Music and Wine Pairing

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music and wineI attended and presented at a fascinating conference over the weekend—the Postmodern Winemaker Symposium held in Santa Rosa CA. Although it is a meeting of winemakers and sommeliers there is ample discussion of aesthetics and a good dose of philosophy as well, which is why I was invited.

One of the many interesting sessions dealt with the links between music and wine. As you know if you read my wine reviews, I typically match a piece of music with each wine because  that is good way of explaining the emotional impact of the wine. Emotional nuances are notoriously difficult to describe and the right tune gives you a gestalt of what the wine is like.

I think of this as a kind of metaphorical match—the song is a metaphor for the wine because it matches the emotional modality of the music. A crisp, lively rosé pairs with a lighthearted, up-tempo song with precisely-etched vocals; a dark, brooding Cabernet suggests music that is complex and stormy or sinister, etc.

But Clark Smith, the winemaker, author and consultant who organized the conference, demonstrates a tighter, direct causal relationship between wine and music. Music can significantly alter the way you perceive a wine. The Beach Boys’ California Girls makes a cheerful, summery $6 Chardonnay taste softer and more integrated but turns a quality Napa Cabernet thin and hard. Beethoven boosts the broad-shouldered resonance of a brooding Cabernet but makes the Chardonnay taste like kool aid. An aged Sonoma Pinot Noir is lovely with Vivaldi or flamenco but angular and taut when paired with a hard rock song. The effect seems to be independent of whether you particularly like the song (although its probably better if you don’t hate it). And the effect at least for me is diminished if I’m not paying attention or if I consciously resist the music’s influence.

This hypothesis that music can influence taste perceptions has been around for some time and there is some research on it, but I’ve never seen it demonstrated so clearly. Some wineries are beginning to get the message hiring consultants to analyze their menu and find music that will enhance the perception of their wine. But beyond the practical, economic value to wineries, music/wine pairing enhances the enjoyment of a wine. There is as far as I know no consensus on why it works. My guess is that it has to do with attentional focus; the properties of the music direct our attention to the corresponding properties in the wine. When no correspondence is found we get confused since the brain naturally prefers patterns. But that is just an uninformed guess.

At any rate, if you want to make your favorite wine taste better make sure you’re playing music that matches the primary emotional modality of the wine. It gives new meaning to “tasting notes”.  (For more on music and wine pairing check out Clark’s website.)

Casa Rondeña Cabernet Franc New Mexico 2014

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casa rondenaThroughout much of the U.S. (outside California), Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon’s earlier ripening parent, is ubiquitous. It’s a classic variety they can get ripe before the cold weather or rain hits in the fall so they can reliably fill out their tasting room menu. The wineries who take it seriously make charming, elegant wines but a tendency toward green vegetal flavors and tart, exposed acidity make it unpleasant if approached as an after thought.

But New Mexico’s sun- baked climate seems to be a good match for this variety in the hands of Albuquerque’s  Casa Rondeña.

Subtle honeyed notes appear right out of the glass, white pepper and earth underlie the lovely fresh and dried floral elements that delicately cloak the dark cherry fruit.

On the palate it is elegant, not lush but more supple and silky, featuring dried fruit with wonderful juiciness on the midpalate and a spicy, languorous finish.

Generous but not excessively ingratiating, it has a slow evolution punctuated by pulsating juice, with a finish that just sits there quietly reverential and persistent.

A serious wine, one of the best we tasted this year in our exploration of American wines.

Aged for 2 years in Hungarian oak.

This wine shows best when paired with music played legato.

The quiet, pensive, joy of Abdullah Ibrahim’s Blue Bolero is transcendent on its own; with the wine we are initiated into the mysteries.

Score: 93

Price: $25

Alc: 13%

Budget Wine: Bogle Vineyards Essential Red 2014

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bogle essential redHow would my favorite budget winery do when producing my least favorite wine style—budget red blends? Of course some of the best wines in the world are red blends. But what passes for red blends these days on the supermarket bottom shelf are usually syrupy, clunky, candy wines designed for entry level drinkers finding their way past the soda aisle. There is nothing wrong with that but it’s not to my taste.

I ignored this bottling for several years wondering if Bogle had sold out. Happily the answer is no but I retaste it occasionally just to be sure. This blend of Old Vine Zin, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah has ripe blackberry jam, clove, herbal notes and dark chocolate on the nose. In the mouth there is just a hint of sweetness with high toast charcoal, and coffee introducing the weighty midpalate and tannins with some grip propelling a somewhat woody finish. This is sturdy with a very firm texture as it evolves on the palate, even a bit hard for a supermarket wine. It gives the impression of lushness at first but becomes bold and manly as it progresses. Not striving for finesse, this is not my favorite wine style but it is very good at what it does.

Bogle is producing over 2 million cases per year and it’s still growing. They are one of the few budget wine producers that still ages in barrel. This wine does nothing to harm Bogle’s reputation as the quality king of the $10 wines.

Aged 12 months in American and French oak.

Serve with a 36 oz. ribeye and a platter of mountain oysters; and bring the Foo Fighters along.

Score: 88

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5%

Bon Appétit’s Cultural Faux Pas

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halo_haloThe flap over Bon Appétit’s  version of the Filipino shaved ice treat Halo Halo is an interesting case of cultural misappropriation. Wilma B. Consul in The Salt explains:

The homage recipe includes mashed blueberries and blackberries, lime juice, coconut milk, gummy bears and popcorn (popcorn?!?). First, halo-halo is not a smoothie. And it’s a mix that, frankly, feels sacrilegious.

What are the actual ingredients of at least one typical recipe for Halo Halo?

Imagine red and black monggo (mung beans) at the bottom; yellow from cooked saging na saba (indigenous bananas), langka (jackfruit) or garbanzos; white from evaporated milk, nata de coco, (coconut jelly), macapuno (young coconut) and kaong (palm fruit); and orange from kamote (yams). Add in the translucent and chewy goodness of sago (tapioca pearls) and gulaman (like jello made with natural agar-agar). The crunch comes from pinipig (pounded and toasted glutinous rice).

Halo in Tagalog means mix – which is what you do when consuming this treat, whirling it together until it becomes one glass of beautiful purple.

In other words, Bon Appétit’s  version not only had none of the authentic ingredients (except for coconut) but included ingredients that taste nothing like the original.

I devoted a chapter to the idea of authenticity in American Foodie. Traditions change and innovators have always been and will always be looking for new versions of traditional dishes. When cultures mix and exchange takes place there is no way to prevent, nor should we want to prevent, cultural appropriation. Change even when induced from the outside is what keeps traditions alive and growing.

But if an innovation is going to count as a new extension of the tradition it must maintain some continuity with it, making modifications that are still recognizable as a modification of the original. The homage recipe might taste perfectly fine, but it isn’t a “take” on Halo Halo—it’s a new dish perhaps inspired by Halo Halo but not a version of it.

Why does this matter? Well, it’s a matter of respect but also of logic. Presumably, this homage recipe was created to celebrate the food of the Philippines. Thus, logically to accomplish that it would need some connection to that food.  It is hard to see what that connection is. (The faux pas was made worse by the fact that apparently no expert on Filipino food was consulted.)

This is not about being conservative. I’m OK with revolution. But don’t then call it tradition.

Ms. Consul has a reasonable take on the topic:

Still, something positive might emerge. For sure, millions more in this generation of foodies are beginning to embrace Filipino food and culture. And if nothing else, maybe this fiasco will teach those who want to recreate or modify tradition to cook carefully and respectfully.

Budget Wine: Trapiche “Oak Cask” Malbec Mendoza 2014

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trapicheA quintessential supermarket wine, soft, approachable, and flawless with juicy flavors and enough acidity to keep you refreshed.

“Oak Cask” is Trapiche’s entry level line. But despite the name this Malbec is not overoaked.

Plum, subtle toast, and a hint of licorice on the nose. Black cherry and chocolate emerges on the round, medium-weight palate which features fine-grained tannins that sneak up on you, and firm acidity on the finish. It’s linear with a short finish but excellent quality for the price. You can take it (amost) anywhere without embarrassment.

Advertised as barrel aged for 9 months.

Score: 88

Price: $10

Alc: 14%

An Alicia Keys type wine, rich, approachable, flawless and oh so commercial

Winemaker Interview: Caduceus Cellars Maynard James Keenan

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maynard james keenanTwo years ago when visiting Arizona wineries, I was most impressed with Caduceus Cellars. Located in the delightful town of Jerome perched on a mountainside rimming the Verde Valle southwest of Sedona, these wines had depth and elegance, especially the Italian varietals.  I came to find out later that the owner and winemaker was Maynard James Keenan, vocalist and songwriter for the rock band Tool.

So when I began to conceptualize my forthcoming book on the art of winemaking, I immediately thought of contacting Maynard, who after all, knows a thing or two about the creative process.

You might think that Arizona heat would produce over-ripe grapes. But at the higher elevations, cool nights and wise picking decisions can produce distinctive, balanced wines. Maynard James Keenan is at the cutting edge of developments in the region, and I am grateful to him for taking the time to discuss his winemaking philosophy.

What follows are his responses to interview questions designed to elicit the artistic elements of winemaking.

1. Describe your “aha” moment when you first fell in love with wine.

1992 Napa Valley Silver Oak. Not like subsequent SO’s. Restrained, elegant. I pulled one out recently and was surprised at how different it was compared to other Napa Silver Oaks.

2. What motivated you to get into winemaking?

1990 Soldera Reserva set the hook. But the terrain around my home was what reeled me in. Ancient limestone beds, volcanic soils, elevation, rocky soils were what suggested vines might do well here. And as it turns out there was a history of wine growing here prior to prohibition.

3. You have a background in the arts. How does that background help you make wine?

Possibilities. Flexibilities. Creating something from nothing. Thinking outside the box.

4. How is making music similar to winemaking?

The process of general to specific applies. And of course the more experience and success you have, the more you trust this process. Things can always seem in rough shape early on. A line without a surrounding story, a beat without a melody, etc.

5. Do you have a philosophy of winemaking—a style that you’re aiming for? How would you describe that?

Food friendly, complex and elegant, a balance between restrained but expressive. New world with a firm respectful nod to traditional old world structure. We want to present a wine that doesn’t hurt.

6. At what point in the winemaking process do you decide on what you’re aiming at regarding style.

In the vineyard. Taking large leaps early on in the growing process has helped shape our direction in the cellar. Going all in with a particular goal. We’ve found that half-assing it only leads to half a result. It starts long before pruning, but we’ll start there. Don’t fear the late spring frost. We train cordons to where we want to be as far as shoot positions. We prune to where we want to be. We shoot thin to where we want to be. We green harvest to where we want to be. Leaving extra stuff as back up confuses your vine.

7. Does your goal, the profile you’re aiming at when you set out to make a wine, change during the winemaking process? If so, how?

Absolutely. If something comes in showing something completely different than what we set out to accomplish, we immediately adjust. Paying attention to what’s in front of you rather than forcing your will can save you a lot of headaches.

8. Do you think of wine as expressing something? If so, what?

Well the obvious is that it expresses a place. But it also can express the artist’s hand. I’ve always considered myself a fish out of water in the so called Metal Music scene. I’ve always been more into The Byrds, Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits. I think that shows in my wines. My wines are far more Pink Floyd than they are Metallica.

9. Do aesthetic concepts such as elegance, harmony, character or finesse play a role in your decision-making process?

I would like to believe so. Balance and Character first, if we’re doing our job. Elegance is our goal.

10. How does knowledge of winemaking help recognize aesthetic properties (e.g. beauty, elegance, etc.) in a wine? Perhaps a different way of putting this question is “what does a winemaker taste that an ordinary consumer would miss?”

Time and patience. My military career was spent as a surveyor. And not so coincidently space has always been an important part of my process. So like transit surveyors we take what we consider known points and then build on those to establish new points of reference. We observe where we think we’ve been, interpret where we are, and then make an educated guess as to where we’re heading. Observe, interpret, report. Generally speaking the average consumer only considers their current space.

11. Do you consider winemaking an art? (I know definitions of art are controversial but don’t worry about having a precise definition, unless you want to give one)

Absolutely.

12. To what degree do the conscious decisions you make in the vineyard and winery produce the intended result. Or in other words what role do chance and dumb luck play in winemaking?

Almost ALL decisions in the vineyard direct what actions if any we take in the cellar. Remaining present and conscious in the cellar is how you can take advantage of dumb luck and chance. This is farming. We are slaves to the sun and the rain and everything outside and in between. It is an absolute expression of attempting to temporarily bridle chaos.

13. Could you comment generally on the sorts of things that winemakers have little control over?

I haven’t yet tackled resident yeasts in the cellar. I’m still chasing some sort of order or pattern as it pertains to our weather. Add to that our attempt to better understand things like submerged cap fermentations, extended macerations, early picks.

This may be too much for one article but I’ll attempt to walk you through my steps of attempting to understand what my role is in both the vineyard and the cellar.

From 2003-2008 I was simply trying to observe and participate in the basic cellar processes. I spent time in cellars in Adelaide and Arizona just trying to get a handle on what goes on and what to expect. I read up on and visited vineyards all over the world just to stare at some of the best sites I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing in the glass.

In 2009-2010 I spent the vintage in my cellar just trying to figure out how to make things go. Fork lifts, press, destemmer, etc. It was my crash course.

2011 I dabbled in a few things. I did some modified carbonic macerations. Covered, whole berry with a cold fermentation yeast in a cold room for the first week, then punch downs until dry. But all in a cold room. 55F. This same year I played with bin size to see what temperature would do to the same fruit side by side. I also played with various commercial yeasts to see if there was any significant difference in the end result. This is also the year that Chris Turner my vineyard manager began to drop fruit and work on lower more concentrated yields.

2012-2013 I began to dabble in submerged cap fermentations, extended macerations. I also introduced Botté and Puncheons into the cellar. We also were trying to navigate some of the high pH’s we see in the vineyard by picking a little earlier.

2014 was all about submerged cap fermentations.

2015 I went all in with picking pretty much everything extremely early. Every single year we have threats of monsoons and therefore bunchrot. I wanted to see what I would need to do if I were forced to pick everything uncomfortably early. Anything that came in more green than I would prefer was left on skins and stems at a minimum of 6 weeks. In some cases 10 weeks. I was told that once the green fruit passed the 6 week mark, the grassy green vegetal characters polymerize and become elegant and perfumed. They were right. But the end results lacked a bit in the mid palate, so cross blending some riper ferments would be required while still maintaining that elegance and aromatics.

2016 we dropped every block to 1 cluster per shoot. Our peers think we’re batshit. But the results were very promising. The downside to submerged cap fermentations is that any substandard fruit issues become magnified. By dropping to 1CPS we were able to bring in pristine fully ripe and tasty fruit at a lower brix level. The argument is that if the vine has less fruit, it’s work is focused on those few clusters. Diurnal swing allows the vine to work extremely efficiently to develop that fruit. We were off the vine by Sept 7th. Again, my peers think we’re nuts.

 

14. In what sense is making wine a creative activity?

In every sense.

15. At what point does imagination come into play?

Effective imagination comes with experience in the cellar. With no experience you might get lucky trying to be clever, but the results will be inconsistent.

16. How important is originality to you i.e. making a wine that has your distinctive stamp on it.

Not nearly as important as first developing a region. We’ve formed an organization known as the Arizona Vignerons Alliance for the purpose of gathering a statewide data base and also to provide winemakers with some honest anonymous input about their wines.

I’ll include our 3 bullet points here. Sorry it’s long:

A. We start with 100% Arizona Grown Grapes.

Broad Strokes:

To introduce and establish a new region, the wines must be from that region.

Detail:

  Nothing speaks of Local more loudly and clearly than a well made regional wine. (Local restaurants take notice!) Compelling wines speak of a place but only when the fruit it contains is from that place. This is the only way to establish a new wine growing region in reluctant minds and on discerning palates. And if successful, all wineries within that new region will benefit.

B. We follow that up with Statewide Data Collection to Strengthen Our Wine Growing Practices.

Broad Strokes:

Knowledge is power. The more we know about our collective successes and challenges the stronger we become as a region.

Detail:

  The Southwest Wine Center has offered to enter all the data collected during wine submissions into a comprehensive data base that will be accessible to AWGA members for the purpose of establishing patterns across all growing regions. We can establish consistency in our state by tracking successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses for each varietal at each elevation, varying soil compositions, annual rainfalls, temperature swings, frost and hail threats, planting density, crop load, choice of training, etc. Consistency is what will put and keep us on the world wine growing map. However, none of this is relevant if point A isn’t established by starting with 100% Arizona Grown Grapes.

  The submission forms are extensive and comprehensive. If at any moment a submitting winery is asked to provide information they don’t have in their records and they must come up with the answer, we are already ahead. That winery is now aware that in future submissions they should already know the answers or have access to them in their records and we will in turn all be stronger for it.

C. We humbly submit our life’s work to a Peer and Industry Panel Review to keep us all on our toes.

Broad Strokes:

Perfection is a phantom we should be chasing until our last breath, but that path is incomplete without some form of unbiased, nonpartisan, objective evaluation.

Detail:

There are many established regions that subject themselves to an anonymous peer and panel review. Humility and vulnerability are tough but necessary parts of our learning curve. Just being open enough to submit to this process suggests we are willing to learn from our and each others mistakes. We’ve all been willing to submit our wines to state and international competitions to be judged. But those competitions rarely if ever provide any feedback on non-medal awarded wines. This process will give notes on wines where something simple may be improved upon in the growing, producing, or bottling process that can assist in avoiding mistakes going forward. We usually get one chance to impress the reluctant minds and discerning palates out in the marketplace. As it stands now we are on the precipice. Arizona has two paths we can take. We can be like Oregon and take the more difficult path and benefit tenfold, or we can be like New Mexico or Texas and take the easy path and be dismissed as being a tourist wine state.

17. In typical cases, how close does the finished product come to your original vision and how do you balance the desire to let the grapes speak for themselves with achieving  your intended style?

We keep getting closer but as you know this is a lifetime endeavor.

18. Terroir has become a buzz word. How important is terroir to you?

We wont have a clue what our terroir is for another hundred years. Launching the Arizona Vignerons Alliance is our attempt to get to that a little sooner.

19. How important is tasting to the winemaking process?

I taste but at the end of the day, what am I gonna do with that? Once the fruit is in it’s a little late. Smelling the ferments helps me identify if there’s anything going off the rails. But other than that, I love to strap in and wait. Ask me again in a few years. I’ll probably change my mind on this.

20.  What must a wine be like to be beautiful?

That’s very subjective. Most score driven wines require them to punch you right out of the bottle. Some might consider this beautiful. I don’t. Beauty comes from sustainability. From age-ability. In my opinion.