Wine column no. 60: When promoting wine, methods matter

Nov. 23, 2014: I have tried, over the years, to pinpoint why I prefer certain wines at certain times. But, as with many things, the answer remains elusive.

Since I often seek to pair wines with food, it’s helpful to let the food be my guide: pinot noir and salmon, for instance, or Grenache-based blends with pork chops. Steak with cabernet sauvignon is an old, reliable standby. I find homemade beef stew often blends well with Petite Sirah. Zinfandel is a good general pairing with grilled hamburgers, cheeseburgers and barbecue.

Then, there are the changing seasons. The chaos of spring can be offset by a smooth, silky, reliably centered chardonnay. Evansville’s hot, humid summers call out for the jolt of a crisp, refreshing sauvignon blanc. Autumn’s fluid temperatures can mean lighter-bodied pinot noir (if it’s still warm), or a rough, flavorful Grenache-based Cotes-du-Rhone (especially when the mercury drops to below zero.) Heavier-bodied, densely flavored Australian Shiraz can be comforting in the middle of an unpredictable ice storm.

These are the methods I came to on my own. Yet considerable study has been devoted to the relationship between music and fine wine.

It turns out that people don’t experience and enjoy wine in a vacuum. Like a tune playing inconspicuously in the background, they are constantly inundated by what they both know and don’t know, acknowledge and don’t acknowledge, notice and don’t notice. There is, in other words, a subtext even to wine.

Charles Spence et. al. published “Looking for crossmodal correspondences between classical music and fine wine” in the December 2013 issue of Flavor Journal. The study concludes that social drinkers often rely on interactions between two or more sensory modalities (like sound, smell or taste) to describe, appreciate and better understand wine. Furthermore, certain music can enhance the overall experience of drinking wine.

“I have tasted first-attempt Chardonnays that were like Dizzy Gillespie’s solos: all over the place. And the color of his trumpet, too,” Hugh Johnson wrote in “Wine: A Life Uncorked.” “Robert Mondavi’s Reserve Cabernets are Duke Ellington numbers: massed talent in full cry. Benny Goodman is a riesling from Joseph Phelps, Louis Martini’s wines have the charm and good manners of Glenn Miller. Joe Heitz, though, is surely (Louis) Armstrong at the Sunset Café; virtuoso, perverse and glorious.”

Nonsense, some might say. Wine is wine. It doesn’t sing, or shout, or even mumble. It has no conductor, and it certainly can’t evoke the sounds of an entire orchestra. It’s just a substance in a glass that’s better to some, worse to others.

I disagree. To really appreciate wine, you need able translators to act as ambassadors bridging one genre with another — people who can pull the metaphoric wool from your eyes, call a spade a spade, and yet also know enough to say what’s really of value.

That’s why Johnson’s words are a notable part of Spence’s study. Johnson uses metaphor to reach an audience that may understand wine, but that also may not. He relies on what music requires (hearing) to describe what music lacks (smell, flavors, and tactile texture.) Additionally, he helps to round out, and lay the groundwork for, wines that you may not have even experienced — but that you may now choose to, just because they were compared to someone, or something, you respect or admire.

I’m far from a capable musician, but I know the power of a skilled maestro. The best way to get me to try a new wine is to tell me that vintner Dave Phinney had something to do with it. Winetree East now sells two of Phinney’s Locations series: The E (for España, or Spain) and the F (for France). Readers may know of Phinney from his creation, The Prisoner. I’ve written about his Locations series before. He seeks to use the most capable vineyards to make the best wines possible, and to have fun while doing so. It’s a good mission statement that can be applied to many endeavors. In the case of the E, it works especially well.

A blend of Grenache/Garnacha, Tempranillo, Monastrell and Carignan/Cariñena, the E-2 hails from the growing regions of Priorat, Jumilla, Toro, Rioja and Ribera del Duero in Spain. Since it’s predominantly Grenache-based, you’ll likely experience some blackberry and white or black pepper on the nose. The E offers red fruits and cedar flavors and a dark red color. But its most impressive quality is its texture. I can’t get over how soft and gentle this wine is. Grenache-based French Cotes-du-Rhone can billow roughly, scraping, hard-edged, against the curves of your mouth. The E is round, light, tender and almost weightless, like a scarf undulating in the wind. That makes it unique and worth a second, third and, maybe, a fourth try. $16.59. 14.5 percent alcohol.

Victoria Grabner is a freelancer who has blogged about wine for several years.

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