Money, Music, War and Wine

I’ve just finished reading final papers from The Idea of Wine class I teach at the University of Puget Sound. These essays remind me that wine really  is a liberal art and a natural element of an enlightened education.

Jean-Robert Pitte is right (and the French government is wrong) — wine has a place in the college curriculum.

The Greeks realized this centuries ago. They defined a  symposium as a discussion over wine! What could be better?  Herewith thumbnail sketches of three student papers that suggest the many ways that wine and liberal arts education intersect.

Wine and the Hard Life

Since this is The Wine Economist I’ll start with a paper by an economics student. “The Postwar Decline of the Old World Consumer” addresses the question of why per capita wine consumption in “Old World” countries has fallen so rapidly over the last 50 years. This falling demand is a key factor in the continuing global wine glut and especially the EU’s notorious wine lake. David, the author, turned the question around: why, he wondered, was consumption so high in the first place?

The most intensive wine consumption in France, Spain and Italy in the early postwar years was among laborers and rural workers who expended great energy in their jobs and required high caloric intake. Rough local wine (of the sort that is in excess supply today) was a cheap source of this energy. As European economies modernized and living standards rose the demographics of wine consumption changed. Fewer people engaged in grueling hard physical labor. Life was easier, living standards higher and better nutritional options presented themselves.

Not surprisingly, as the need for wine’s cheap calories declined so did its consumption. Other factors were at work, too, but rising living standards explain an unexpectedly large proportion of the wine consumption decline.

Romantically, we Americans associate wine with the good life and wonder why Europeans would turn away from it. But for some Europeans, at least, wine was part of the hard life and they may be happy to have moved away from it. The wine world will just have to adjust.

Beethoven and Bordeaux?

Megan, a science major, wrote on “The Melody of Taste.” Her paper surveyed the literature on how your perception of wine may be affected by the music you listen to while tasting.  I found this paper very interesting in the way that it embraced both science and philoisophy. There is reason to think that wine and music might have some connection, she wrote, because “wine is an aesthetic object and drinking wine is an aesthetic experience.”  Wine and music evoke similar aesthetic responses and it is plausible that they would interact on that basis.  So far so good.

Science suggests that the link between wine and music might go deeper than this, according to Megan. Brain scan data indicate that sensory experiences from taste, odor and music “target the same areas of the brain, initiating cross-modal processing.”  One author  argues that because different types of music affect the taste of wine in particular ways, a science (or art?) of  music-wine matching (like pairing wine and cheese) might be a serious possibility.

If you want to experiment with wine and music yourself, Megan writes, try this. Buy a $5 bottle of Glenn Ellen Chardonnay. Taste it on its own and then while listening to the Beach Boys singing  “California Girls.”  I’ve provided the music here — you have to supply the wine. The Beach Boys tune apparently stimulates the right part of your brain to make this value-priced wine taste a lot better.

Megan also reports a study showing that polka-style music makes Sutter Home White Zin taste better, too. Well … of course. Anything would probably help and a polka seems just right to me.

Winemaker Clark Smith has developed a line of wines to be paired with specific musical pieces. Read more about this project at GrapeCraft Wines. I haven’t tried wine-music pairing, but I would be interested in comments from anyone who has.

Wine and War

Let me finish with politics student  Hally’s paper on “The Real Story of Unknown Lebanese Wine: A Reason to Survive,” which was provoked by a puzzle. Lebanon has a very long winemaking history and some of its wines (Chateau Musar, for example) have attracted worldwide attention. Why aren’t these excellent wines better known and more popular, Hally wanted to know?

Yes, yes, Lebanon is a long way away and not well known, but that doesn’t seem to stop other wines from unlikely places (think about New Zealand!) from reaching local markets.  The answer, Hally learned, is that sometimes wine is affected by war and peace even more than by soil and weather.

Making wine in war-torn Lebanon in recent years has presented far more than the unusual number of challenges. “For Lebanese wine makers, picking grapes and making wine is more an act of defiance against years of repressive wars and religious hatred than it is a business necessity,” Hally writes. “Wine is key to the survival of their spirit through seemingly endless years of conflict.”

Bitter Memories?

After finishing her paper, Hally reports, she was able to track down a bottle of Chateau Musar from a war-torn recent vintage when practically no wine was made or released due to the constraints of conflict.  I’m sure Hally wanted it to have a glorious taste — the triumph of wine over war, but she says it was awful. Corked, I think, from her description. Not what she wanted at all.

What makes a wine memorable? People always imagine that the great flavors and aromas are what make wines special to us, but I have my doubts. Wine is too complicated to be just about its direct sensory effects. Hard times, upbeat music and the determination to struggle through conflict — wine can reinforce these associations, too, and burn them into our memories.

Wine stimulates all our physical senses (taste, smell, touch, sight — even sound if we touch glasses in a toast).  But its real power comes from the fact that it also stimulates our minds, triggering memories and inspiring thoughts. Hmmm. I should organize a symposium on that theme!

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5 responses

  1. Very intersting!

    A few years ago, I met an man who had immigrated from Italy and now owned a wine store and deli in Denver. He told me when he grew up in Italy, he knew nothing about wine.

    It was only when he came to America where he began to appreicate great Italian wines like Barolos and Barbarescos. When I asked him why, he responded by saying that Italians drink wine with every meal from the time they are little, but its not regarded as something special. He remembers going to the local winery in his town and filling up a jug for his mother.

    It would never occur to his family to buy an expensive bottle of wine to go with dinner.

  2. At the 2009 Women for WineSense conference in Napa, Bill Leigon (Hahn Family Wines) teamed up with Asher Raboy, conductor of the Napa Valley Symphony, to lead a fascinating presentation on how different types of music affect our perception of various wines – even the sceptics had to agree it’s real. And it’s easier than a wine-food pairing (no cooking required). As a bonus, they made a fine standup comedy team, and could probably be persuaded to do it for other groups.

  3. We, at DeMorgenzon, play music to our vines and our wines 24 x 7. We have speakers strategically placed in the vineyard and in the cellar. The effects of sound and music on plant growth is an intriguing subject and a handful of research papers have reported on the positive effects of sound energy on plant growth. We are currently in discussion with Stellenbosch University about a research programme.

    Though what sounds melodious, or harmonious, or tuneful, is subjective, there are physical justifications for aesthetic appeal. Much of music consists of melodic and rhythmic patterns put together in an orderly, but creative, manner. The ‘scientific’ approach to music reached its height in the Baroque.

    In short, we compiled a 7 day playlist of Baroque music and are monitoring its effects in the vineyard and in the cellar. We have two large blocks of Shiraz planted at the same time in the same soil and on the same slope. The rootstock and clone are identical. The block subjected to ‘intensive’ music ripens approximately 3 weeks later than the ‘control block.’ Furthermore, we play music in the winery where barrel fermentation showed the opposite effect with far earlier fermentation.

  4. Another reason Musar isn’t a household name is bc it’s routinely misperceived/misunderstood. Tasters pronounce the wine awful/corked, but usually the beast just needs to breathe. When I hosted a virtual vertical at the Wine House in Los Angeles in the early-nineties, we decanted the bottles about 10 hours in advance. The older the vintage, the fresher it seemed. It really is a law unto itself.

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