Here’s a question you can probably answer: What did you have to drink last night? Here’s one you probably can’t: What did it sound like? What you probably heard was the pop of the champagne cork or the clink of ice in your Negroni. If you’re like me, you can recall these things if asked, but you don’t really see the point in doing so. When I started to learn about wine, a large, slightly hunchbacked woman with a nose straight out of The Dark Crystal taught me to look at it, smell it and then taste it. Listening to it didn’t come up, and it hasn’t since. But recently, I realized that sound affects the way we drink more than I had thought.
It all started with the Krug Shell.
With a seemingly infinite marketing budget, the venerable champagne house decided to hire a French artist named Ionna Vautrin to design a sort of “amplifier” for their champagne—a Bernardaud Limoges porcelain gramophone that rests perfectly on top of a custom Riedel “Joseph” glass.
Krug insists that listening to their champagne via the “Krug Shell,” connects you to the “eternal resonance of the seashore.” They further claim that the first time you went to the beach and lifted a shell to your ear, that “rushing” sound you heard brought you back to your “first acoustic experience within the womb.” (If you already think this is nuts: Ask Google about listening to wine, and it will conjure up far more pictures of people with their ear to a bunghole or a glass than you’d want to see.)
Spence has also proven that the type of comparisons you sometimes see from wine writers—comparing an acidic glass of riesling to Radiohead, or a funky old Burgundy to a Dizzy solo—isn’t just free association. It is actually deeply rooted in many of us.
This part, at least, is not as far-fetched as it seems—it’s been posited that the sound of the ocean (and, hence, Krug) calms us because it reminds us of our mother’s heart while we were in utero and first started to hear. Dr. Harvey Karp wrote about this in his seminal text and Park Slope stoop sale staple, The Happiest Baby on the Block.
In the “fourth trimester,” the instinctive “shhh” sound parents make calms babies because it replicates mother’s blood wooshing around those newly formed fetal ears. If a convoluted comparison to the uterine artery seems a bit farfetched for the marketing machine at Krug to adopt, I agree.
But I couldn’t help but wonder: Would the Krug Shell work on other drinks? For a week, I brought The Shell to bars and restaurants, and the general response was one of skepticism, as if I was somehow making fun of them in ways uncertain.
When I asked the bartenders at Chinatown cocktail bar Apotheke to make me the loudest cocktail they could think of, not only were they not up to the challenge, they seemed confused about what I was asking, somewhat contradicting the claim on their website that their bar is not a bar, but “A stage. A chemistry lab. A theatre.”
It became clear pretty quickly that if I wanted to understand the sound of a beverage I would need some controls in place. Back home, I poured out some carbonated beverages, the idea being that these are the only ones that really talk: seltzer, beer in a bottle, soda in a can, Krug, prosecco and a Tom Collins. I then subjected my girlfriend to a “hearing test” in which she blindly stuck her ear into each glass. She was an even bigger skeptic than I was, and yet she was able to pick out the various beverages by sound only.
“The seltzer’s more aggressive,” she said. “I’m not even that close and it’s tickling my ear. It’s like the D train at the Barclay’s center stop at rush hour. Everything’s pouring out. The beer sounds more like static. Softer.” She nailed them all.
Charles Spence is one of the few people in the world who studies this very thing. He’s a Professor of Experimental Psychology at Somerville College, Oxford and recently published a paper in “The Journal of Sensory Studies” proving that people can actually tell the difference between hot and cold water after just hearing it poured. Positive this was a farce, I tried, and it’s true. Among other things, Spence and his co-authors suggest that understanding “the sonic properties of food and drinks and their inﬂuence on product perception” might be a way for certain modernist restaurants to create new, boundary-pushing dishes to woo their guests and critics.
What if you were served a cold glass of wine while listening to the sound of a hot glass of tea being served? Would this revolutionize the way we drink? Maybe not. But based on discussions with Spence, the Fat Duck served a fish dish that came with an iPod to listen to the sea as you ate, the idea being that the flavor was intensified this way. Spence believes that there are potentially larger real world applications to the sound of beverage. Take those Super Bowl Bud Light ads: the sound of beer being poured into frosty mug may create dissonance in the ear of the TV viewer if its temperature is off. No one likes a warm beer.
The sound of the drinks is one thing, but atmospheric sound, I realized, plays a big part in how I drink, too. When I want to relax it’s wine and Nina Simone. A Friday night might be funk and cocktails. And beer in my mind is forever linked to the ‘70s classic rock I listened to in high school, while drinking Natty Light on the golf course in the middle of the night.
But Spence has also proven that the type of comparisons you sometimes see from wine writers—comparing an acidic glass of riesling to Radiohead, or a funky old Burgundy to a Dizzy solo—isn’t just free association. It is actually deeply rooted in many of us.
He shows non-random agreement between certain wines and certain classical music. According to Spence’s study, a Tchaikovsky string quartet apparently pairs better with Margaux 2004 than Didier Dagueneau’s cult Pouilly Fume “Silex” 2010, while a Mozart flute quartet is the opposite. We can only hope that Spence’s work doesn’t precipitate a cult of food and music pairings by overzealous restaurateurs. You laugh, but there are water sommeliers in Los Angeles.
What about not being able to hear at all? Perhaps unsurprisingly, wearing earplugs is not a viable way to simulate deafness. It is, however, pretty annoying for the people you’re eating dinner with. Nonetheless, as I silently opened and sipped a bottle of Champagne while my dining companions yapped on, the experience of drinking did seem a bit flat, as it were. But not the absence of bubbles—listening to fizz fizz gets boring after a while, which is where the Krug shell fails. Krug knew that sound was important, but failed to recognize which sound.
I realized that the sound that affected my enjoyment wasn’t the sound of the drink itself, but everything that went along with it. In this case, my friends and the chatter that I associate with the social aspect of wine. In other settings, the pop of the soda can so engrained by years of commercials—just the sound means Coke. The champagne cork denotes a party, which is why I don’t subscribe to the “sigh of a satisfied woman” silent opening technique. The pop of a beer bottle means I’m about to be drunk. It’s a Pavlovian response, and it’s not just wine. We don’t love the sound of sizzling steak because we’re hungry, the sizzle makes us hungry.
In the absence of some sort of B.F. Skinner-inspired experiment where champagne becomes associated with a trip to the dentist, the cork pop and subsequent fizz will always denote celebration in my mind. It’s true that music in restaurants and bars is often as expected—prim and proper where Krug is served, the opposite in the places you’re looking for cheap, cold beer. But an increasing number of them (Charlie Bird and the Momofukus in New York City, as well as Bar Covell in Los Angeles come to mind) recognize that offering fine wines in a setting that may seem incongruent shakes things up a bit.
Most people, for example, wouldn’t necessarily associate the wines of Jean-Louis Chave with 2 Chainz, but Charlie Bird asks an important question: Why not? They may not even know it, but by simply changing the soundtrack they are playing with our expectations of what enjoying fine wine should be like. No Shell required.