Wine, Music, and Perceptual Ability

wine and music 4In response to my post earlier this week on why people find wine intimidating, Paul Wagner commented:

I often compare the world of wine to the world of music. Certainly music could every bit as diverse and overwhelming as wine is. And yet people never complain about music being too complicated to learn, or too difficult to understand.

Why? Because people feel confident in liking what they like when it comes to music. But in wine the world is full of people (and the media is full of stories) telling us that we have selected the wrong wine for the food, the occasion, or the price. Sure, there are music critics, but the vast majority of music lovers pay them no attention whatsoever, and feel free to choose whatever music they like. But then, music critics rarely write articles about the ten artists or musicians you should avoid at all costs.

This comparison between wine and music is interesting and instructive. Paul is certainly right that music is as diverse as wine yet people don’t find music, in general, intimidating.

However, I don’t think the explanation is that casual wine consumers pay too much attention to critics.

It is much easier to distinguish the music of Cardi B from Taylor Swift (or for an older generation the Stones from the Beatles) than it is to distinguish Syrah from Pinot Noir. Why?

I think the answer is that all the features we need to identify a song from Cardi B or Taylor Swift are readily apparent even to a casual music consumer. Melody, harmony, rhythmic patterns, vocal and instrumental timbres, speech patterns, etc. are readily perceivable without the need for training beyond the habits we acquire through ordinary lived experience. This is not the case with wine. Wine is an ambiguous object. Aromas and flavors are hard to detect, even harder to identify, and it requires a good deal of conscious attention to improving one’s sensibility before the differences become clear.

Classical music, because of its harmonic complexity and intricate, elongated patterns might present more difficulties for casual listeners. But the difficulties aren’t perceptual. We have no difficulties perceiving the elements of a melody, rhythm or harmonic structure. They are simply there to be heard if we are paying attention. The difficulty is in recognizing patterns among those perceived elements, and understanding their significance which is what one learns through formal study. This is not to suggest there are no ambiguities in music. But we learn early in life to follow a melody, hear it unfolding against chordal structures, and to sense changes in texture and timbre without having to further train our senses, and this is sufficient for us to respond with pleasure, indifference, or displeasure when listening.

Again, the features of wine that mark distinctions between varietals, styles, and quality level are less available.

The wine wall in a supermarket is intimidating to causal consumers because they know from experience that the differences implied by the myriad of varietals, regions, and producers are difficult to perceive. It doesn’t help that the brief tasting notes on the back label of bottles include aromas that they can’t detect. Why pay $15 for something that is forbidding and mysterious?

Happily, some people enjoy the features of wine that are available to an untrained sensibility even if all that diversity is puzzling.


  1. Hi Dwight
    I am not sure I buy your argument that wine is more complicated than music. You say: ” Melody, harmony, rhythmic patterns, vocal and instrumental timbres, speech patterns, etc. are readily perceivable without the need for training beyond the habits we acquire through ordinary lived experience. ”

    The same can certainly be said of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. And the subtle differences between Coke and Pepsi ( or root beer and Dr. Pepper) are just as apparent to consumers as the difference between Cardi B and Taylor Swift.

    No, I think the real issue is that wine, for many generations, has been a drink of the rich and cultured–from the British upper class to those in the colonies who wish to emulate them. And it continues to be social weapon for many. Again, you will see very few articles about what music you should never listen to, or which speakers or headphones should never be used for rock or classical music. And yet we are inundated by articles that make fun of those who like white Zinfandel, who serve Champagne in a coupe, or who make a wine and food pairing that doesn’t follow the canon.

    And the underlying principle of all these articles is that cultured people, people with sophistication, don’t make these mistakes. Meanwhile, it turns out that a literature professor at the University of Texas uses Taylor Swift lyrics to illustrate her class on metaphor and simile.

    As long as we continue to lecture and ridicule people about all the things they do badly when it comes to wine, we will continue the problem.

  2. Dwight,

    As I recall, the biggest issue for casual wine drinkers is that they do not like or enjoy the taste of wine.

    My scientific wild ass guess is that wine is not “smooth” enough for them; that is, not sweet enough, and the other structural aspects of acidity and tannins are misunderstood and particularly unpalatable.

    Several of my close wine drinking friends still can’t distinguish acidity from tannins and often rely on social media to advise them what to purchase and with which food it pairs best. Lotsa comfort in that approach.

    Cheers, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


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