I pair music with wine when I writer my wine reviews. But I’ve never described in one place the evidence for wine and music pairing. I do so in my Three Quarks Daily essay this month.
I 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.)
There are days when listening to Mozart will put you to sleep; Radiohead will irritate with their meandering sounds in search of a center; Billie Holiday, too tragic; Costello or Springsteen, too much message; Bjork, just too weird. On these days, you need to listen to good, old- fashioned mid-western rock—John Mellancamp, Bob Seeger, Chicago Blues. Hefty, straightforward, no frills.
This is the wine for that day. Deep purple color, with lots of concentration and depth to the flavor, the Famiglia Bianchi gives you a hardy blast of black and blue fruits that carries all the way through the finish. Sure you can grab a little smoke, tobacco, and hints of nutmeg if you look for them. A vigorous swirl will release some some nice herbal notes. But this wine is not about subtlety or complexity. It wants to kick out the jams and has the structure to keep the palate refreshed. It’s not blowsy or oaky, nothing over the top, it doesn’t scream “look at me”—just honest rock n’ roll.
It has a smooth, mid-palate mouthfeel although the tannins get a little sandy on the finish. At 14.1% the alcohol doesn’t overpower. Big, simple flavors and good balance. This will pair with any boldly flavored meat dish.
Malbec from Argentina typically has exuberant fruit, a little spice, and a pleasing texture. It is seldom refined, sophisticated, or profound—it goes with the food of the region, lots of grilled meat. Think of it as a “manly” merlot.
The Famiglia from Bianchi is a very typical representation of this pleasing but somewhat limited grape—but there are days when it can save your life.
A great wine is a sensuous storm, a blizzard of carnal confetti that can make the weak-willed weep. Can we get maximum enjoyment from the sensory features of wine without a shred of factual knowledge about wine? Is the pursuit of wine knowledge a purely intellectual affair unnecessary for the sensuous enjoyment of wine?
These questions are relevant to the question of whether winemaking is an art, because art, unlike mere entertainment, is cognitively demanding. Genuine appreciation involves knowledge of how a work of art is put together and how it relates to other works. If wine is an art, then it should exhibit similar cognitive demands. If, on the other hand, sensory enjoyment of wine does not require knowledge, it may lack the complexity and cognitive significance of a genuine art.
In the arts, knowledge of the techniques involved in artistic production along with theories about art enhance sensory experience. Knowing what artistic movements were in process at the time a work was created will make us more sensitive to certain features of the painting in comparison to earlier works. For example, the Impressionists of the late 19th century were not concerned only with painting pretty pictures. They were focused on how different atmospheric conditions modified the appearance of light. This complex interaction of light and atmosphere is easy to pass over in the absence of some understanding of what the Impressionists thought they were doing.
Our sensuous engagement with a building can be influenced by knowledge of its age, which makes us more aware of the depredations of time. By focusing on a building’s age we experience how transitory grandeur is, how quickly brilliance can fade, and how age can mute rough edges or soften boundaries. Thus, knowledge of age directs our attention to texture and the beauty that arises from destruction.
But knowledge not only directs our attention to features we might otherwise miss. Through intimate knowledge of how a painting was created we become acquainted with how color is mixed and applied and how different brush sizes cause different effects on the canvas. The smell, texture, and weight of the paint and the properties of the canvas gain their own resonance and remind us of the materiality of painting, a struggle to control physical materials that have their own recalcitrance. This knowledge of the process of painting not only guides our perceptions but also gives us an understanding of how an artist has worked with or against the opportunities and limitations made available by her materials and genre. Thus, through knowledge of process we acquire an affection for a work that influences our sensuous enjoyment of it
In fact, the ability to have a sensory experience at all may depend on knowledge. To the uninitiated, the music of Arnold Schoenberg sounds like noise with no discernable pattern of musical composition. However, listeners who learn the logic of the 12-tone row (the kind of musical scale employed by Schoenberg), and become practiced at discerning the complex musical patterns enabled by the abandonment of conventional harmonic structure, are able to experience genuine sensuous beauty.
Thus, in the arts, there cannot be a sharp distinction between cognitive understanding and sensuous pleasure, which work together to enable appreciation. Knowledge aids appreciation through directing our attention to relevant aesthetic features, through creating feelings of affection for a work that enhance sensory experience, and by making us aware of patterns that otherwise might be unavailable. [I’m ignoring the sort of knowledge which is essential to understanding the meaning of a work of art, which, although relevant to the comparison with wine, would take us far afield. My focus here is on sensory pleasure alone.]
Is there a comparable relationship between sensuous pleasure and knowledge with regard to wine? According to philosopher Kent Bach the answer is no. (See here for Bach’s comments on my earlier posts here and here on this topic.) Regarding art appreciation Bach writes:
In the case of art and music, this is a very complex ability generally requiring at least some formal training and historical knowledge, including familiarity with other works and, in the case of music, other performances, to go along with perceptual acuity. Acquiring such knowledge leads to aesthetic appreciation by enhancing one’s ability to notice features and relationships that would otherwise escape one’s attention. No such knowledge is required for appreciating a wine. Even the best wines are not works of art. They don’t have cognitive or emotional content. Their aesthetic value is provided entirely by the aromas and flavours they they impart.” [Also reprinted here.]
Thus, according to Bach, practice at discerning flavor and texture patterns may be necessary for appreciating wine, but knowledge of wine regions or winemaking processes are not necessary for sensuous enjoyment.
I think the cognitive and emotional dimensions of wine are much more extensive than Bach suggests. But for my purposes here I want to ignore that controversy and focus on sensory experience alone. But even with that narrow focus, I don’t see the distinction between art and wine that Bach draws. If certain kinds of sensuous enjoyment are more readily available when we have relevant knowledge of the practice of art, I see no reason why knowledge of the practice of winemaking would not yield a similar sensuous engagement with wine.
Knowledge of how grapes are grown, facts about the geography and weather conditions that influenced the grapes, and knowledge of winemaking practices can direct our attention to particular flavor profiles in wine in just the way knowledge of an artist’s intentions or the age of a building focuses our attention on the relevant aesthetic features of paintings or buildings. The taste of a wine is a complex whole with many dimensions, some of which are obscured and partially hidden by dominant flavors. Wine knowledge helps unravel this complex whole and enables us to gain greater sensory awareness of its elements.
Are these features unavailable in the absence of knowledge? Are we utterly unable to sense them? No. But we are less likely to focus on them or be aware of their existence, and less likely to find them appealing, in the absence of knowledge that lends significance to them. I might be able to sense the difference between a mild vanilla flavor note and a rich coconut aroma in a Cabernet. But without knowing the significance of the decision to use French or American oak, I’m unlikely to pay attention to the difference in flavor.
Furthermore, knowledge of grape-growing and winemaking practices gives us a palpable awareness of the challenges of winemaking and the materiality of the process, and enables us to assess how well the winemaking operation performed given the challenges of climate and geography. If the materiality of paint yields a kind of affection that enhances our sensuous response to a painting, I see no reason why a similar affection would not enhance our sensuous response to wine. In fact, we know that affection makes us perceive other humans as more beautiful; a similar enhancement to the sensory pleasures of wine would also seem a natural response.
Finally, although flavor notes and tactile impressions may be, in principle, individually discernable, I doubt that a finely-honed, discriminating sense of balance, structure, elegance, or finesse is likely without knowledge of what is in balance or what the elements of structure are. (Of course the level of theoretical understanding required in the appreciation of wine is in no way comparable to the complexities of the 12-tone row.)
In fact, it is not obvious that balance, structure, elegance or finesse are entirely sensory responses at all. Just as unity, symmetry and balance in art requires a grasp of how complex elements fit together as a whole, so do these notions when applied to wine. This holistic judgment, while in part sensory, would seem to require an intellectual grasp of relations, again indicating that a sharp distinction between intellectual and sensory pleasures is untenable.
Thus, just as in the appreciation of art, knowledge aids appreciation of wine through directing our attention to relevant aesthetic features, by creating feelings of affection for a wine that enhances sensory experience, and by making us aware of patterns that otherwise might be unavailable.