It’s Labor Day weekend, folks, and yes, the music will blare forth from the sacred stage in Snowmass Village. While I may be a community supporter, I don’t really see myself loading out to see the likes of Jason Mraz, Train or Journey, though I would think that Grace Potter and Edward Sharp will highlight the annual Jazz Aspen Snowmass Labor Day Festival. What I always come away with from this festival, nestled nicely in its high-country gulch, is how cold it gets at night, as frost often twinkles on the grass long after the last notes of music have drifted down the valley. And this gets me thinking about the end of another of life’s many cycles: our short, sweet, intense summer.
And that in turn got me thinking about pinot noir as a metaphor for the cycle of life by showing flavor, scents, aromas or essences of both new life and of decay.
Pull the cork on, say, an Anderson Valley pinot noir, and you will undoubtedly perceive the breath of new life as you inhale and taste fresh strawberry, pomegranate and cherry blossoms. All this vibrancy blends right into, well, the even more obvious markers of decay: earthiness, mushrooms, composting leaves on the forest floor, barnyard smells and roasting meats.
This, being a special music issue, made me think about connections between singers, songs and great pieces of music. And since I wasn’t really able to conjure this up through this weekend’s lineup of talented musical acts, I thought about some pop stars. Miley Cyrus has been in the news a lot; I dig Rhianna’s latest 777 efforts; I still go for the deep, silky smoothness of say Jurassic 5 or Outkast, but trying to pair these contrasting sounds with wines can be like going from Black Eyed Peas to Beethoven.
So why not, I thought, pick out four classic classical music pieces and see how they draw on the motifs of wine and the cycle of life exemplified by the flavor profile of pinot noir. Easy enough!
In the music of the earth, some wines are like a cacophony. Try listening to the whine of the bottles as you peruse the under-$10 bottle stacks. It’s like watching a good friend scream “Let me out!” Oh, but move over to the expensive bottles of pinot noir and you can hear that low hum, like an ohmmmm roaring up to a feral howl. Easy like Sunday morning, with a rebel yell.
To further enlighten this yin and yang, compare Holtz’ “Planets” to Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”. They could not be more different. Englishman Gustav Holtz crafted the 1916 vintage into his famed “Planets” symphony, with each suite named after a planet (all except earth), and bringing forward the astrological intellect. As for a corresponding wine, even though his are of a more constellar branding, Marin County’s Sean Thackrey and his Andromeda and Casseopeia (his Anderson Valley clonal pinot project) remind me of this vast and uncharted expanse of sky, under which his grapes quietly rest before undergoing fermentation. Deeper and deeper we delve to tantalize the senses. With happy endings that the world doesn’t always offer, according to Holtz.
On the other hand, Richard Wagner’s mountaintop battle cry is one of sheer triumph, shattering all good or evil that comes before. The whomp-whomp of this vintage 1851 piece by Richard Wagner still graces commercial airwaves with the promise of success by overcoming all obstacles. Lest ye forget, football season is right here! And when I asked my colleague Lisa what wine this conjured up, she immediately thought of the almighty GoldenEye, who quietly landed in the Anderson Valley a decade ago on the wings of Don and Gail Duckhorn, only that now they have sold to a multi-national financial corporation. You can imagine what kind of hubbub that has caused around these parts, as the limo-set rolls in for high-priced tastings of mature, extracted and oaky wines — at around $100 a bottle. I can picture Lisa, as Brünnehilde, in the Viking horns, victoriously raising the double magnum of 2009 Anderson Valley pinot we were drinking from last night.
Back to the cycle of life. I chose these last two pieces so in dramatic contrast, but part of the same stone, if you will. Just as pinot transparently expresses life and death, why not compare Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “Rite of Spring” to Richard Strauss’ tone poem, “Death and Transfiguration”? The Russian Stravinsky, vintage 1913 with an eye toward Paris. In fact, the opening of this pagan, earth-ritual ballet caused near riots among the growing avante-garde set, with its tonality and dissonance exploring the mystery and great surge of the creative powers of spring. Full of celebratory ritual, like a pinot is chock full of strawberry and cherry flavor, the ballet features a motif of the grape cycle: Celebration in the hills (budbreak); young girls from the river (new grapes); holy procession of the sage elders and dance of the earth (harvest). Sanctity and sacrifice to bring the grapes in. This makes me think of the upstart Illahe Winery and their 2010 Willamette Valley pinot noir from Oregon, with their “electricity free” wines made with hoof and hand, and their clay vessels full of beautiful new wine.
The 1889 vintage was a good one for the German Strauss, even though he was in a compositional brood over the illness of a friend. Interpreting his friend’s death and transfiguration, he came upon the themes of innocence lost (new world pinot?), attainment of worldly goals and finally communion with heaven. To the measured, deep internal progress of the soul, Strauss adds strings, harps, violins, cellos and double basses like flavors on a wine’s tasting notes. Here, the whole motif of the wine opening is the play of life. The struggles of manhood are like the perennial struggles of the pinot noir grape. Yet it proves that there is new life beyond decay. And to this, we open a 1990 Domaine Romanee-Conti La Tâche, which, needless to say, proves there is life beyond the pail. Experiencing this near 100-point wine opening and evolving throughout the evening is like watching that life passing before you, only to be touched by heaven. And the cycle starts all anew.
Wow, that was pretty heavy. But seriously, get out there and hear some music. I have to get back to my iPod shuffle of Rhianna, J-5 and Outkast. Cheers! Remember, wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org