by Lettie Teague: Studies show music can influence which wines you buy and how they taste when you’re drinking them.
Lettie Teague conducts a few nonscientific experiments of her own.
I went wine shopping recently in New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen was playing on the store’s sound system—naturally. The Boss is an inescapable musical presence in his home state. Why not in a wine shop? But maybe because “Glory Days” isn’t one of my favorites (my tastes, Bruce-wise, tend toward “Thunder Road”), I found the music distracting. Instead of focusing on the Chablis selection, I was rifling through alternate Springsteen tunes in my head. Was this really what the retailer wanted me to do?
Several studies produced over the past couple of decades demonstrate how music can influence the wines people buy—and even how a wine’s taste is perceived. A 1999 study by members of the psychology department at the University of Leicester, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, analyzed 82 wine buyers in a suburban English supermarket. The team found that when shoppers heard French music in the store, French wine outsold German wine by a ratio of five to one. Likewise, when German music was playing, German wines sold well. (No mention was made of California wines, but maybe Beach Boys music was hard for an English supermarket to track down.)
Adrian North, now head of psychology at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, coauthored this study. In 2010, he conducted another while he was a professor at the Heriot-Watt University, in Edinburgh, that combined drinking wine and listening to various types of music. Professor North recruited 125 men and 125 women, all under age 25, to drink Chilean Cabernet and Chilean Chardonnay while listening to four types of music.
The music ranged from powerful and heavy to mellow and soft, played briefly while participants tasted the wines. For readers who might want to try this experiment at home, the powerful and heavy music was Carl Orff’s cantata “Carmina Burana”; the subtle and refined piece was Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers”; a Nouvelle Vague cover of Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” fit the “zingy and refreshing” category; and “Slow Breakdown,” by Michael Brook, was the mellow and soft selection.
It turned out the music did have a measurable impact on the impression of the wine: When lively music was playing, the group overwhelmingly found the wine to be lively, and when powerful music was playing, the wine seemed powerful as well. When the music was mellow and soft, the participants found the same qualities in their glasses.
These studies certainly seemed to demonstrate that music could influence how people perceived or purchased a particular wine or type of wine. But did the findings hold true in everyday life? Does music influence the way wine tastes and smells for most wine drinkers? Does playing certain music really put people in the mood to buy certain types of wine, or is it really just a background soundtrack that you either like or dislike?
I decided to ask some wine professionals I know who are equally passionate about music and wine. My first call was to David Stevens,a wine merchant by day and rock musician by night. Mr. Stevens and his wife, Monica, own 750 Wines in St. Helena, Calif., and Mr. Stevens plays in a band with several Napa winemakers. The Stevenses consider music so important, it’s one of nine topics on a questionnaire they send private clients when scheduling a tasting. (Other questions poll standard predilections such as favorite wines and price range.) What is the most common musical preference? “Classic rock,” said Mr. Stevens. And the least? “I think we’ve had one group ask for opera.”
Mr. Stevens said if clients like the music playing, they might be inclined to like the wine they’re tasting, too, and he thinks people respond to music they are comfortable with, or “what they were brought up on.” Music also helps bring their guard down, noted Mr. Stevens, and that probably makes them more receptive to buying. Was there any music that didn’t have that effect? “Hip-hop would be totally distracting,” he said.
And yet at Charlie Bird in New York, which has one of the city’s best wine lists, partner Robert Bohr plays hip-hop almost exclusively. As far as he’s concerned, hip-hop can only improve the taste of a wine. “Hip-hop makes me happy so I’m probably liking the wine more when I’m listening to it,” said Mr. Bohr, who also manages private wine collections. At least at Charlie Bird, hip-hop doesn’t have the effect Mr. Stevens predicted. Last time I dined there, a room full of talkative, wine-drinking diners effectively drowned out the music.
And then there is City Winery, where wine and music are on equal footing. A restaurant, winery and music space, City Winery was founded in 2008 in Manhattan by owner Michael Dorf, who went on to open three more locations in Chicago, Napa and Nashville.
“I believe there is a direct correlation between the music in your ears and the wine in your glass,” Mr. Dorf said. He’s even editing a book on pairing wine and music that will be published later this summer. A sample entry from the book pairs Al Green with Amarone della Valpolicella, the big, rich red from Veneto, Italy. “If Al Green were to sing a wine into existence, you’d better believe it would be this deliciously smooth Amarone,” reads the text.
Mr. Dorf cited some real ways he’s seen music influence customers’ choices of wine. “With bands with a heavy bass line, we’ll sell more Syrah and more California Cabernets,” he said. When bands with a “higher tone” play, sales of white wine go up.
Mr. Dorf has noticed other correlations. For example, when singer-songwriters such as Steve Earle or Suzanne Vega play, New World wines—from places like California and Oregon—sell very well. Older bluegrass musicians tend to move Old World wines, from Italy and France. There was one exception to these rules: “In Chicago, they drink everything,” said Mr. Dorf. “They skew the results.”
Mark Snyder owns Angels’ Share, a New York-based wine distributor, and is the founder of Brooklyn’s Red Hook Winery. He’s also a classically trained guitarist who once toured with Peter Frampton and Ringo Starr and still works with Billy Joel. Did Mr. Snyder think music influenced a taster’s perception of wine? He said he could draw associations and justifications for why a piece of music might fit a wine. (“It’s light on its feet, it’s bright,” he offered, as if making a note of a wine or a piece of music.) But he eschewed directives such as “Drink Chianti with Billy Joel” or “Bordeaux is good with Chopin,” saying it would be like “telling someone what to feel when they looked at a painting.”
I sought the opinion of one more person: musician and vintner Boz Scaggs. I figured a man who had both a vineyard in Napa and multiplatinum albums might have some valuable insight.
I caught up with Mr. Scaggs just before his new album, “A Fool to Care,” made its debut earlier this week. Did he think music could influence how someone perceived a wine? “I don’t see why not,” replied Mr. Scaggs. Could he be more definitive? “There might be a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that goes well with my outlook on life,” he offered, which didn’t exactly answer my question. Had Mr. Scaggs ever tasted his own wine listening to his own music and found one tune made it taste one way and one song another way? He had not.
I decided to try it myself. I bought a bottle of the 2009 Scaggs Vineyard Mt. Veeder Montage ($45), a red Rhône-style blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah. Then I downloaded a couple of songs from his 1976 album, “Silk Degrees,” and served the wine (label concealed) to three friends.
We tasted it with the first and second songs. Everyone agreed the character of the wine was soft and approachable but possessed a some-what short finish, although my friend Richard said the first song (the famous and funky but relatively slow “Lowdown”) made the wine seem a bit simple. My friend Marilyn agreed, while the last taster, Robin, found the opposite to be true. Richard further opined that the second Boz Scaggs tune (“It’s Over,” an up-tempo heartbreak song) made the wine “more complete” and made the finish seem less abrupt. We re-tasted the wine. I thought Richard was right—the emotion of the song seemed to fill the wine out.
Perhaps our little exercise didn’t prove much beyond a certain subjective truth: When wine and music are combined, the reaction is an entirely personal one. For example, according to Gary Fisch,owner of Gary’s Wines & Marketplace in Wayne, N.J., where I heard that Bruce tune, Springsteen is the music his customers prefer. “That’s the generation of the customers,” he said. Mr. Fisch agreed that music definitely influenced shopping behavior, or in his case, shopping avoidance. “There are some stores I won’t shop in because I hate the music,” he said.