that point I thought, Music has to work out, I have no back up plan. But after wine I started to think, Wow, this is making me as happy as playing music."
He acknowledged that natural wines have carried a bit of a stigma in the past. Some people think the wines have "all have flavors of a 'horse stable' or cow shit or that they are all oxidized … but we do our best to taste and avoid that stuff."
Chearno is not trying to start a revolution—he's just serving what he loves to drink. "We don't want to be at the forefront of any kind of argument or make anyone feel unwelcome," he said, noting that other restaurants around the world are pushing even more challenging bottles. "You can look at the wine lists of the greatest restaurants in Europe—noma, Can Roca, Le Chateaubriand, etc.—and their lists are full of natural wines, even some wines that I would consider too fucked-up to ever serve at The Four Horsemen!"
At that point, it became clear to me why these wines are taking off, and why The Four Horsemen is at the forefront of this movement in New York.
First of all, ours is a generation that is eating more healthfully. As Chearno puts it, The Four Horsemen's customers don't want to drink wine filled with "additives" or "200 ingredients."
But it's also that these wines are sui generis. They have personality and an artisanal, hand-made quality that appeals to a generation—both of novice drinkers and food and wine insiders—that is intent on avoiding putting mass-produced, generic crap into their mouths. In other words, these wines are personal and individual. They capture not just the terroir but also the feel of the people who made them in a way that traditional wines may not.
As I left The Four Horsemen that evening, I noticed the logo inconspicuously printed on the door: a four-headed horseman, hand-drawn by artist Mike Pare and based on Picasso's Don Quixote. It is perfectly emblematic of the group's consolidated voyage into the post-apocalyptic realm that is the modern natural wine bar. One horse, four heads.
In "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down," Murphy rails against the boring "neighborhood bars" in Bloomberg's New York City that are a far cry from the places in his imagination where, "I'd once dreamt I would drink." The Four Horsemen—the mutual dream of Murphy, Topsøe, Moon, Chearno, Birchmeier, and Curtola—is a neighborhood bar worth dreaming about.