Vino espressivo

by David Chan, concertmaster

The connection between music and other disciplines is undeniable. Of course, those of us who live and breathe the operatic theater have the opportunity to witness this on a daily basis, as opera at its best marries the literary, visual, and dramatic arts to some of the most glorious music ever composed. But there are other parallels to be drawn, even when one ventures outside the artistic realm.

The manuscript of Beethoven's Violin Concerto

The manuscript of Beethoven's Violin Concerto

One such example would be the link between music and medicine, which goes well beyond the proliferation of “doctor’s orchestras” or the sheer number of MD’s in classical audiences worldwide: there is an indisputable association between music and healing itself. The great operatic tenor José Carreras, for example, says that his daily listening to Rachmaninoff’s c minor Piano Concerto played a major and often spiritual role in his recovery from acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Another such comparison might be drawn between music and wine. Although the connection here might not be as immediately obvious, my own experience is that a great number of top winemakers feel strongly drawn to classical music, often expressing themselves in musical terms, while a preponderance of musicians are incredibly passionate about food and wine, enough to indicate a correlation far beyond the casual or mundane.

For starters, music and wine are two universal languages. They can be enjoyed by anyone, anywhere; and they are capable of bringing people together, transcending any language barrier that might exist. More than that, they also go where words alone cannot. When asked in interviews to describe a musical work, I frequently respond that “if I could tell you everything about this piece in words, then there wouldn’t be any reason to play it.” A great piece of music, like a great wine, holds your attention and has more than you can say in words. 

While both can function perfectly well as simple diversions (who among us has not enjoyed music as background ambience at a restaurant or party, or wine as a mere beverage, something to quaff at a picnic on a hot summer day?), another commonality between the two fields is that the more time one spends with them, the more they reveal. They can be enjoyed on a basic, hedonistic level; but if one invests the time and effort to look further within, the extra dimensions of understanding are incredibly rewarding. 

We come to see, for example, that music is not a static object; it does not truly exist as notation on the printed page, although it goes without saying that study of the score brings rewards of its own. Music equally does not live in analytical dissertations or the prose of newspaper reviews, nor as truncated (and sonically compressed!) clips on YouTube. But when heard as the composer intended – live, played from beginning to end in the presence of others – it reveals itself to be a living, breathing organism. It occupies time and space, and most importantly, does not die when the performance ends, but rather lives on in the memory of those who were present.

We then understand, too, that wine similarly cannot truly be captured in photographs, tasting notes, or critical reviews. It, too, is a living organism – after all, it begins life on the vine, a product of agriculture and the particular climatic conditions of the vintage. During its years in bottle, the wine continues to live and breathe as it evolves and matures, despite its temporary glass prison. However, it only fully comes to life when it has its own performance: when the bottle is opened to be shared with friends or loved ones. And like a symphony, a great wine lives on long after the last drop has been poured. How else can one explain that I am often hard pressed to remember what I did yesterday, yet I can tell you where and with whom I drank every great bottle of wine that has crossed my lips?

From a more personal perspective, I find that the producers of the very finest wines tend to espouse a winemaking philosophy comparable to the musical approach of the performers whose artistry I most admire and respect. Many such winemakers believe in a minimalist approach – minimal intervention, that is, meaning that the wine is allowed to “make itself.” Fermentation begins on its own thanks to indigenous yeasts and the correct ambient temperature, rather than being kick-started by the addition of commercial yeasts; overt manipulations such as acidification, fining, and filtration are strictly verboten. Everything in the cellar is allowed to occur as naturally as possible, with the winemaker present to monitor the proceedings and lend a helping hand only if needed, but not to dictate or micromanage the process.

It may sound easy, this minimalist philosophy, but it belies the tireless efforts in the vineyard requisite for this approach to succeed. In order for the winemaker to be laissez-faire in the cellar, he must harvest perfectly ripened fruit of the very highest quality, free of pests, diseases, and blemishes. And he must do so despite whatever Mother Nature may bring during the growing season, and without herbicides and insecticides, which themselves compromise the quality of the crop. For this reason, many top producers in France refer to themselves as vignerons (“wine growers”) rather than as winemakers, as they regard their true work to be in the vineyards rather than in the cellar. They toil outside all summer long so that they can be hands-off once the grapes have been harvested.

Similarly, many of the world’s greatest musicians are noted for their breathtaking simplicity of phrasing. Again, at face value this might sound like a relatively easy task: be straightforward and don’t overcomplicate things. But while there is some virtue in that statement, we must be careful not to confuse “simple” with “simplistic,” where the latter merely sounds dull or flat. One cannot go straight to “simple”: it is in fact the utter height of complexity, where every detail and nuance has been considered in all its array of options, and finally everything extraneous has been discarded, leaving only the essential meaning of the passage. If simplicity in phrasing can rightly be likened to taking in the whole forest rather than being preoccupied with individual trees, then the corollary would be that one cannot truly know the entire forest without first understanding each and every tree. It takes years of work in the “vineyard” – experience, maturity, and consummate technical control – to achieve this kind of simplicity.

Perhaps just as importantly, it takes a certain amount of courage to recognize that what the composer wrote is enough. That is not to say that one has to do nothing for the music to come alive. It is quite the opposite, as being faithful to the score is usually far more demanding than willfully imposing one’s own interpretation. While the latter approach can make for an exciting performance in talented enough hands, it typically fails to reach the musical heights that one can scale if the composer – rather than the ego of the performer – is served. It is not that the performer’s personality should be completely effaced; in fact the musician’s own persona is the vital conduit through which the composer’s wishes come alive. It is simply that the ego should not seek to interpose itself between the score and the audience.

In the world of wine, one can find this same attitude of serving the “composer” in the French concept of terroir, which suggests that wines from a given vineyard derive certain characteristics that are particular to that agricultural site. While one can find examples of this approach in many places, it is cherished and practiced in the Burgundy region of France above all other wine-growing regions, as the very layout of its vineyards is predicated on this idea of terroir. Unlike in Bordeaux, where estates grow grapes on land immediately adjacent to their central châteaux, Burgundian estates consist of tiny parcels of various vineyards scattered throughout the region. There is but a single varietal (pinot noir) permitted for red wine, and ditto (chardonnay) for white wine; this is purposely designed so that the differences between wines grown in two different locations can be attributed to the terroir rather than to other variables. The idea of blending together the wines from all of these small parcels is absolute anathema to the true Burgundian, who is much more interested in comparing what Vineyard A and Vineyard B have to say independently about pinot noir than in this kind of commercial convenience.

Even given this background, when one looks at the uppermost echelon of Burgundy wines – those commanding the highest prices or most highly sought-after by collectors – there is a clear dichotomy between the producers who make it their highest priority to let the terroir speak for itself, and those whose wines are more marked by a “house style.” Very often the wines of the latter category are qualitatively superb, but for this writer something crucial is missing – the specificity of expression. When one is holding a glass of a top producer’s Meursault “Perrières,” for example, the point is not to drink merely good wine, or good chardonnay, or even good Meursault; but to drink good Meursault “Perrières.” In our operatic world at the Met, I might draw an analogy to playing Don Giovanni: to truly succeed at playing this masterpiece, one cannot be satisfied with playing in a generalized Classical period style, or even in a generalized Mozart style. No, to really play Don Giovanni, one has to first understand how it differs from Figaro, Così, and the other Mozart operas, as well as recognize what characteristics make it unique, in order to realize the true expression of the piece.

The point is that the greatest vignerons in Burgundy do in fact regard each vineyard as the equivalent of the composer’s score in music: as a unique entity, entrusted to their care; something to be interpreted, to be sure, but not in a way that obfuscates the composer’s intentions. As I said to Eric Asimov of the New York Times in a 2008 interview, “If you seek to only be yourself, that’s what you get, but if you seek to faithfully bring the composer to life, that will happen, and your personality will enter the picture because you’re performing the task. I think the same happens in wine. If you try to faithfully capture the terroir, inevitably you enter the picture, whereas if you’re not careful, it results in a house style.” Or as Aubert de Villaine, co-director of Burgundy’s fabled Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, said more succinctly in Levi Dalton’s podcast, “I’ll Drink to That”: “the less [external elements] you bring to the vineyard, the more chances you have to have…the expression of the true personality of the wine.”

In the end, a great performance has the listener marveling at both composer and performer, just as a stupendous bottle of wine has those gathered singing the praises of both vineyard and vigneron. As important as it is for the latter to put himself at the service of the former, the former also cannot find full expression without the right vessel through which to pass. And in the final analysis, the painstaking efforts lovingly invested by musician and winemaker alike serve one ultimate purpose: to bring composer or vineyard to the target audience – you.

So with the summer season approaching, with its abundance of music festivals and wine events, I extend an invitation to all of you: go deeper. As we have already noted, both music and wine can be appreciated at any level on which one chooses to approach them, but this appreciation only grows as one’s knowledge of the subject deepens. They are both beautifully universal languages, but the more conversant one becomes with the specifics of these languages, the more pleasure one derives from their expression. So learn more about the wine you drank last night, or the piece you are about to hear on tonight’s concert. The journey of knowledge is every bit as gratifying as the actual experience of tasting the wine or hearing the performance, and it brings one out of the realm of passive appreciation and into the “inner circle” of the musical or vinous expression itself. I think you’ll agree with me that, once on the “inside,” you’ll never again want to be looking in from the outside.