It’s 7 p.m. on a cold Monday night in December and I’m deeply skeptical. I’m in a swanky Upper East Side apartment with one of those elevators that opens right into a private residence. The scent of expensive perfume lingers in the air. A room full of impeccably clad wine professionals stand gathered around a grand piano. A pianist sits with his fingers raised above the keys, poised to start playing.
The people gathered around him include an array of well-known journalists and big-time buyers from retail shops all over the city. But the most important guests are three members of the Coulon family. They have been producing wine in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, one of the world’s most sought-after appellations, for eight generations.
Every guest is holding a glass of 1957 Châteauneuf-du-Pape between their carefully manicured fingers. They are gathered for an event billed as a “tasting recital.” Three generations of Coulon family wine have been paired with musical offerings uniquely suited to go with them. But as I step into that beautiful apartment, I’m just not buying it. Wine and music pairing? I think to myself. Is that really a thing now? Still, I’d made a pact with myself that if I were to come to the event, I’d come with an open mind. So I take a glass of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and take a seat.
The pianist seated at the gleaming instrument is Mark Markham, a world-renowned classical musician. He begins to play “Etude Pour les Octaves“ by Claude Debussy, a piece written in 1915 that’s famous for its beauty as well as for how hard it is to play.
I listen, enthralled, and sip the incredible wine. It’s complex and alive, despite its many years of aging in bottle. There is a profound depth to it, one that you don’t come across every day. I can’t help but notice that that same complexity, depth, and life are also apparent in the unconventional chords of the piece. As Markham’s hands jump up and down the keys, the notes transition from soft and supple to aggressive and meaty, just like the nuances of the wine in the glass.
Listening to the different pieces of music and tasting the different wines, similarities undeniably begin to emerge, and I start to think about larger similarities, too. Both glass and instrument are in charge of displaying works of art, vessels for layered objects of creativity, one oral and one audible. Before I’m fully conscious of it, my skepticism begins to wither away. I’m inexplicably moved by the music and wine pairings, which are almost overwhelming. I leave that beautiful apartment with more questions than answers.
But the event was hardly revolutionary. Music and wine pairings are ubiquitous. VinePair itself was born out of a rock concert series, Vivo in Vino, which paired bands with winemakers. How deep do these pairings go? When we pair wine and food, there is a set of scientifically proven chemical reactions that take place. Is it possible that the same is true of music? Does a certain song evoke certain types of reactions in the brain? Is there an objective way to tell whether one piece of music goes better with a certain wine, the way a certain dish does? Or are music and wine pairings no more than delightful little analogies?
The answer, it turns out, is complicated.
On a rainy Wednesday evening after the music-and-wine-pairing event, I make my way to Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a sexy, intimate wine bar in the SoHo neighborhood of New York. Cozy leather couches line the walls and tightly-knit groups are gathered around small wooden tables; it’s dimly lit, and everyone seems to have their eyes locked on the person across from them.
There I meet with Caleb Ganzer, La Compagnie’s sommelier and wine director. Ganzer is tall and trim with a refined elegance that seems perfectly attuned to the ambiance. Sitting on a barstool next to me, he tells me that there’s no formula for wine and music pairing. Ganzer is completely convinced that music and wine pairings are purely subjective.
“It’s all about the context,” he explains.
He doesn’t mean that in a bad way. Wine on its own is about context for Ganzer. Say you have a table of regulars who order the same bottle of wine day in and day out. If that same couple comes in one day after closing a huge deal or getting engaged, you wouldn’t propose the same mundane bottle. You would probably suggest something a little more festive,. That’s because context is key. “You pair the right wine with the right occasion for the right reason,” Ganzer says. “That’s half the battle.”
The same is true when it comes to music. You’re looking to the context of the evening or event to choose your music, just as you did to choose your wine. But it’s always the occasion that you’re pairing both the wine and the music with, rather than pairing them with each other.
“It’s up to the curator to make the analogy,” Ganzer says, but that’s all it is: an analogy that connects the wine and the music to an occasion or an event, creating a common theme between them.
But a few days later I hear another point of view at Le Du’s Wines in New York, a tucked-away wine shop in the West Village. It’s a lovely, unpretentious spot, chock-full of good bottles of wine. And no matter what time of day you enter, you can be sure that music will be playing.
There I meet with Jean-Luc Le Dû, the owner of the shop. He’s wearing a plaid shirt, thick-rimmed glasses, broken-in sneakers, and dark denim jeans. Le Dû absolutely believes that music and wine are connected on a deeper level.
“There’s a song from The Clash called ‘Police and Thieves,’” Le Dû tells me, his French accent still thick despite having moved to America many years ago. “When I hear that song, I’m reminded of the acidity and energy of a great Chablis. The wine cuts like a knife, like the guitar in the song,” Le Dû explains. “In general, the music of Led Zeppelin, what it evokes to me is a big, meaty kind of slow-moving wine, like a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Zinfandel.” Contrast that with a singer-songwriter like Dylan, Le Dû says. “With Bob Dylan, you need an old-late harvest wine, like a Sauternes or Coteaux du Layon — a meditation wine, while you savor the lyrics of one of our greatest songwriters of all time.”
When Le Dû speaks of his favorite pairings, I get them. As opposed to just pairing music and wine to the ambiance or context of a certain situation, Le Dû believes that specific components in a wine and a piece of music can work cohesively to form a pairing. And while it might be a subjective sensibility pairing them, the pairing, for Le Dû, does not solely rely on an outside context but rather on something internal to the music and the wine.
But some are taking things even one step further. Beyond sommeliers or wine sellers pairing wine with music in a restaurant or store, some are now pairing wine with music before the wine is even made. The same way musicians use wine as inspiration for writing music or recording an album, so, too, are some winemakers now using music to inspire their vines.
One such place is Domaine Apollonis in Champagne.
I land in France and hop a train to Epernay, followed by a short car ride to Domaine Apollonis, formerly known as Domaine Michel Loriot. The scenery is simply breathtaking. It’s the dead of winter, and the gently sloping hillsides are eerily adorned in bare vines. Despite the chill of January cutting through the afternoon air, the ambiance still rings of Champagne, with wooden signs bearing producer names dotting the roadsides, and little tasting rooms scattered off winding side streets.
I pull up to what looks like a small family cottage, attached to a larger, more industrial-looking facility. The door swings open and a young woman wearing glasses and dressed simply in a pink short-sleeved shirt and simple pants stands at the top of the steps, her smile radiating as she waves her hand back and forth, welcoming me to pull up into the driveway. It is Marie Loriot and she is just who I’ve come to see. With short curly brown hair cut short and held back by a thin headband, Loriot is a winemaker.
But she’s not just any winemaker. Loriot takes the idea of music and wine pairings to the next level. She plays music to her grapes — literally to the vines. And there is a scientific reasoning behind it, too, Loriot says. She tells me of her family’s work with Genodics, a group of horticulturalists and musicians who treat and prevent illnesses in plants. The team claims to have discovered an extremely precise sequence of musical notes that stimulate growth in plants, helping the vines develop a natural defense against ESCA, a rampant disease in French vines. While these sequences do not cure already affected plants, a specific note-playing machine installed among the vines and playing this sequence can help the vines generate a natural defense, they say.
Two parcels of the family’s vineyards are equipped with these note-playing machines. They play consistently during the vegetative period, from April to September. And Loriot absolutely believes that quality of the grapes is better in these vineyards. She and her husband show me charts, graphs, and data that the family uses to precisely calculate what is going in their vineyards. In the last five years, sickness and dead rootstock in the vineyards with the music has significantly decreased.
After we speak, Marie walks me down to the cellar. At first, the only sound is the creaking of our footsteps. But as we descend further and further into the cellar, musical notes begin to emerge, first quietly, then louder and louder. I finally arrive in a cavernous room. It is dim, dusty, and humid, lined with bottles in color-coded crown caps. And Beethoven’s “Symphony Pastoral” is blaring. Loriot believes that music is beneficial to the aging of the wine, thanks to the impact of the vibrations on the lees during secondary fermentation. Since 2010, Loriot has been playing music to her bottled grapes.
Unlike the benefits of playing music to vines, the benefits of playing it to bottled wine have yet to be scientifically proven. But standing in that damp, musty cellar, surrounded by bottles of aging Champagne that were themselves being serenaded by Beethoven, was an astounding experience. I realize in that moment that despite my initial skepticism regarding the use of music in the winemaking process, it’s undeniable that I feel something, something profound, even if I can’t quite identify exactly what it is.
Is this the only piece of music that could have conjured these sentiments within me? Probably not. But as I stand in that cellar, the wine, music, and ambiance of the place come together to create a magical scenario, perfectly contextualized for this very moment. It is the right wine with the right occasion for the right reason, with the perfect piece of music to bring it all home.