Wine and Music

This site is an invitation to a collaborative, interactive discussion concerning the relationship of wine and music, hosted by WineSmith Wines and its winemaker Clark Smith.

To see the discussion so far, check out the posts in Musings.

See W. Blake Gray's article " Music to drink wine by: Vintner insists music can change wine's flavors" and Gray's followup story "Road testing Smith's theories"

Alex Cohen of NPR interviews Clark who conducts an on-the-air wine tasting, altering Alex's taste impressions by playing different musical pieces. To combat his Svengali-like charisma, he's in SF and she's in LA.

Download the podcast and try it with your friends.

Recently (11/23/2011) Clark was featured during the interview with neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin on the WNYC/NPR show 'Soundcheck'. The segment is titled Eat to the Beat: Eating Through Your Ears.

Here's a great cartoon "What Music Does To Your Brain outlining the new neuroscience propelling cognitive musicology.


Where do peak experiences come from? Lovers of wine styles, like lovers of musical genres, can all recount a magical moment when a song or a wine excited their passion so memorably that they devoted themselves to recreating it. In that moment, not only the wine but the whole environment harmonized perfectly.

There is growing scientific evidence to demonstrate how the brain perceives music, and through this enhanced understanding, WineSmith winemaker Clark Smith has extensively investigated how music and wine are actually closely linked and can enhance one another. It turns out that the peak experience isn't just in the recording nor the bottle - it's at its best appreciated through harmonizing both and opening up new possibilities to explore new ways to enhance our enjoyment and even help us tap into those unforgettable peak experiences.

We all have heard that wine and food can taste better if well matched. Smith's studies show that wine preferences can be strongly influenced by music. "The more we explore it, the more mysterious wine seems. It appears to provide a mirror to our feelings," says Smith, who is also an Adjunct Professor at California State University at Fresno. "We associate different wine types with different moods, just as we do with music. When the wine and the music match, both improve. When they clash, it can be awful!"

Clark regularly presents seminars which share demonstrations he presented for the music press at Chicago's Lollapaloosa Festival, also reported in the San Francisco Chronicle and featured on National Public Radio.

The workshops also explore lighting effects to show how our perception is colored by our surroundings. "Wine resonates with its environment in ways we're just beginning to understand," says Smith. "It's an area where the novice can really experiment just as easily as the sensory scientist." Participants take away a deeper appreciation of wine's true nature as well as some new ways to have fun with wine and enhance its use.

The complete seminar can be viewed. By purchasing wines similar to those used in the seminar, you can test the experience yourself with friends at home.

Clark and his wife Susie, a French-trained clinical psychologist with two degrees in music, presented a paper at the 2007 Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference in Adelaide exploring recent advances in cognitive musicology and speculating on parallels in wine sensory perception. It's a technical presentation and starts out a little dry, but is full of cool stuff.

For the abridged narrated AWITC presentation, click here (23 MB).
Click here to download the complete, un-narrated version (5.3MB)

Clark's reflections from his Wine and Music workshops

It seems that when the wine and the music have the same intrinsic mood, they complement each other. In particular, wines taste smoother, whereas when it's a mismatch, they can taste harsh and astringent. My reading of music cognition work indicates that the thalamus in the midbrain makes decisions as to the nature of a stimulus, and sends harmonies to the sympathetic nervous system (calming) and the frontal lobes (pleasure system) whereas noise is sent to the parasympathetic system (alert status) and the limbic system (fight or flight). Identifying something as harmonious, for example a major chord, makes us ignore the noisiness of the instruments. The same orchestra tuning up is an annoying cacophony, but then they start playing together and it's pleasurable. I think wines participate in this, like another instrument in the orchestra, and they need to be playing in good sync with the other instruments, or the result is unpleasant because we sense the harshness that the wine really has which we overlook when the elements are working in harmony.

What goes with what? You can make pretty good guesses about what will work by learning to be as sensitive to the mood of a wine as to the mood of a piece. Anybody can tell happy music from sad from angry from romantic from lustful. Wines are the same. Cabernets are angry, Pinots romantic, Rieslings cheerful. After that, it's trial and error. Pay particular attention to astringency: the smoothness or harshness a wine displays when tasted in a specific musical environment. You don't need more than a few seconds to sense the effect.

I'm not aware of scientific inquiry in this area. The trials we've been doing demonstrate the synergistic effects quite clearly and at this point pretty universally for thousands of people. But we're just playing around.

What's a little more scientific is the sensory work we've done with wine blending, particularly with alcohol levels. If we look at a continuum of alcohol, for example the same wine at 12.5%, 12.6%, etc., all the way up to 15.0%, we've shown very convincingly that a wine will have discreet, exact points of harmonious balance surrounded by very unbalanced wines that are just a tenth of a percent off. Large numbers of subjects show good agreement about where these "sweet spots" are. The best explanation we have for the strongly shared non-linear behavior is that it sounds a lot like the way musical tuning behaves. We are starting to talk about wine as literally "liquid music".

You can reproduce this demonstration for yourself following the steps below. For the full experience, you’ll want to purchase a few wines as directed below. The demonstration includes a white flight and a red flight. The white flight has three styles of chardonnay:

Purpose Style name Characterization Suggested wine
To make you smile 'yummy' style Appley, slight residual sugar, simple, fruity 2006 Glen Ellen
To blow your ears off 'WOW' style Big fat momma style, toasty oak, buttery, rich and powerful 2006 Rombauer
To make you think 'Ah-ha' style Lean, crisp, minerally, restrained, long finish 2002 WineSmith Faux Chablis or any classic Grand Cru Chablis

Be sure to buy enough wine for folks to taste several times.

These wines are first presented in a serene, well-lighted neutral environment such as is favored by contemporary wine geeks. Tasters record their impressions, taking careful note of the style of the wines, and particularly their characteristics and flaws: fruitiness, alcohol, butter, oak, acidity, and most important, astringency (smoothness or harshness). Take a vote of everybody's favorite.

Now turn on "California Girls" by the Beach Boys. It helps to cue this beyond the slow intro to the point of "the East Coast girls are hip..." If you are a living, breathing human being, you will find the Glen Ellen absolutely delightful and the other two pretty disgusting. Take another vote.

Now put on Ella Fitzgerald doing St. Louis Blues (a nice slow version with lots of trumpet and trombone). This will cause the Glen Ellen to become quite harsh, while the Rombauer's butter and alcohol will slip into the background, revealing pineapples in perfect balance. Take another vote.

I like at this point to play 15 second clips of the two pieces until folks are convinced the effect is really happening.

If you like, you can now play snippets of various pieces to see what happens. I like the Chet Baker/Gerry Milligan version of the jazz piece "Jeru" for the Chablis style. It's fun to throw in some Henry Purcell, some Jerry Lee Hooker like "Sugar Momma Blues," some Buchstehuda - whatever floats your boat, but mix it up.

Finally, a blending exercise. For this you need a piece that's good with chardonnays across the board. I use Pavarotti's Rondine Nido on an endless loop and give folks five or ten minutes to try to blend their three wines into something which resonates well with this beautiful piece.

A caution to all ye nerds: Some of you will want to conduct this demonstration as some kind of scientific experiment. Knock yourself out. But do not imagine that you can simultaneously conduct a scientific trial and amuse your guests. To the extent that they are kept annoyingly in the dark, you can collect convincing data. However your friends may decide you are a butthole. My recommendation is just to have fun with the demonstration. You will find the effects are so strong that it doesn't matter how you run things. But whatever.

Flight 2 is for reds. You will need a nice hard, soulful cabernet sauvignon, an exquisitely perfumey pinot noir, a nouveau Beaujolais such as Georges DeBoeuf, and Sutter Home White Zinfandel.

As a general rule, I find that red wine is a different creature than our contemporary, high tech, squeaky clean fresh white wines. It is the job of modern white wine to be fresh and pure, and these wines work well in a daytime environment, what the Romans called Apollonian (their god of the sun: emotion-free, analytical, pristine). Pure fresh reds are not our goal, even today. They respect Dionysius (or for the Greeks, Bacchus), the god of moonlight and firelight; holistic, moody and romantic. They are, at their very best, mature rather than fresh, sexy rather than pure.

To demonstrate this distinction, have your crew taste these wines in the same neutral geeky environment as before. But this time, set out some votive candles and light them. Discuss the wines, again paying particular attention to astringency (smoothness or harshness).

Write down descriptors folks offer up for the wines. In this mindset, aroma wheel-type analytical descriptors spring first to mind: fruit, oak, acid, etc.. Now kill the overheads, leaving only candlelight. Taste again. The analytical descriptors won't come so naturally. Now you'll be noticing more animated, holistic personifications like austere, generous, masculine, cheerful, brooding, etc.. Switch the lights back on for a minute, taste, then off again to confirm this effect.

I think it's really unhealthy for us to spend our lives in daylight. One of wine's most important roles is to drag us into the Dionysian space we lost due to Thomas Edison's invention.

Red wines tend to be enhanced by soulful music. Cheerful or strident tones are to be avoided. A polka or a Sousa march is deadly to them, and brings out unbearable harshness.

For Pinot Noir, you want romantic music. I like Mozart's Eine Kleine Nacht Musik with a good burgundy from the Côtes de Nuits. Strauss is good with California pinot, the more violins and French horns, the better.

Cabernet Sauvignons like dark, angry music. Oddly, this genre will smooth out their otherwise aggressive tannins. Try People Are Strange by The Doors, or if it is big enough, the overture to Carmina Burana by Carl Orff.

Nouveau Beaujolais can tolerate some cheerfulness if there is pathos to it - Celtic jazz like Nightnoise or Ron Korb is nice. In Australia I used Rita MacNear's lovely anthem "She's Called Nova Scotia."

None of this will do much for your White Zinfandel. If you can find it, the perfect piece to make this wine sing while transforming all great reds into disgusting swill is "The Milorganite Blues" by the late John Consoer of Milwaukee's North Street Tavern Band, a grubby four-to-the-bar white bread blues that will give anyone the giggles but imparts little joy to cabernet.

It's a nice piece to end on, because its silly core message reminds us that life is much too important to take too seriously.

Here's a preliminary list of good music pairings for our wines. We'd love to hear from you about your own experiences, and also any other good matches you find.

Wine Name Artist Album Genre
2005 WineSmith Cabernet Sauvignon
  Poor Miss Big Head Todd & The Monsters Live Monsters Rock
Here's to the Meantime Grace Potter & the Nocturnals This Is Somewhere (Bonus Track Version) Rock
Wolves** Garth Brooks No Fences Special Edition Country
Run to the Hills Iron Maiden The Essential Iron Maiden Rock
2005 CheapSkate Surly Chenin Blanc
  Nantes Beirut The Flying Club Cup Alternative
Someone Like You Saba Elbo Club Rock
Morning Morgantown Joni Mitchell Ladies of the Canyon Rock
Ain't No Time Grace Potter & the Nocturnals This Is Somewhere (Bonus Track Version) Rock
2005 WineSmith Cabernet Franc
  Stop the Bus Grace Potter & the Nocturnals This Is Somewhere (Bonus Track Version) Rock
Jesus, Etc. Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot Rock
Jungleland Bruce Springsteen Born to Run - 30th Anniversary Edition Rock
Body and Soul Art Pepper Playboy Jazz: Love Songs After Dark Jazz
2002 WineSmith "Faux Chablis" Chardonnay
  Angel Sean Hayes Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star Folk
Whoever's In New England Reba McEntire Reba #1's [Disc 1] Country
Come Rain or Come Shine The Stan Getz Quartet Playboy Jazz: Love Songs After Dark Jazz
Jeru Chet Baker / Gerry Mulligan Quartet The Best of Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker Jazz
Sugar Mama John Lee Hooker House of the Blues Blues
5 Pavarotti Rondine al Nido x3** Pavarotti   Classical
2004 WineSmith Roman Syrah
   He Keeps Me Alive Sally Shapiro Disco Romance Dance
Tudo Bem Malandro Curumin Big Change: Songs for FINCA Alternative
2007 Pennyfarthing Sauvignon Blanc
    Nantes Beirut The Flying Club Cup Alternative
American Tune Simon & Garfunkel The Concert In Central Park Pop
Big Yellow Taxi Joni Mitchell Ladies of the Canyon Rock
SkinFlint Dry Rose
  Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645,"Sleepers, Awake" Raymond Agoult & The New Symphony Orchestra Of London Ultimate Joy - Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring and Other Joyful Sounds Classical
Because All Men Are Brothers** Peter, Paul & Mary Songs Of Conscience & Concern Folk
Calling All Cars Sean Hayes Big Black Hole and the Little Baby Star Folk
Sunshine On My Shoulders John Denver John Denver's Greatest Hits Country
Big Yellow Taxi Joni Mitchell Ladies of the Canyon Rock
Angela (Theme from "Taxi") Bob James Best of Smooth Jazz, Vol. 1 Jazz
Wild Horses Garth Brooks No Fences Special Edition Country

** = Songs not found on iTunes