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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.)

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