Wine and Music: Mysterious Resonances

I confess I’ve been holding out on my readers about an intriguing area of research Susie and I have been pursuing lately, that of the relationship of wine and music. My wife, Dr. Susan Mayer-Smith, a French-trained clinical psychologist who holds two music degrees and was awarded first chair flautist for the Chicago Symphony at age 19, has been working with me to explore the GrapeCraft core notion that wine is liquid music.

At Vinovation many times daily we conduct “sweet spot” trials to determine the proper balance points for alcohol in the wines our 800 California clients bring us, and we always find the same two things. First, the points of harmony (roundness, softness, sweetness) and dissonance (harshness, disjointedness) arrange themselves in a very nonlinear fashion. You don’t find balance throughout the 13%’s with lower alcohols being thin and salty and higher alcohols hot and bitter. Instead you get dialed-in radio stations: specific points of harmonious balance just a tenth of a percent away from terrible wines.

Secondly, there is very strong agreement on what is harmonious. Just like nobody like a piano that’s out of tune. Yet at the same time, there is no agreement, choosing from among the wines that are in tune, of which style is best. Fist fights on that, just as you get among music fans for which style they prefer.

So Susie and I presented a paper on recent advances in cognitive musicology – the way the brain processes harmony and dissonance – and its possible relationship to wine cognition at the July meeting of the Australian Wine Industry Technical Conference.

The reason I’ve been stalling on telling you about all this is that it’s a lot to tell. Besides, it turns out that wine and music have very strong synergy, and I’m working at putting up an interactive website on the subject.

Too late. SF Chronicle columnist Blake Gray smoked me out for an interview and demonstration on the subject which he just posted. So I guess the cat’s out of the bag. But there will be lots more to come on this subject.

By the way, Metalica with Cabernet is Blake's idea, not mine, but I certainly do recommend People Are Strange and Carmina Burana witha big tough Cab, and I don't think it matters if that music is your favorite. I also challenge anyone to enjoy a great red while listening to the Milorganite Blues, and polka ain't much better; furthermore it will improve anyone's opinion of the balance of white zinfandel, but you're still free to dislike it.

I hope you'll feel free to experiment with the idea and get back to me about what works and what doesn't.




Jonathan Carfax:

Dear Clark

Your theories already have me intrigued, but with regards to other beverages, such as absinthe - particularly given its historical links to the artistic intelligensia.

I am sure French Cabaret is not the default musical style for the green muse, so you have inspired to me to investigate this further!

Yours in service



Stephen Abbanat:

As a lucky guest at the wine tasting you conducted in Santa Rosa, my wife and I agreed that our perceptions were definitely effected, as marked by our tasting notes. We did not react universally in the same way, but we generally agreed that the music had an impact.

Blake and I discussed the results at length and I remain intrigued. One analogy I use to think about how and why the brain may function in this way is derived from my knowledge of how computers work (e.g. microprocessors, memory chips, etc.). For the various devices on the mother board to work together, they share common wires, called a bus. Based on the instructions of a controlling “clock” the chips take turns "controlling" the shared "message bus" in sequence. At times there can be confusion over which device controls the shared wires, if a device is programmed incorrectly, and in this case the “higher powered” chip would control specific wires, but in essence they fight over what state the voltage is at for a microsecond. I think our mind must execute some similar protocols for controlling certain brain pathways and that they are shared among our auditory music and taste sensations processing efforts.


Just today a friend alerted me to this site as I had recently written about this very same topic.

A couple of days ago I posted a MySpace blog entry regarding my recent experience with "Wine and Jazz Synesthesia".

The blog is based on a Jazz CD by Stanley Clarke that I recently purchased.

I was very reluctant to post my blog. But thanks to your research I feel somewhat validated about my wine impressions while listening to Stanley Clarke's music.

Please keep me up to date on your research.


Bob Carl