In Living Color

    Synesthesia is a word to describe experiencing one type of sensation with a separate sense. I can do that when I play certain musical chords on my piano: I see colors.

Not exactly a synesthetic reaction, but I see the color red when I read stories like the one about Clark Smith, who claims to have proved that the type of music you play in the background can change the taste of the wine in your glass.

As a wine professional, I find the idea absurd. Who is this Smith fellow, anyway?

It turns out that Smith knows a lot about changing wine’s flavor. He runs a consulting company that was behind some modern winemaking techniques that are either innovative or evil, depending upon whose interest is affected by the techniques. He also promotes something called the “sweet spot,” an ostensible place on the general palate where the brain’s pleasure center says to a certain level of alcohol in wine: yes, yes, thank you!

We wine professionals prefer no music at a wine tasting, but that’s because we don’t want to be distracted. It never occurred to me there might be another reason for the silence. Assuming Smith is correct, and music can change the taste of wine, the logical question then follows (at least in my logic): can wine change the music, or, in my case, can it change the color of the music?

My rebuttal to Smith’s theory was at my fingertips, at my piano keyboard—time for an experiment.

I got me ten fresh wine glasses. Proceeding from white to red, I filled each glass with four ounces of wine: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, and Riesling for the whites and Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Nebbiolo, and Blaufrankish for the reds.

I placed the glasses of wine neatly on top of the piano, which presented me with my first problem.

When I play, I leave the top of the piano up. To stand the wines on it would mean closing the top, and I thought that might influence the shades of colors I imagine. I put the glasses on a table next to the piano, which meant I had to remove all my sheet music, but that was ok—for this experiment, all I needed was to play chords.

With the wines lined up, I was ready to select the chords. Certainly, I wanted to hit the chords with the strongest influence on my sense of color. I settled on G sharp (red-orange), A minor (blue indigo), C natural (yellow), and B flat (green).

Starting with the G sharp, I played the chord and wrote down my description of the color, which was something like “hot, red-orange.”

I took an ounce of the first wine and played the G sharp chord again, once more recording a description of the color, which was now “hot, red orange, like the setting sun over a quiet beach with a finely-shaped young lady at my side…” wine does that to description-makers.

I repeated hitting the G sharp chord and sipping the wine until I had consumed an ounce of all ten wines.

Moving to the A minor chord, I repeated the exercise. I got blue indigo, plus a vague feeling either that life was not worth living or my wife was leaving me.

In fact, give or take a hue here and there, my notes were consistent throughout the G sharp and A minor sequence of ten wines. All the way from Chardonnay to Blaufrankish, G sharp produced passionate, hot, rumbling red-orange, and a fire engine at one point. (The Riesling passion was orgasmic, but Riesling often does that to me with or without music.) And no matter how many times I hit the chord, no matter which wine I paired the chord with, A minor made me want to commit suicide.

At the end of the A minor sequence I had completed half the chords and had consumed half the wine, so I took a break and checked to be sure that my wife was still in the house.

I was feeling a little woozy, but got back to work.

C natural with each wine produced a light, bright yellow, like a sunshine day out in clean fresh air. The wines with B flat produced a refreshingly minty green, except for the pairing with Cabernet Franc, which created the image of a green bell pepper—you Cab Franc drinkers know what I mean.

As I neared the end of my experiment, I could no longer read my own notes. Still in the house, my wife came to help me out. I believe she agreed that my notes said the wine did not change the colors that the music evoked, but I am unsure because I could not understand a word she said, except for when she told me to go lay down.

Confident that I already proved my point, I was, however, adamant to complete the experiment. I had one taste remaining. It was my duty as a wine professional and as a synesthetic to see if Clark Smith was or wasn’t onto something. I wanted to know if it is at all possible for wine to change the color that I see when I play a chord.

I took a final pound of what I thought should have been the B flat chord (it was difficult to see the keys). I reached for the last taste, which I hoped was the Blaufrankish (I couldn’t make out the wine glasses too well either.) I hit keyboard and took a sip.

Alas, the final taste may have proved me wrong. Smith might indeed be onto something.

I remember no minty green, not even a bell pepper. Instead, I took the last sip and everything went black!

See you all in 2008.

Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
December 2007. All rights reserved.

3 Responses to “In Living Color”

  1. Marco says:

    I have been reading your comments on the wine blogs and finally found your site. I too am a music lover and a long ago lapsed musician. I used to play clarinet and alto sax. I have some percussion instruments that I play along with though. This is a fascinating post since touches on things dear to my heart and soul. You are a fine writer with a good sense of humor. And thankfully, not a geeked out dour soul. Keep on playing and drinking the good stuff.

  2. Thomas says:

    Thanks, Marco.

    Gave up my geekredentials after I met other geeks…