Music Alters Wine's Taste, Vintner Insists

Hetfield and a bottle of Cab

Metallica singer James Hetfield can enhance Cabernet, according to wine industry consultant Clark Smith. Vesa Moilanen/Getty Images/Courtesy St. Francis Winery hide caption

itoggle caption Vesa Moilanen/Getty Images/Courtesy St. Francis Winery

The Doors may seem like an unusual musical choice for a wine bar. If Cabernet dominates the tasting list, however, the sommelier would do well to play some of the group's angriest songs — at least according to a theory espoused by vintner Clark Smith.

Smith, co-founder of the R.H. Phillips Vineyard and senior enologist at Vinovation, a wine consultation firm, proposes that a wine's taste is dramatically impacted by the music that accompanies it.

Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is best when paired with "music of darkness" — thanks to the ability of rage-filled songs to smooth out similarly aggressive tannins, Smith's theory holds. An idyllic Mozart composition, on the other hand, works in reverse, potentially ruining a good Cab.

"I think everybody recognizes that music has moods," says Smith. "Quite simply, I think that wines carry mood also — and so the wine is acting like another musical instrument in the orchestra. If it's playing in the wrong thematic mode, it clashes with the rest of the musicians."

Smith asks skeptics, such as NPR's Alex Cohen, to simply conduct a test with an open mind and palette. It took only a few songs for Cohen to be convinced that music can, indeed, alter wine's taste. (A fellow journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle had a similar experience.)

A $3 bottle of Glenn Ellen Chardonnay suddenly tastes superior to far more expensive wines, many of Smith's subjects have found, when sipped while listening to the Beach Boys' upbeat "California Girls." Likewise, Sutter Home White Zinfandel — generally unpopular when tasted without music — is a favorite when testers are listening to the North Water Street Tavern Band's polka-like "Milorganite Blues."

Not everyone's experience will be the same, Smith acknowledges, but he has developed some basic guidelines regarding which types of music go best with which types of wine.

To set the right mood on Thanksgiving, he recommends, serve up some Andrea Bocelli and a good reserve Chianti with your turkey. Or you could test Smith's theory by switching the opera to polka mid-glass.

SMITH'S WINE-MUSIC PAIRING GUIDELINES

Cabernet Does Well with Rage

Cabernet

Example: 2003 St. Francis Sonoma County

Tastes best with: dark, angry music

Such as: The Doors' "People Are Strange"

Clashes with: Mozart

Audio is no longer available

Pinot Noir Loves Romantics

Pinot

Example: Good burgundy from the Cotes de Nuits

Tastes best with: romantic or sexy music

Such as: Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik"

Clashes with: polka

White Zinfandel Yearns for Polka

White Zin

Example: Sutter Home White Zinfandel

Tastes best with: polka or polka-like blues

Such as: North Water Street Tavern Band's polka-like "Milorganite Blues." If you can't find it, you could try Jimmy Sturr's "She's Too Fat for Me."

Clashes with: angry music

Oaky Chardonnay Needs Something Sultry

Oaky Chardonnay

Example: 2006 Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay

Tastes best with: blues

Such as: Ella Fitzgerald's "St. Louis Blues"

Clashes with: light, cheery music

Sweet Chardonnay Craves Saccharine Oldies

Sweet Chardonnay

Example: 2005 Glen Ellen California Chardonnay

Tastes best with: happy music

Such as: Beach Boys' "California Girls"

Clashes with: blues

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Legacy: The Absolute Best

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Mozart: Eine kleine Nachtmusik; Divertimento

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