After a particularly grueling day at work, I walked into the kitchen the other night badly in need of a glass of wine. I was thankful to see my husband stirring a pot of his signature tomato ragu and even more thankful to see that he had a bottle of wine open - a Ctes du Rhne I'd been wanting to try.
As I reached for a glass, however, I became aware that something was horribly wrong. There was a god-awful sound in the air. A hideous wailing, pulsing, ululating cry raked my eardrums with the spine-tingling decibels of a cat in heat. A sound I would, unfortunately, recognize anywhere: Elvis.
My husband and I share many tastes, but the music (if you can call it that) of Elvis Presley is not one of them. In a fairly typical marital exchange, I told Steve that if that music went on much longer it would peel the paint off the walls. He rolled his eyes. I said it would certainly ruin the wine. He shrugged. I said either Elvis left the building or I did. He sighed and turned it off. (Fifteen years together and he's still the nicest man I know.)
We ate dinner to the mellow sound of Wes Montgomery's jazz guitar. The pasta was delicious and the wine was perfect.
My case for the deleterious effects of "Hound Dog" on a nice Ctes du Rhne was bolstered a few days later by news that psychologists have discovered that the music you listen to while drinking really can significantly affect the taste of wine. And not just any music. Researchers in the Applied Psychology department at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh have found that, in fact, certain music really does go with certain wine.
Cabernet sauvignon, for instance, tastes up to 60% better when accompanied by something powerful and heavy - like, say, Orff's "Carmina Burana," or Jimi Hendrix' "All Along the Watchtower." Chardonnay, on the other hand, has an affinity for what the researchers call "zingy and refreshing" music: Nouvelle Vague's "Just Can't Get Enough," or Tina Turner's "What's Love Got To Do With It?" (Honestly, I'm not making this up.)
The actual science behind the study is based on something called cognitive priming theory. The idea is that when a particular style of music is heard, it "primes" specific areas in the brain - which in turn prime us to taste wine in a corresponding way. As I explained later to Steve, that must be why whenever I hear Elvis, whatever's in my glass turns to cat piss.
The wine industry, predictably, is thrilled. Chilean wine maker Aurelio Montes, who commissioned the study, has been playing Gregorian chant to his maturing wines for years. (He thinks the gentle vibrations improve the quality of the wine.) Now, he's talking about putting music recommendations on his wine labels, suggesting the perfect sound track to complement each of his wines.
How long can it be, in the novelty-hungry world of haute cuisine, before the waiter who brings a bottle of wine to your table hands you an iPod primed with the correct music selection to enhance your drinking experience? How long before an enterprising liquor store offers a free Mozart download with every bottle of gewurtztraminer - or a Guns N' Roses CD with a case of zinfandel?
Actually, would that be such a bad thing? All too often, I find visiting the wine store an exercise in cluelessness: Do I want a California Syrah or an Australian Shiraz, and what's the difference, anyway? Maybe it would be a relief simply to head over to the "Mozart" or the "Wagner" section, where I could pick a wine to match my mood.
Of course this seriously ups the ante for entertaining. First I had to match the wine to the food - now I have to match the music, too? What if my dinner guests go home complaining that my beloved Stan Getz sambas did nothing for the Pinot Noir? Or even worse - what if they arrive at my house with a bottle of wine for dinner... and a CD they want me to play?
Worst of all - what will I do if it's Elvis?
Drink your music
Want to experiment for yourself? California winemaker and industry consultant Clark Smith of GrapeCraft Wines has been telling people for years that music has a powerful effect on wine. For nearly a decade, he's hosted wine and music tastings, and has come up with the following basic guidelines for pairings.
In general, Smith says, red wines taste better with soulful music - nothing cheerful. (On no account should you ever play a polka near a red wine.) Cabernet Sauvignons need dark, angry music; Pinot Noirs taste better with romantic music - Smith himself is partial to Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik with a good Burgundy from the Ctes de Nuits.
As for white wine, here's the taste test Smith likes to give unbelievers: first, assemble three different Chardonnays - a simple, fruity, "yummy" wine like Glen Ellen; a toasty, oaky, "big fat momma" style like a Rombauer; and something very crisp and minerally, like a classic Grand Cru Chablis.
Now, turn on "California Girls" by the Beach Boys. "If you are a living, breathing human being," Clark notes on his blog, "you will find the Glen Ellen absolutely delightful, and the other two disgusting." Now switch to Ella Fitzgerald doing the St. Louis Blues; Clark says the Glen Ellen will suddenly taste harsh, while the Rombauer will taste perfectly balanced.
Crank up the music, baby - and bring me a corkscrew.