Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Music and Wine: Why Critics are Helpful

Why Bach in “Bach to Bacchus”?
Back in the late 1990s, because of my passion for classical music, I created and monitored several classical music lists, meeting many classical musicians and composers while learning more about music. Eventually I either closed the lists or passed them on to others to manage.  When creating a blog to document our winery visits, “Bach to Bacchus” was the name that occurred because I had gone from classical music lists to a wine blog. I also inserted in the blog introduction, “Possible musings about wine and classical music.”  Here is the first “musing.” I’m not sure if it will be the only one.

Audiophiles and Oenophiles
I love classical music so have had to endure reading audiophile magazines and shopping for audio equipment.  (Of course, there is no replacing live concerts.)  When I need an audio component I read various magazines and reviews by audio critics, prepare a list of what sounds interesting to listen to and venture out to audio stores to examine or hear the equipment I might want to purchase.  Audio speakers sound different depending on when you hear them, where you hear them, the size of the room, how you feel at the time, the associated equipment, the music being played, plus many other physical and subjective variables. I weed out the components I don't like and listen at more length or audition at home the equipment I like best.  Wine tasting for me is somewhat similar to shopping for audio speakers, except that my list is either of wineries to visit or wines to try.

Tasting wine is even more complicated, though, because of the complex chemistry of the wine and the taster.  There can be variability from bottle to bottle, especially if it is an older wine.  The temperature of the wine is a major factor.  What you pair with the wine or what you had to eat in the past hour or two can make a significant difference.  Another very important factor is how long the wine has been exposed to air.  Even if everyone is drinking the same wine at the same time and has previously eaten the same food, every person’s sense of smell and taste is different. 

Listening or Tasting: Why Experience Matters
One extremely important factor with tasting wine is the number of years, the frequency and the variability in the types of wines and varietals a person has tasted.  Some people have been drinking wine for many years but mostly the same varietal or only wines from a specific region or in a limited price range.  How a wines tastes to a person will vary depending on the amount and diversity of the person’s past experience and exposure to wines. Reading about wine, taking aroma classes or tasting classes and other educational components will add to the experience.

The more you have been exposed to music or wine, the more you will notice differences and the more these differences will matter to you.  I once loaned five different recordings of a Beethoven piano concerto to a friend, per his request, and he could not tell them apart.  He simply had not listened to enough classical music and was not familiar enough with this concerto.  For others, these five performances sound extremely different from each other even if we don’t agree on which is our favorite.

In a similar way, one cannot expect a person who has had little exposure to wines to be able to discriminate as well between certain wines. There are some persons who have incredible senses of smell and taste and can notice things that most others cannot.  But the main factor in wine tasting is the experience of the taster.  Without sufficient exposure to wines, a person really cannot recognize some of the differences between certain wines anymore than a person who has been rarely exposed to opera could have strong preferences between different performances of the opera.  The more you are exposed to something, the more you will be able to discern differences and have preferences.  It is not magic, just experience and effort.

Music Critics and Wine Critics
Another comparison can be made between music critics and wine critics.  In classical music, for example, critics generally agree on the sound quality of a recording or the acoustic properties of a certain concert hall.  There is usually agreement on the tempii, the amount of deviation from the score, the dynamic range and other variables in a performance.  Whether one likes a performance is much more subjective.

I have favorite classical music critics, with whom I often agree, and also have favorite wine critics with whom I have a similar taste and preference in wines.  I will still read other wine critics, but I do so knowing his or her preferences.  But agreeing with a critic is only a small part of the picture.

As with all types of criticism, there are critics who are such good writers and so knowledgeable, that reading them is informative and pleasurable even if one does not share the same taste. Steve Heimoff and Matt Kramer, for example, are wine writers/critics that many of us enjoy reading even if our tastes are dissimilar. These talented writers offer us a great opportunity to learn more and to think more clearly and critically regardless of their personal preferences.

In every field, it seems that critics are often criticized. (Look at the letters to the editor in the classical music magazine Fanfare.)  Sometimes it is an informed disagreement.  Sometimes critics are maligned or even dismissed as a group, however.  This is usually done by those who have very limited knowledge of the subject or those who do not expend sufficient effort to familiarize themselves with the preferences and views of individual critics.  Ratings and reviews are more helpful if the person reading them has some understanding of the subject and the writer. This applies whether we are discussing movies, art, music, literature, wine, food, consumer goods or any other subject. I personally find many critics to be very helpful toward learning more about a subject and for assisting  in making better informed decisions about what to purchase, listen to, drink, watch, read, etc.   I love to read critics who write well and share information, even if I don’t agree with their personal preferences.  I find wine critics to be just as useful as music or film critics and sometimes enjoy reading well-written and informative books or articles almost as much as I love to taste great wine or listen to Bach. 


  1. I am an avid wine fan and also play three different musical instruments as well as write poetry and songs. My favorite thing to do is go to a wine tasting where live music is being played. It brings the senses alive.

  2. Hi Anna, Thanks for sharing. Yes, music and wine compliment each other. I've been meaning to do a post on music and wine pairing, and your comment prompted that idea again. Cheers, TJ


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