Seated at a table across from Molly Madden, jazz vocalist and sales rep for MFW Wine Co, surveying a packed steakhouse, sipping Muscadet from Landron-Chartier, I wondered how on earth Étienne Guérin, wine director and classical guitarist, was planning to intersperse Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A Major, with blinis and trout quenelles. Appetizers materialized at the table, Muscadet flowed, and eventually Etienne took the make shift stage where a shiny grand Yamaha had been stationed for the occasion. He told us the history of Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata, a piece originally written for the 19th century “arpeggione” an instrument fretted like a guitar but played with a bow. Étienne had transposed the piece for guitar, and performed it alongside violist Kristina Giles (not, to my knowledge, a wine professional). The delicate bowing and plucking of fingers, dancing over strings held us captive. I (and the rest of the audience) became lost in the music.
After a thunderous round of applause, trout quenelles in a creamy pink sauce arrived at the table alongside glasses of Franken Silvaner from Von Schönborn. And then Truite Au Bleu: whole trout, rare in the middle and smothered in tartar sauce. Following the main courses, a group of chamber musicians called “The Colonials” performed Schubert’s Trout Quintet … with a few avant garde improvisations spicing up the Andantino-Allegretto movement. The music was revelatory, as was the meal. It was an unusual hybrid of concert and wine dinner, born out of Étienne’s passion. During the quintet, I meandered down synaptic highways and byways, coming back time and again to the same thought: there are so many musicians and musical types in the wine business. Why?
I was a musician once, long ago. For a few years in high school, I believed it was my destiny to be a classical pianist. Then I went to a summer session at the Oberlin Conservatory and realized I didn’t have the drive, the stuffing, the ambition, the talent. MFK Fisher begins The Gastronomical Me with a quotation from philosopher George Santayana: “To be happy you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world.” I took the measure of my powers at age seventeen, and found I did not have the discipline to be a professional pianist, and thus began to learn my place in a world that thankfully includes wine. And now, years after the sad yearning and disappointment in myself for not fulfilling my potential as a musician has worn off, high quality of life means enough hours in the week to play my weighted keyboard, the closest thing to a piano I can fit in my home without having to get rid of my bed. Playing never fails to bring joy into my heart and beauty into my life, even if my only audience is the cats.
With these thoughts in mind, I set out to try to discover the greater, intangible connections between music and wine, running down a long list of people I know beyond casual acquaintanceship who are involved in music in one way or another: winemakers who DJ, sales reps who sing opera, wine shop clerks who play in bands, wine directors who pluck strings, sales reps who run record shops, the list goes on. The types of engagement are as various as the personalities, and I believe wine professionals whether or not they create it, are uniquely and strongly bonded to music. I decided to ask some questions of my community, and to try to get to the bottom of the synergy between wine and music.
I was unsurprised to hear a handful of rebirth narratives not unlike my own, wherein the musician discovers he or she can’t possibly make a living/enjoy a sane life as a professional musician, and turns to wine out of burgeoning interest tinged by desperation, only to be reborn as a new type of impassioned professional. As Ben Wood (67 Wine, Franglais) told me “stocking the cellar was better than washing dishes”.
At the heart of these stories is the notion that a life devoted first and foremost to music, no matter what genre, is a bloody hard life. Dan Weber of Schatzi Wine, long time guitarist and scholar of music in its relationship to politics, confessed that one of the reasons he opted for wine over music was that he saw fellow band mates’ lives wrecked by drug and alcohol abuse; he viewed the wine trade as a safer professional choice. Having decided not to get his masters at Cambridge, holding out for a gig as a session musician on Lauren Hill’s next album, wandering the streets of Williamsburg, Dan stumbled upon three long-haired band dudes listening to Led Zepplin and talking wine at Uva. They were Shane Smith, Justin Chearno, and Giancarlo Luigi. He was instantly smitten.
This brings me to another thrill, which comes from turning people on to new stuff, encouraging them to explore and dig deeper when they like something, harnessing that fledgling enthusiasm and keeping the momentum building. My friend Eric Boyer, whom I met selling wine at Astor back in the day, worked in radio for years, before Napster, before iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. In public radio, he enjoyed the educational aspects of DJ-ing; he could play what he wanted, outside the mainstream, and he forged connections with listeners who “enjoyed the unknown”. He found the same enjoyment working in wine retail, and of course befriended the same types of people. Eric writes “if you like Trousseau then you should check out Poulsard is no different to me than … if you like Parquet Courts, you should check out The Fall. Music was always such an infinite pool of discovery. And with wine, I’m certain that no matter what grape you like or country you’re partial too, I can find you something complementary that’s equally similar, and nothing like what you’re enjoying”. Ah what a happy picture of the retail experience; we hope that for every customer who makes a beeline straight for the Malbec they buy day in and day out, there will be someone who asks “what should I drink next”?
The sensory side of things was a recurring theme with virtually everyone I spoke to: the way music bypasses while engaging the intellect, defies language, goes to the heart, the soul, the gut, the parts of us that feel, defines the notion of “that which can’t be said”. Even as I was sure I was moving closer to an understanding of this tension, I felt further away, lost in the foggy mist of my mind. Dan, over omelets and fries at Reynard, lead me down a conversational path the end point of which was the sensuality of music. There are not many things in life that tap into our emotions in such a raw, unfettered way. Dan used the example of funk music’s ability to make us want to dance. “Bootsy Collins bass lines are directly connected to your ass”. On the surface, P-Funk has less than nothing to do with Schubert … beyond the ability to elicit a vivid, visceral, undeniable response in the listener.
Wine has this ability too. As Clarke Boehling, Metal DJ, and sales rep for Rosenthal Wine Merchant writes: “both at their best reach past language and our ability to characterize, and into the realm of pure aesthetic experience”. We are fortunate to drink very well in our line of work, and yet there are still moments, and they don’t come often, when wine is transcendent. Recently in Burgundy I had the pleasure to taste 1979 Hubert Lignier Clos de la Roche, a substance that attained such depth of flavor that I could scarcely fathom it as wine.
Grant Tennille, post rock guitarist and wine business moonlighter, describes experiences like this with both wine and music as “ecstatic”. Ecstasy, “a subjective experience of total involvement of the subject, with an object of his or her awareness” (thank you, Wikipedia), is outside consciousness, outside memory, as well as outside language. Grant links his transcendental encounters with both wine and music to an inability to conjure a sense memory: “I can remember what butter pecan ice cream tastes like, but that 2000 Echezeaux … ” he can no more remember than he can apply language to the elixir that took him to such an ecstatic place. In music as in wine, experiences like this are a jumping off point, into the abyss of addiction, to taste it again, to play it again, to hear it again, to drink it again. We are hedonists in search of the substance that takes us to that place of raw emotion, outside of ourselves.
To be honest, when I began this exploration, I thought I’d wind up disproving my thesis, showing that in fact there’s no occult connection between wine and music; they just attract similar types of personalities: people who are aesthetically driven, artsy types who live a little outside the mainstream, people who, as Clarke put it “enjoy digesting and cataloguing facts”. People who like learning and the unknown, yet who respect form and history; people perennially searching for authenticity. As Ben says: “learning about the history and tradition and ritual of jazz and acoustic music are relatively close to learning about the history ritual and tradition of wine.” Classroom nerds, who grew into insecure adults needing to “buttress their insecurities with opinionation”, Grant says, alluding to a tendency in both music and wine to insist on the objective supremacy of one’s own opinion, in an entirely subjective realm. I recall Clarke recounting how — as a college radio DJ — he’d inflicted a five hour long Steely Dan marathon on his listeners during finals week. (All the Madeiras in the New York market before noon at a Wines and Spirits tasting panel, anyone?) These exhaustive, almost fanatical events come from the same place, be they vinous or musical, the need to dive deep, with a certain spirit of recklessness.
Music theory (defined by wikipedia as “the study of the practices and the possibilities of music”) fascinated me as a young piano student. In classical music, theory teases out the structure of a given piece — like diagraming a sentence or translating an argument into symbolic logic — yet never seems to quite touch its je ne sais quoi, its filagrees and ornaments, its rubati and tempo changes, its life blood. I started to wonder if an analogy was possible. The key, the time signature, the structural skeleton of the piece are the soil, the grape vines, the press and the barrels. The variables, flourishes, improvisations are the elements that change year to year, the climate and specificity of the vintage; the vigneron, the creator, ties the whole thing together. In the finished product, we have glorious interplay between concrete and intangible. Isn’t this exactly what we musical types are ultimately in search of, a medium that makes structural sense, yet is — particularly in emotional impact — far more than the sum of its parts?
In the end, my findings more or less boiled down to three recurring themes: the cataloguer/digester of facts, the wine/music lover who is compelled by an obsession with obtaining information, synthesizing it and placing it in the right box, not to mention sharing it, and having more of it than his or her peers. (Listen to “Losing my Edge” from LCD Soundsystem’s 2005 self-titled album for a taste of this. The lyrical content of this song could be as neatly transposed to fit wine as Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata was transposed to fit the guitar.) Secondly, the rebirth narrative, the story of the musician who choses a life of vineyards and cellars, wine shops and restaurants, as an alternative to the grueling life of a professional musician. Lastly, the theme of out-and-out, balls-to-the-wall sensuality, the ability of these two mediums to transport us, to take us away, and our hunger for that ecstatic sensation, where ever and whenever we may find it.