The Wine Nerd: Music to my tongue

Jim Hollingshead


Pairing wine and food seems to be half of the job of a wine nerd. It is certainly one of the highlights of the profession. When you find the magic of a perfect combination, one that is greater than the sum of its parts, fireworks erupt in your brain and your heart sings. Yet, with all of the emotion that is tied up in wine, there is a rather obvious pairing that is rarely ever thought of.  What kind of music should you pair with your wine?

On those occasions when conversation wanders towards the subject of wine and music, nearly everyone I mention it to falls into one of two extremes: either it sounds confusing and pointless (how can music change a flavor?), or it sounds so obvious that it doesn’t warrant discussion (don’t YOU play music when you make a nice dinner?).

The common ground between wine and music is fairly clear: emotion.  Both art forms have the ability to create a vast ocean within our soul, calm and soothing here, tumultuous there.  If the focus is the interaction of the two arts emotionally, as opposed to chemically (as it is between food and wine), we must learn to understand more clearly the effect that each has on us.

The first thing that pops into the minds of most people that I mention this to is classical music.  There’s the instant image of Mozart playing in the background as you calmly sip on your Cabernet Sauvignon.  But have you ever tried it?  Go home and grab a rich, powerful red (I think I’ll try a Virginia Petit Verdot tonight), and listen to Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.’ Soft and gentle, the music is relaxing, but the powerful red thrashes on your palate like a racehorse at a gate that just won’t open. Now, turn on ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’  Suddenly, the wine bursts free of the cage and howls in impassioned anguish.

Wine can pair with food by contrasting the different flavors, or by matching those already there.  With music, however, I have found that it should always match. The rich emotion of a powerful Zin needs the ‘Dies Irae,’ not the ‘Moonlight Sonata.’ The silky, seductive nature of an Oregon Pinot Noir needs Frank Sinatra, rather than Metallica.  A New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, all grass and lemon, begs for a tune that makes you think of spring, while a South African Chenin Blanc is calling for a piece that evokes calming ocean waves.  Perhaps Bach’s ‘Prelude in C Major?’ I may have to experiment with that tonight, instead.

As it is with food, you have to try it to know what it’s like.  Make an occasional habit of stopping to think about how the wine makes you feel, rather than simply what flavors you can find.  For those of us in the industry, all maps, proteins, and terroir, it can be all too easy to view wine through a hard, technical lense every day.  Perhaps using music to draw out the passion behind the artwork can return us to that childlike sense of wonder that marks the beginning of our relationship with the delectable vino.  Perhaps that magic will come more naturally to those who are spectators to the sport, who don’t already think of wine in terms of chemistry.  This could be the best opportunity the industry has ever had for the laymen to lead the clergy, so to speak.

Only song will tell.

Now, where did I leave that Chenin Blanc?  I still have to figure out if it needs Bach or Sinatra.