I started playing the trumpet in 4th grade. A few years later, my first job in the restaurant business, bussing tables and washing dishes in a pancake house from 6:00 PM to 4:00 AM on weekends, helped pay for my first professional trumpet. I played in concert bands, jazz bands, marching bands, (true!), and orchestras throughout high school into my undergraduate days at the University of New Mexico to graduate school at the University of Michigan. After grad school, Carla and I moved to San Francisco where I played with various Bay Area orchestras and chamber groups as well as with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra as an extra for the better part of four years. However, eventually the restaurant business and impending parenthood took over. But music has remained a vital part of my career and life and thus I can easily draw on my experience to answer the music-wine question. Further, there are more than a few things from my musical training that have mapped over to my wine career. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that I would never have passed the Master Sommelier examination without my musical training. Here’s why.
Playing a musical instrument (or singing) professionally requires immense focus. One’s success ultimately depends on being able to shut the world out and concentrate singularly on practicing and/or performing along with the playing of other musicians if an ensemble is involved. Tasting at a high level of proficiency also requires great focus and the ability to shut the world out in order to decipher what’s the in glass. I would argue that both are refined trance states in a manner of speaking.
II. Game Day Skills
Game day skills means the ability to bring one’s best game exactly when needed. I’ve written about it several times previously in this blog. The Master’s Exam is a series of three very specialized auditions. I’m convinced that I would never have passed if it wasn’t for the trumpet auditions I took from junior high all the way to my years as a professional. As tough as the MS exam was, it wasn’t nearly as intimidating as some of the auditions I took as a professional. In one of those auditions, it was me alone on the stage of a huge empty concert hall in front of an audition jury I couldn’t see with a music stand filled with a long list of the of most difficult excerpts in the repertoire. Audition protocol requires that you start playing at the beginning of the list and when you make a mistake a voice from someone unseen in the jury calls out, “again!” Then you resume playing until you make three or four mistakes at which point the unseen voice says, “Thank you!” With those two dreaded words you’re done and months and countless hours of practice are gone with no reward other than the fact you took the audition and have the experience. Want pressure? That’s pressure.
Competence as in unconscious competence of a given skill with the ultimate goal of mastery. This is the scale of competence that begins with unconscious incompetence (I’m completely oblivious to the fact that I’m a really horrible dancer), conscious incompetence (Wow! I really suck at dancing), conscious competence (I can dance OK but I really have to work at it), and finally, unconscious competence (Wow, he/she’s an amazing dancer and they make it look so easy). Music and wine are both fields where this scale definitely applies. With the trumpet, it’s all about breathing; specifically the cycle of inhalation, exhalation, and the release of a note—a cycle that has to practiced literally thousands of times to become consistent under the duress of an audition or performance. With wine, one smells and tastes in order to translate a myriad of aromas and flavors in the glass in order to connect sensory impressions to a specific grape, style, place, and even a single harvest. This too requires repetition in the form of thousands of times to gain unconscious competence and with the ultimate goal of mastery.
IV. Heightened Sensory Acuity and an Expanded Field of Awareness
This is perhaps the most important connection of all; how music and wine affect the way we think. A musician in a professional orchestra is required to have remarkable sensory acuity. I remember performing the Verdi Requiem in an orchestra of over a hundred musicians with several vocal soloists out 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 up in the balcony of the hall. From moment to moment, I had to be aware of 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, intonation, and timbre of my sound while playing my part in tune and in time with the rest of the trumpet section, much less the rest of the orchestra. I really 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 the work I’ve done over the last several years modeling the tasting strategies of MS and MW colleagues, I’ve noticed one major pattern: tasting is a visual experience internally for most people and top tasters have unique and intricate ways of visually organizing all the 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 components from a given wine in their field of awareness either simultaneously or in rapid sequence.
I’ve written many times previously of how sight is our dominant internal sense; how most of the human race thinks in pictures and movies. The accomplished musician goes one more by elevating their internal auditory sense to the level of internal sight. A trained, experienced musician calibrates pitch, volume, and timbre with as much precision as a visual artist does color, contrast, shade, and more. Likewise, a professional taster elevates the olfactory and gustatory senses by calibrating the qualities of aromatics (fresh vs. dried vs. cooked vs. stewed fruit) as well the structural components in wine including acidity, alcohol, and tannin. I’ve heard many musicians describe their experience of music and/or playing as three dimensional; I’ve heard many tasters describe their internal experience of wine as three dimensional as well–no great surprise.
VI. Importance of Theory and Accumulated Experience
It may sound lofty, but as a trumpet player sitting in the back of an orchestra I had to know the difference between playing fortissimo (loud) in a Mozart symphony vs. playing fortissimo in a Mahler symphony. Both are completely different even though they are marked identically on the page. In Mozart, the trumpet never plays above mezzo forte (medium-loud) even when the part is marked fortissimo because of the acoustical properties of the instruments that Mozart wrote for in his time. The trumpet Mahler wrote for at the end of the 19th century is almost identical to the instrument of today; it can easily bury an entire orchestra all by itself as far as volume. No surprise that he (Mahler) took full advantage of what the trumpet could do and wrote some of the greatest literature for the instrument in his nine symphonies. And when Mahler wrote fortissimo for the trumpet, he intended for the performer to play LOUD–but always maintaining a good sound.
In wine theory is also always key. In blind tasting it’s almost impossible for one to get to a conclusion such as “Spain, Tempranillo, Rioja Gran Reserva” without knowing that a classic style of Tempranillo from Spain comes from Rioja region and that the Rioja appellation has a quality hierarchy in which Gran Reserva is the highest designation (Not to mention that one can’t even get to Rioja without knowing all the markers for the Tempranillo grape).
There are other many other parallels between music and wine but I will leave you with these last few: music and wine can both create great passion and drive on the part of the student for the very subject being studied. In fact, they should do just that. Both also require a willingness on the part of the student to spend a great deal of time practicing alone to improve personal skills which include the repetition of tedious and often boring things. Finally, music and wine are two fields involving a high degree of aesthetics and beauty; in many ways they are two of the greatest things Western civilization has ever produced. Music, wine and life—it’s not a bad combination.