Liquid Music: Resonance in Wine
The special allure of wine is similar. There are no $100 beers. We will agonize about spending $10 on a bottle of olive oil that will last for months, then cheerfully lay out twice that amount for a bottle of Cabernet that will be gone within the hour.
In my September 2010 column “Harmony and Astringency,” I touched on the importance of context for wine sensory properties. Here I want to dig deeper into wine’s mystery and advocate for the postmodern view of winemaking as “the practical art of connecting the human soul to the soul of a place by rendering its grapes into liquid music.”
This isn’t going to work.
It’s easy to hold reader interest about well-worn topics like minerality and Biodynamics, even when I bring an unexpected slant. But this month I tackle a realm that is perhaps utterly outside your experience. Without that familiarity, you are likely to think I am simply nuts. The article that follows is very likely a complete waste of your time.
Before you read on, I really must beg you to do a bit of preparation. Run down to the store and buy these wines:
1. Glen Ellen Chardonnay from some recent vintage.
2. Some oaky, toasty butter-bomb Chardonnay with more than 14% alcohol. The Rombauer is great if you can get it.
3. (Optional) A classic-style Chablis such as William Fevre.
All set? Now, taste the wines. They represent three popular genres of Chardonnay, analogous to movie genres. No. 1 is like a Disney comedy film: sweet and shallow. It’s a fun wine to make you smile—the “yummy style.” Sugar covers up a pressy astringency that appears in the finish.
No. 2 is an action/adventure wine designed to blow you away with its size—the “wow style.” Its mild astringency, masked by its margarine fatness, is from oak—a fine, parching/numbing harshness atop the tongue.
No. 3 is a foreign film, stimulating primarily to the intellect, the “hmm style.” Its astringency is acid and mineral based in the finish.
Now visit npr.org to download my interview with NPR’s Alex Cohen and taste along. Pay close attention to the changes in astringency. Feel free to freak out.
Credit where it’s due
This experiment was originally presented as “Chardonnay and the Theory of Deliciousness” at the 1996 ASEV Unified Symposium by a team headed by Bruce Rector. Since then, I have shown this baffling effect to thousands of participants on 100 occasions. The result is always the same: deep skepticism followed by exuberant amazement. At this point there can be little doubt that music really does alter the sensory properties of wine.
In seeking an explanation I was fortunate that my wife, Susan Mayer-Smith, a concert pianist/flautist with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from U.de Marseilles, was available to help me work up a presentation in Australia in 20072 based on recent advances in music cognition. Susie is recently deceased, but her inquiries in this area represent a significant and lasting contribution to our industry.
The late winemaker Don Blackburn devised wine and music pairing methodology as a way to demonstrate statistically significant effects within a holistic point of view. Since they reside in human perception, wine’s attributes are innately subjective. But Blackburn showed statistically that they are also strongly shared.
Don found that modern enology was handicapped by a reluctance to explore this vital realm. In scientific circles “subjectivity” is tarred with a tainted subtext—arbitrary, unknowable and unworthy of study. Shedding this disdain for things human has become an important tenet of the postmodern view. Music education shows us that this is an entirely reasonable course.
So what the heck is going on?
Wine, like music, carries emotion. Just as we have happy songs and sad songs, wines have emotional modalities. White Zinfandels are silly, happy-go-lucky wines; Cabernets are brooding, foul and even angry. We will naturally pair up Dixieland jazz or polka with the former, but Beethoven’s 5th, The Doors or Metallica with the latter. That might seem simple guesswork until you try it the other way round. Don showed me that Carl Oorf’s Overture from Carmina Burana could actually make a White Zinfandel appear to have more tannin than a Howell Mountain Cabernet.
The new brain toys
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Electro Encephalography (EEC) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) today allow us to observe live subjects in mid-thought. Musicologists have been quick to jump on these new tools, and their fascinating findings have birthed an army of technical papers as well as a host of readable popular articles and books.3, 4 Wine harmony and balance can be better understood by piggybacking on this research.
In 1993 I began to experiment with adjusting alcohol content. The same wine that was hot and bitter at elevated alcohol became thin and salty at low alcohol, with a balanced wine somewhere in between.
At first I expected these effects would describe a smooth, normal curve, but instead we found “sweet spots”—disc rete points of harmonious balance separated from each other by terribly disharmonious wines. Figure 1 shows an experiment we did using a 1999 Syrah at CSU Fresno, where 22 judges voted their preferences for blends of untreated and dealcoholized components comprising 31 alcohol points between 12.5% and 15.5% in 0.1% increments.
There was no bell curve; instead we had radio stations, with very poor wines just 0.1% away. At Vinovation we dealcoholized 2,500 wines per year for 15 years and never saw a bell curve.
Something in our sensory software reacts to fine nuances of difference, sorting harmony from dissonance in a pattern our judges all perceived intuitively. That sounds completely zany until you recognize that this is exactly what music does. The strong nonlinearity we see in Figure 1 seems outlandish until you personally experience it.
When I pop a cork, I like to test drive music by sampling free 30-second clips on iTunes. Matches and mismatches are apparent within seconds.
A frequently asked question is, “Does it matter if I like the music?” My answer is no. There is no song I like less than Iron Maiden’s “Run For The Hills,” but I have to admit it’s great with my Cabernet Sauvignon, which takes on a round, sweet spiciness with the track.
Conversely, my favorite tunes are often awful with the wine I’m drinking.
Brain imaging has shown researchers that subjects listening to a C/G perfect fifth directed the signal to the Reward System, producing a “smooth, sweet” sound. When the same subjects heard a C/C-sharp dissonance, the signal was instead directed to the fight-or-flight areas. Dissonant chords were characterized as a “rough” sound.1
My best guess is that this same mechanism routes balanced wines to our pleasure centers and unbalanced ones to fight-or-flight areas. Its function on the palate is an obvious survival mechanism. As hunter-gatherers, primal humans needed to eat. They also needed to avoid toxins and developed through natural selection a highly refined ability to detect mold compounds, alkaloids and other nastiness. Put something in your mouth, and the brain needs to make a snap decision whether to reward the impulse to chew and swallow or to press the panic button and spit it out now. Something about wine magnifies these sensitivities.
We have a problem, Houston
The NPR Chardonnay experiment is an extreme case of “exclusive” pairings. Rector’s team went to great trouble to find music that so starkly discriminated Chardonnay styles. Still, most music is exclusive. Open a Riesling, a Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon, and most tunes will work with only one of the wines.
This is a big problem for restaurants, because diners at adjacent tables are drinking different wines. Winery tasting rooms have the same problem. Fortunately, there do exist “inclusive” pieces that resonate with an overall theme. A restaurant’s theme may be “romantic getaway,” “family joint” or “hip/swank.” Every aspect—menu, ambience, lighting—should be aligned with this theme. Once properly inclusive background music is selected, the sommelier should always evaluate purchases within this environment.
My own wines are Eurocentric and intellectual, so they like Gershwin, flamenco and Samuel Barber. One of my clients makes very showy, somewhat shallow wines that work very well with Hollywood theme scores such as Star Wars’ Main Theme and the Love Theme from Superman (“Can You Read My Mind?”)
Locating a playlist of inclusive pieces is a lot of work, but the payoff is considerable. Theme music not only boosts tasting room sales, it is great for winemakers to blend to. Playing theme music while making blending decisions is the best way I know to stabilize a winery style vintage to vintage. It’s vastly more effective than reducing wine to a grocery list of aroma notes and trying to balance them. I simply haven’t found evidence that Aroma Wheel elements please my customers as dependably as a well-harmonized style.
Seasoned wine professionals often find the possibility disturbing that music and other environmental factors could have a profound influence on wine judgment, because a lifetime of quality assessments may go out the window.
Too bad. The experience is not entirely in the bottle. Anyone who has purchased a case in hopes to duplicate a peak experience has learned the hard way that the first bottle, consumed in an ideal environment, was much better than the others. Music pairing provides a powerful tool for improving your chances of connecting with your next bottle.
Take home message
Our work as winemakers is to create an elaborate illusion. The euphoria of great wine in perfect circumstances is similar to those perfect moments at a rock concert or symphony, when our souls feel profoundly connected and our brains don’t mind the volume.
When the midbrain’s mysterious math determines that this sense of harmony is missing, the limbic system is alerted, and a rough edge attaches to the taste. I believe this explains why 4ppt of TCA—less than a millionth the quantity necessary to cause physical astringency—nevertheless imparts harshness by masking the wine’s fruit.
Two warring notions, both valid: Our sense of harmony is strongly shared (if the piano is out of tune, everybody leaves the bar), but we also have a broad disparity of preferences. Lots of people just don’t get it about wine. Any kid will tell you that wine is hot, sour, bitter and harsh. If you are reading this article, you somehow got past that. You had a peak experience that turned you into an oenophile.
You are probably wondering what hit you. More to the point, where can you get more of that, hopefully cheaper and more reliably? I am here to tell you that music pairing can up your chances big time.
Clark Smith is winemaker for WineSmith, founder of the wine technology firm Vinovation. He lectures widely on an ancient yet innovative view of American winemaking.