Wine and song is an occasional series on Wine in Chicago featuring a local sommelier challenged to pair a great song with a great wine.
“Fake Plastic Trees,” Radiohead, from their 1995 album, The Bends. Radiohead found themselves in the charts with their grungy hit, Creep, in 1992. The label had pushed them to come up with another hit, which caused the band to roll their eyes hard enough to affect the orbit of the moon. In the studio, after a million takes, the producer kicked everyone out and lead singer Thom York sang the song with just his guitar. The words were idiotic, meant to be sung with finger quotes around every word, a lyrical burn to commercialism, a middle finger to formulaic mediocre music, and a song the band meant no one to take seriously. However, maybe because he was exhausted, maybe because he was angry, maybe because he was possessed, York’s final rendition was extraordinarily soulful, sensitive, somber and melancholy. The emotion in the song about crappy formulaic songs was so real it resonated with a bajillion people and became an enduring iconic hit.
2005 Château Carbonnieux Blanc
Corey Drake, the wine director for RPM Italian, glides into a booth in a private room on the first floor on a Sunday afternoon in January. It is typical Chicago winter outside–blindingly cold, wind like a scythe, sunless and wet. There’s a champagne butler bearing a bottle of Charles Heidsieck’s, a brut champagne of magnificent quality that Drake pours immediately. He’s dressed casual sharp, sports an impressive beard, and a kind of ironic smile as if he just thought of something really funny but he doesn’t want to tell you. He looks like he could be Jim Carrey’s third cousin. Drake is a musician. Played melodic indie rock in a band called Darkroom. He has a musician’s broad and multivalent love for running down the obscure bands of session players on songs he loves. Right away Drake’s conversation runs away and we’re arguing about whether rock and roll is relevant and ticking off our favorite unknown bands like The War on Drugs, Flock of Dimes, and Brian Eno and yelling about how people don’t understand how Jimmy Eat World was ahead of its time.
Corey Drake: I think not enough people appreciate what that band is really about because they kind of went all . . . something happened to that band. They lost something. Their later records didn’t do much for me. There was a window where I thought they were just profound.
Wine in Chicago: I think bands in their younger days, before they get signed, I think they need to be treated like grape vines. They need to be abused a little bit. I hate saying that because musicians are important to me, but I feel like the more they struggle, the better the songs. When they stop struggling, they lose something. The great artists are the ones who keep struggling. Look at Bowie. He was always struggling to redefine himself, to find something new to say. Tell me about “Fake Plastic Trees.”
Corey Drake: Radiohead was a big deal for me like it was for a lot of people who were into music. I don’t know if you’re a Radiohead fan–
Wine in Chicago: Kid A was pretty great and Ok Computer, whatever—sometimes I’m like, Can you just have a cup of coffee? Can we just go bowling?
Corey Drake: I’m with you there and when I got this song from Seth Wilson I had a little bit of that and I thought, What a bummer of a song.
Wine in Chicago: Right? How the [bleep] do you pair wine with such a bummer of a song!
Corey Drake: Well, this is what we pair, do you want–
Drake moves to open the bottle of Château Carbonnieux Blanc waiting for us on the table, but he can’t because Drake has a lot to say about Radiohead. Drake talks. The wine waits.
Corey Drake: Well first of all “Fake Plastic Trees” was a song that . . . it’s kind of cool . . . one of the first things that came to mind when I started thinking about the song was obviously we’re marrying wine and music and these two worlds and it's personal so I can kind of remember personally you know with certain songs it’s a time warp and not that . . . this song came out in ’94. I was ten years old. So this vintage of this wine is an ’05 and it was around this time I started getting into the restaurant scene and I was still kind of touring and playing in my band and restaurants were a workplace that kind of tolerated a sporadic schedule.
Corey Drake: When I first started working at this kind of divey little micropub, I was cooking there. It was my first job. I was in college and I was also playing music. And my employer wanted to start an open mic night, so they had me head it—
Wine in Chicago: Why you?
Corey Drake: I had my own P.A. system. They were that divey. And I had a van and a trailer. They paid me. Gave me free beer.
Wine in Chicago: That’s where it’s gonna go anyway. Skip the middleman.
Corey Drake: It was so much fun for me ‘cause I would play sometimes. But so, one of the songs I used to cover—and you may be like What were you thinking?—was this song even though it’s the saddest thing you can imagine. So it is a meaningful song for me.
Wine in Chicago: But the wine.
Corey Drake: How do you approach something like that? One of the directions would be the cynical route but that wouldn’t be fun for you and me because we’d be drinking the most mass-produced, cheap—
Wine in Chicago: Fake plastic wine.
Corey Drake: Fake plastic wine. So I didn’t go the literal, cynical way. Which is part of the beauty of that song is sort of how sad it is and it’s this kind of assessment of the modern world. If you really dive into it, you can go down the rabbit hole. Radiohead fans are crazy. They have books written about the first line of the song.
Wine in Chicago: They’re as bad as Weezer fans.
Corey Drake: There are fan sites like Green Plastic. I mean I used to cruise those forums . . .
Please note, at this moment in the interview, Drake delivers a lengthy and fascinating deep dive into Radiohead fansmanship that I have redacted only because I don’t have enough room on the internet to publish it all. And look, this story may seem to indicate, it may seem to imply, that Drake may have kind of run long talking about Radiohead and maybe you, dear reader, may infer he has an overwhelming or slightly obsessive relationship with this band, with this song. But that’s not what’s happening here. That’s not what’s going on at all. Sure, Drake’s passionate about “Fake Plastic Trees”. He is critical of it. Considerate of it. He recognizes it as an iconic landmark of popular music’s intersection with true art, with a vulnerable and nearly private invocation of actual soul. The song we hear is the sound of an artist in the moment of creation, a thing that is rare and beautiful. This is what makes Drake a great wine director, a great sommelier: he has a reservoir of passion and while during this part of the interview it was directed at a song, it lives as wildly and as fervently in every glass of wine he serves.
I don’t know if you want to get too deep into it. We could sit here for days and talk about this song. The general idea is it’s exhausting. Any time we’re putting up a façade or trying to be something you’re not. That’s oversimplifying the song but in a general sense. But that’s what York is trying to say. But, anyway, transitioning into the wine, I don’t know if that’s what you want to do . . .
Wine in Chicago: It’s your show.
Corey Drake: Um . . . the wine, the thought for me, there was kind of . . . do you ever associate colors with songs?
Wine in Chicago: Synesthesia.
Corey Drake: Right. Have you ever tasted wine and thought of color?
Wine in Chicago: Sure. It’s part of the experience. Some wines are ruby colored. But you taste them, and you think of green.
Corey Drake: Green was the color that came to mind for this song. I mean, it’s obvious–it’s in the lyrics–how can you escape that? You remember the video with Thom York being all sad in a grocery store?
Wine in Chicago: That’s exactly how he shops. He’s like Ugh, shampoo, gross.
Corey Drake: Green made sense and I started thinking of those wines with green components. Wines with a lot of pyrazines [an aromatic compound that tastes like green bell peppers, grass, etc.].
Wine in Chicago: It’s the opposite of the spinach flavors. It’s a brighter green.
Corey Drake: Right. So Sauvignon Blanc is one of those grapes that does this classically. Every time no matter where you plant it in the world. And there are lots of homes for it. Obviously New Zealand, but originally its home was in France. The U.S. Chile. South America. It’s one of those grapes in the current wine consumption market that is obviously a very popular wine and for whatever reason, maybe the aromatic intensity. So let me go ahead and pour some of this . . .
Corey Drake: But when I’m thinking of sauvignon blanc, a lot of times it makes these cheerful, fun, bright, crisp, almost tropical notes. . . does that sound like "Fake Plastic Trees"? The song isn’t very cheerful. It’s not very bright. It’s not an uplifting tune. So most of the world’s expression of the grape in my mind are those styles. This is a really uplifted, fresh, vibrant, higher in acidity—an energetic quality to the grape that wouldn’t really match the song. I decided to kind of think about it from the Bordelais standpoint and they have a really unique kind of expression of the grape. They blend it like they blend their reds. They blend their white wine as well.
Wine in Chicago: Let’s play the song.
Corey Drake: Just try not to cry.
Thom York’s ardent vocals over an acoustic guitar, the song intro we all know, warbles over the table like we’d spilled a glass of room temperature tap water. We finally taste the wine.
Wine in Chicago: (looking at the glass with a face full of confusion, eyebrows arched up into the ceiling tiles) Oh, that is delightful. That is not anything that I expected. This wine really does work with this song.
Corey Drake: The blend here is about 60 percent Semillon, the remainder is Sauvignon Blanc with a little Muscadelle—a highly aromatic and intense wine. There are other also things happening here outside of the grape, ok, so these wines are traditionally aged in a French cask. This rests in about 35 percent new barrel, so you’re going to get some of those buttercream qualities and hard cinnamon stick from the oak. But you gotta remember also, it’s got some significant bottle age. Fourteen years on the wine.
When you think of describing a wine you always think about fruits and to me that’s one of the more perplexing parts of this wine. I mean, you smell fruit but . . . so grapefruit is a common aroma you get from Sauvignon Blanc—and it’s there—but there’s all this savory stuff happening too that kind of scrambles your brain.
There’s this creaminess to it. A kind of sour cream and onion kind of savory almost. . . almost a culinary feel to it . . . this mirepoix, this cooking smell of onion and butter– then there’s fruits that are kind of there but they’re not . . . this is not a cheerful wine. It’s not making you smile. There are fruits, there are bruised orchard fruits, fallen apple . . .
Wine in Chicago: I can see an entire new vocabulary of emo wine terms: I smell a fallen apple and a lot of angst and ennui, ugh, this wine makes me want to kill myself—but in the best way possible.
Corey Drake: Right? That’s what I was going for. I didn’t want to sit here and be depressed but I also didn’t want to pour you two-dollar fake wine either.
Wine in Chicago: So what do you pair this with?
Corey Drake: I mean, initially I want some French cheeses, some goat cheeses, some Brie some of the softer cheeses, that’s kind of the easy route of course, wine and cheese. But I’d go with some veal—you could do seafood—but a veal has got a lot of personality and flavor. And also that kind of game quality. You want something that ties to this primordial earthy place because this wine speaks to a place and to earth. It smells like wet rocks and wet gravel and button mushrooms . . .
Wine in Chicago: I just feel like if you come to RPM Italian and you’re a vegetarian and maybe you get some roasted beets or carrots I think this would really go there.
Corey Drake: I love that
Wine in Chicago: Especially if you got beets and goat cheese.
Corey Drake: It’s such a food driven wine. This wine is showing in a beautiful window. This is when I think we should be opening this. It’s this fourteen-year-old white Bordeaux Blanc and it still shows the youthful qualities with that acidity on the finish.
Wine in Chicago: People don’t often order Bordeaux Blanc.
Corey Drake: I don’t know why. It gets crazier. Bordeaux is the largest wine producing region in France. France produces the most wine of any nation in the world. Bordeaux is a pretty important place for making wine.
Wine in Chicago: It’s the center of the wine universe.
Corey Drake: So why aren’t we drinking the white wines? Maybe the first thought is they’re super expensive—but they’re not.
Wine in Chicago: What’s this run for in your restaurant?
Corey Drake: Actually this is not on our list.
Wine in Chicago: You [expletive]. How am I gonna—?
Corey Drake: I know. How am I gonna promote our restaurant?
Wine in Chicago [exasperated noises].
Corey Drake: This is a good point. Why didn’t I pick an Italian wine?
Wine in Chicago Yeah, Corey. Why didn’t you pick A WINE MY READERS CAN GET AT RPM?
Corey Drake: Because Italian white wine is fresh and vibrant and youthful and energetic and bright and cheerful and typically not serious. I don’t mean that as a bad thing about Italian white wine—
Wine in Chicago: No, it’s jovial—
Corey Drake: And do any of those things describe this wine?
Wine in Chicago: Nor does it describe this song. This song is a French political activist in a café smoking an unfiltered Gauloises and cursing the bourgeoisie.
Corey Drake: And this is why. . .I was trying to get into York’s head. I mean the band was asked to replicate their hit with "Creep" and they were kind of frustrated by that, so they kind of tried to make this joke song that turned out not to be a joke. So basically, they were like, Ok, you want us to make another song like that? And this is what they did.
Wine in Chicago: So this is a middle finger song that turned out incredible and still made Thom York cry.
Corey Drake: Still made Thom York cry.
Wine in Chicago: Let’s face it, a good cup of coffee could make Thom York cry. That guy’s almost crying all the time. But, ok. Ok, so you’re in the restaurant and you see this person–and I know you don’t carry this—and you see this person and they’re not having a good day and you have this intuitive thought that they’re filled with ennui. Would you give them this wine?
Corey Drake: Ahhh . . . you know [evil chuckle].
Wine in Chicago: Tell me about the glass of wine that pointed you into your future as a wine pro.
Corey Drake: That one’s easy. The appellation was Châteauneuf du Pape; the wine was Clos du Mont Olivet 2009. From that glass of wine, that’s when I started pursuing the academic side. I wanted to learn more. It opened up my mind to make me realize wine was more than just grape varieties. 'Cause Châteauneuf du Pape is sometimes a blend of thirteen grapes. It’s an accessible wine with dark fruit and the kind of dry structures people look for in a regal red wine—
Wine in Chicago: Yeah but that glass . . .
Corey Drake: There’s a part of it that opens up this door to barnyard aromas. You get into that earth side of the wine spectrum of wine flavors and aromas. I hadn’t really unlocked what that window of flavor was. It wasn’t all just those tertiary notes. There were overt, gettable, red wine fruit flavor, but then there’s this other stratosphere of like . . . you wonder why am I so moved by this thing?
Wine in Chicago: So I’m at RPM Italian and I’m not a wine person and I’m not on a date but I’m with people who matter to me and all of us would like to have that experience of an incredible meal with a perfect wine. We’re not broke but we’re not name partners in a firm. What are the three wines you would present to that table?
Corey Drake: The first one is a Barbaresco, from the Piedmont region; we offer a Barbaresco from 1997 from the vignaioli region. The ‘97 was a highly regarded vintage in Piedmont for being ripe and fully expressive. We have a stockpile of that wine and we’ve been pouring it by the glass for a while. I love it because of the ability to just have a glass with a pasta course . . . this wine has the perfect balance of freshness even though it’s twenty-two years old. It’s got developed qualities and earthy notes that make it a perfect wine structurally and a flavor profile to fill in gaps and compliment food.
Another variety from Piedmont, a Barbera, is Luigi Giordano. It’s from the same appellation but a different grape. It’s planted in the DOCG (one of the Italian controlled appellations: Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) of Barbaresco. It’s a less expensive product but comes from just as special a place. It’s a low tannin, high acid grape so it lends itself to a gentle texture but a really energetic fresh vibrant uplifting quality. Not to be paired with a Thom York song.
Number three, I would have to go to Chianti. I know it’s not esoteric. Chianti classic is currently one of the most misunderstood wines by the consumer and the market. There was some confusion for Chianti when it was trying to find its personality. We’re in a place now where chiantis are over delivering for the price. One of my favorites is Costello di Ama by a guy who trained in Bordeaux at a first growth property, so he brought that fine wine viticulture background to making Chianti. And just going back to the wicker basket and the mass production and just going back to the fake plastic stuff.
Wine in Chicago: What is the thing people should take away from your wine program at RPM Italian?
Corey Drake: I have an opportunity to be part of a team of wine professionals who operate not unlike a chef team in the sense that you can use more than just one person’s talents to source and to be the face of wine to our guests. It’s Richard Hannauer, John Slatter, Kirstin Valentine, our cellar master. We really want the wine program to make the guests feel relaxed. To feel like—from a wine perspective– they’re going to receive the highest level of hospitality in the industry. Ah man, I’m getting way too introspective.
Wine in Chicago: Radiohead got into your head.
Corey Drake: I want people to come here to expect to be presented with the best wines that Italy produces at any price point. Whether it’s a nice Chianti for $50 or a Conterno Monfortino from 1999. We’re serious about wine.
Wine in Chicago: What is your message as a sommelier? What are you saying through wine?
Corey Drake: Wine is one of those few things that is an opportunity to really experience humanity and nature at their best. And that sounds really esoteric and really Thom York.
The amount of energy and resources that go into making a wine that tastes this good are off the charts. There’s a human pursuit of perfection and excellence with wine that is very compelling to me. It has the ability to transport you somewhere like a song does. It has the ability to take you to another place in history, geographically, emotionally. It has the ability to transcend.
There’s something to that human and nature link. It’s very difficult to make good wine. The work that’s done in the vineyard is where it’s this man-vs-land thing. Trying to strive for this harmonious expression of what a piece of land offers and what a human being can append to that. One of the other things I appreciate about wine is that wine is global. Wine is about place. And it’s about all different cultures and all different walks of life making this expression of something that is transcendent and I think that’s beautiful and I think there should be more of that way of viewing of humanity and maybe less Thom Yorking things. More of just appreciating a human effort like this and sit around talking about it and listening to a song. It brings joy.