Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fine-Tuning Tips

Which goes better with a fine Napa Valley Cabernet: Mozart or Metallica?

If food, glassware, ambient temperature, perfume and the people sitting next to you all influence the taste of wine, why wouldn't music? This seems obvious, and is the reason professional tastings are done in silence.

Clark Smith, 56, an MIT dropout who drifted to California to become R.H. Phillips' founding winemaker, spent months with various tasting panels sampling 150 different wines with 250 different songs to find harmonies and discordances. He has worked up a set of some convincing examples.

His theory involves "sweet spots." When reducing the alcohol level of a wine from the "natural" level produced by fermentation, it's possible to create a finished wine with any percentage of alcohol you choose: 14.2, 12.7, whatever. But Smith says (and demonstrates convincingly) that only a few specific alcohol percentages, "sweet spots", actually taste good. He compares the sweet spots to musical chords. A particular percentage of alcohol tastes harmonious, while just 0.1 percent more or less alcohol tastes dissonant.

I recently read a book by Dominic Smith called “The Beautiful Miscellaneous” about a young man who is left with synesthesia after a car accident. Synesthesia is a condition in which people experience one type of sensation with a different sense. Famous synesthetes include composers like Duke Ellington and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who experienced musical notes as colors. But Smith feels that something else is going on. He wasn't experiencing music as flavor; he believed the music was changing the flavor of the wines.

He has only a few guidelines so far for music and wine pairing. "Never play polkas with anything," he says, unless you really like White Zinfandel. "Red wines need either minor key or they need music that has negative emotion. They don't like happy music. With expensive reds, don't play music that makes you giggle. Pinots like sexy music. Cabernets like angry music."

Give these tips some consideration next time you download a song into your iPod or open a favorite bottle.