the music wine connection

Is there a connection between music and wine? I’m sometimes asked that question and qualified to answer it as I have two degrees in music; a BA in music history and an MM in classical trumpet. However, the answer isn’t as simple as something inane like Mozart is like Champagne. For the record, I think Vivaldi and Prosecco are a better match. Regardless, the quick answer to the question is yes.

There are more than a few connections between music and wine due to the multitude of parallels between the two fields. First, both are sensory-based. Both also have remarkable depth in terms of their respective history, culture, sociology, philosophy, and even spirituality.

But perhaps the most important connection between music and wine is how they make us think. How extensive training in either can create complex and refined patterns of thought not necessarily found in other endeavors.

I started playing the trumpet in 4th grade. Several years later, my first job in the restaurant business—bussing tables in a pancake house from 6:00 PM to 4:00 AM on weekends—helped pay for my first professional trumpet. I played in various groups including concert bands, jazz bands, marching bands (true!) and orchestras, from the time I was in grade school to my undergraduate days at the University of New Mexico, to graduate school at the University of Michigan. In other words, from the time I was 12 until my mid-30s, when I put the horn down.

After grad school, Carla and I moved to San Francisco where I played with orchestras all over the Bay Area as well as an extra with San Francisco Opera Orchestra. I free-lanced for over four years until the restaurant business and impending parenthood took over. Thus music was—and has always been—a vital part of my career and life. And I can easily draw on my own experiences to explain the music-wine connection.

There are many things from my musical training that helped with my wine career. In fact, I would go as far to say that I could never have passed the Master Sommelier examinations without my musical training.

Here are some of the aspects that mapped over from music to wine.

The Music-Wine Connection

Shutting the world out

Playing a musical instrument (or singing) requires immense focus. One’s success ultimately depends on being able to shut the world out and concentrate singularly on playing, as well as that of other musicians if performing in an ensemble. Tasting also requires great focus and the ability to shut the world out in order to discover what’s the in glass. I would suggest that both are very refined trance or altered states, in a manner of speaking.

Game day skills

Game day skills means the ability to bring one’s best effort exactly when needed. The MS Exam is a series of three specialized auditions, as all are oral examinations. I’m convinced I would never have passed the exams if it weren’t for the trumpet auditions I took from the time I was in junior high all the way to my years as a professional. As tough as the MS exam was for me, it wasn’t nearly as intimidating compared to some of the auditions I took as a professional.

In one of those auditions, it was me alone on stage in an empty concert hall, in front of an audition jury I couldn’t see, and a music stand filled with a long list of the most difficult excerpts in the repertoire. Audition protocol required me to start playing at the beginning of the list. When I made a mistake, a voice from someone unseen in the jury called out “again!” I started playing again until I make made the next mistake with the same response. After three or four errors, the unseen voice said, “Thank you!” With those two dreaded words, I was finished. And months and countless hours of practice were gone with no reward other than the fact that I had taken the audition and had the experience. Want pressure? That’s pressure.

Unconscious competence and mastery

Competence in this context means unconscious competence with the ultimate goal of mastery. This is the so-called scale of competence that starts with unconscious incompetence (I’m oblivious to the fact that I’m a horrible dancer) to conscious incompetence (wow, I really suck at dancing) to conscious competence (I can dance, but I really have to work at it) to unconscious competence (wow, he/she’s an amazing dancer and they make it look so easy).

Music and wine are both endeavors where this scale applies. In music, one translates written symbols on the page to hopefully refined sounds. To accomplish this, there are an untold number of processes, both conscious and unconscious, that have be followed before a single note is played.

With the trumpet, it’s all about breathing. Specifically, the cycle of inhalation, exhalation, and the release of a note. It’s a cycle that has to be practiced literally thousands of times to become consistent, especially under the duress of an audition or performance.

With wine, one practices tasting using a grid in order to connect the dots and identify a specific grape variety, a style, a place, and even a specific year of production. This also requires repetition in the form of thousands of wines tasted in order to gain unconscious competence and hopefully mastery at some point.

Heightened sensory acuity and an expanded field of awareness

This is perhaps the most important music-wine connection of all; how music and tasting affect the way we think. A musician in a professional orchestra is required to have remarkable level of sensory acuity. I remember performing the Verdi Requiem one time with an orchestra of over a hundred musicians. Also on stage were several vocal soloists in front of the orchestra, a chorus of over 200 singers directly behind me, and a dozen off-stage brass players positioned hundreds of feet from the orchestra in the balcony of the concert hall.

From moment to moment, I had to focus on everything going on around me including my own part, watching the conductor, and listening to the other people in my section as well as all the various instruments and singers around me. Every instant I had to adjust the volume and timbre of my sound while playing my part in tune and in time with the rest of the trumpet section—and the rest of the orchestra. I can’t tell you how I did this—or how any musician does it for that matter. But I can tell you that performing at a high level requires one to keep an enormous number of things in their field of awareness, either simultaneously or in rapid sequence.

Tasting is much the same. In interviews I’ve done over the years with MS and MW colleagues about their tasting strategies, I’ve noticed one major pattern. Smelling and tasting wine is a visual experience internally for practically everyone. And top tasters have unique and intricate ways of mentally organizing all the sensory information in a glass of wine.

Like the musician, a professional taster can keep a great number of aromas and flavors as well as structural elements from a given wine in their field of awareness either simultaneously or in rapid sequence. And they do so using internal images and other visual patterns.

Heightened sensory awareness

For most, visual is our dominant internal sense. Most of the human race thinks in pictures and movies. The accomplished musician goes one further by elevating auditory/sound in the form of listening and playing/singing to the level of internal sight. An experienced musician calibrates pitch, volume, and timbre with as much precision as a visual artist does with color, contrast, shade, and more.

Likewise, a professional taster also elevates smell and taste to the level of internal visual by identifying and calibrating all the aromas and flavors in the glass. For example, the character or quality of fruit in wine could be fresh, dried, cooked, stewed, or other. An experienced taster also calibrates the structural elements in wine in the form of the levels of acidity, alcohol, phenolic bitterness, and tannin.

To that point, I’ve heard many musicians describe their experience of music and/or playing as three dimensional. I’ve also heard many tasters describe their internal experience of wine as three dimensional as well.

The importance of theory and accumulated experience

It may sound esoteric, but a trumpet player sitting playing in an orchestra has to know the difference between playing forte (loud) in a Mozart symphony vs. playing forte in a Mahler symphony. Even though both are marked identically on the page, they’re completely different. In Mozart, the trumpet rarely plays above mezzo forte (medium-loud), even when the part is marked forte. This is because of the acoustical properties of the instruments of Mozart’s time, a time when string instruments weren’t acoustically capable of playing loud. And when trumpets were no more than extensions of a military fife and drum corps.

However, the trumpet Mahler wrote for in his symphonies at the end of the 19th century was very close to the instrument of today. He (Mahler) took full advantage of what the trumpet could do and wrote some of the greatest literature for the instrument. And when Mahler wrote forte—or fortissimo, he intended for trumpeters to play loud with the caveat that a good sound be used.

In wine, theory is always key. In blind tasting it’s almost impossible for one to get to a conclusion such as “Spain, Tempranillo, Rioja Gran Reserva, 2011” without knowing that a classic style of Tempranillo from Spain comes from Rioja region, and that Rioja as an appellation has a quality hierarchy of which Gran Reserva is the highest designation. It goes without saying that one also needs to know all the markers for the Tempranillo grape.

Final thoughts on the Music-Wine Connection

There are other parallels between music and wine, but I will leave you with this. Both music and wine tend to create a great passion and drive on the part of the individual pursuing a career.

Both also require a willingness on the part of the student to spend a great deal of time practicing alone to improve skills, which includes the repetition of tedious and often boring things.

Finally, music and wine are fields involving a high degree of aesthetics and beauty. In many ways, they are two of the greatest things our civilization has ever produced.

Music, wine, and life. It’s a wonderful combination.