Low-Touch Wines & Spirits with Tom Kearney at June Wine Bar
When June Wine Bar first opened at the start of 2015 on Court Street in Brooklyn, it was an industry destination. But it didn’t take long for June to settle into the streets of Cobble Hill, where it quickly became a neighborhood haven. “Here, the audience that we’ve captured is really into natural wines,” said Chef/co-owner Tom Kearney. “But I don’t think it’s because we’re a natural wine bar, but because of the neighborhood we’re in. People are pretty open-minded. I think it’s a refreshingly informed group who are coming here,” he continued. “We were really surprised by the amount of people who were conversed on the vernacular of natural wines when we opened.”
As accountability and traceability have become a part of our daily quest for food, it’s only natural that wine and spirits follow. We seek vignerons who farm and ferment naturally, just as we seek distillers who shun manipulation and favor transparency. As a chef, Tom sources locally for his kitchen because polyculture is just as important to him as the relationships he shares with his purveyors. Without these relationships, one risks the unknown, and quality is too often sacrificed. “There are great craft distillers that are moving to bigger distributors that are not compatible with our mission,” said Tom. “I don’t think I need to explain why you wouldn’t want to do business with them. We’re looking for strong relationships with producers from the importer because traceability is a thing. We’re looking for wines that are produced with minimal intervention. The criteria tends toward people who make low-touch wines.”
Working with artisanal producers means limited productions, so the wine list at June is constantly evolving. When we receive wines from Andrea Calek or Brendan Tracey, both of which are featured at June, the shipments are small. There’s only so much wine that one can coax from Calek’s 5ha in Ardéche. “It’s more of a problem for them [customers] than us because people get familiar with something and they don’t understand why they can’t have it any more,” said Tom. “We try to inform people a little bit on the back-story on why they can or can’t have something that is or isn’t available.” As much as we love eating tomatoes from the farmer’s market in August, no one questions why we cannot have those same tomatoes in November.
“We try to encourage people to get into the adventure of wine drinking. That’s a part of the mystery of drinking natural wine. It’s a part of the romance of it,” said Tom. “There are things you’re going to discover that you didn’t expect.” However, unlike the range of commercial wines that “tend to be controlled and static and you can buy them like you can buy a bottle of Snapple off the shelf,” said Tom, wines grown without pesticides, herbicides or additives might not all offer the funky profile that many associate with ‘natural wines’, but they’re just as lively and spirited in the glass.
And though we rely on the ever-evolving profile of artisanal wines, we expect our spirits to be consistent. “I think people are aware of the micro-distillery movement that’s happening around the country,” he said. “It’s been ten years that I’ve watched [at Farm on Addlerley]; it’s just grown exponentially. It’s great to see.” However, Tom argued, it can be challenging to run a full bar program if you’re relying solely on craft-distilleries. Sure, one can serve Tatoosh Rye Whiskey that’s distilled with local grains; or Far North Spirits, which is crafted by the Swanson family who farm, mill, mash and ferment their own grains. Just as one can also serve Industry City Distillery Standard Vodka, also available at June, which is made in Brooklyn by the team at ICD who designed and constructed their own distillery to best enable efficiency in production and the elimination of waste streams. “But,” Tom added, “you still have to have an Amaro. Or do you? These are good questions. We try to find things that are exciting and inspiring.”
“When it comes to selecting spirits,” said bartender Jesse Cason, “we share a lot of that responsibility, and flavor profile is definitely first. And that tends to go hand in hand with the idea of craftsmanship and small producers and people really caring about the quality of the ingredients used in the process.”
“There’s been a lot of things that we’re not getting in, that are bigger brand spirits,” said Gaba Vallond, also from behind the bar, “and so we’ll rework a cocktail idea and try to put together these spirits that we have in a way that reflects some historic recipe but has our own little twist to it.”
Placing a big emphasis on aperitifs and digestifs that derive from the same philosophy as everything else on June’s menu, Tom says “they feels like a transition from natural wine.” Here, the team at June serves Michelberger Forest and Mountain from Berlin, two recreations of historic herbal schnaps recipes. “I was just in Berlin at the Michelberger Hotel,” said Gaba as she laughed. “It was so cool. They’d just had a natural wine party at the hotel. We missed it by a night.” And while they might have missed the party, the spirit of Michelberger was carried back to June in Brooklyn.