Wine, Music, & Rock'n'Roll: Jeff Smith of Hourglass on winemaking in Napa Valley

Wine is like music. It can seduce or assault your senses, its notes play across your palate while its timbre lingers on your tongue, and when in harmony, there is perhaps nothing more satisfying. It is no coincidence that much of the rhetoric we use to describe wine is in fact drawn from musical vocabulary. A fine wine like great music, touches more than the tongue (or the eardrum) – it’s electric. It crackles through your body and stimulates all the senses.

Winemaker Giancarlo Gignozzi of Il Paradiso di Frassina. Photo courtesy of Il Paradiso di Frassina.

Winemaker Giancarlo Gignozzi of Il Paradiso di Frassina. Photo courtesy of Il Paradiso di Frassina.

Today some winemakers are taking this analogy a step further. There’s Giancarlo Cignozzi in Italy, and Carl van der Merwe in South Africa, both of whom pipe classical music through loudspeakers installed in their vineyards 24/7 so that the vines absorb the notes of harpsichords or flutes as they would carbon dioxide or sunshine. Then there’s Markus Bachmann in Austria, who funnels the sound of his tuba into the fermentation tanks to help stir up his groovy yeasts, while Aurelio Montes in Chile is more a fan of Gregorian chants. 

But is there any basis to this synergy between music and wine? Does music really help the vines grow, affect the wine's dance across our palate, or is it all just in our heads? This week on All the Swirl we interview Jeff Smith, proprietor of Hourglass Vineyards in Napa and former guitarist of the 90s band Noonday Underground to get the skinny on the musician's love affair with winemaking.

Proprietor of Hourglass Vineyards, Jeff Smith. Photo courtesy of Kent Hanson.

Proprietor of Hourglass Vineyards, Jeff Smith. Photo courtesy of Kent Hanson.

Charles Communications Associates: How does your musical background affect your winemaking?

Jeff Smith: My experience chasing a music career may be the single most important exercise I’ve done in preparation for a career in wine. The disciplines of organizing the creative mind are essentially the same. As a band leader it was my responsibility to establish the artistic vision, craft a sound, dial in the emotional content, the lyrical content, the “look & feel,” learn how to promote and create viral buzz, how to stage a live show, how to attain authenticity and a unique voice. Moreover, how do you get three other guys to buy in and take your platform to places you could not by yourself. All of those disciplines play a role in the creation a wine brand, building a winery, and ultimately chart a unique stylistic expression of wine.       


CCA: When asked what attracts musicians to the wine industry, your bandmate and owner of 750 wines,  David Stevens, said, “Both evoke a great deal of passion in people. Both can be enjoyed alone, but are much more rewarding when shared with others. Wine and music bring passion, balance, excitement, pleasure and friends to my life."

Smith: I made the transition to wine after I could not unlock the right combination on the doors to a music career. I was drawn for one simple reason: wine afforded me the same creative release. I suspect the reason there are so many talented musicians, poets, painters, and artisans in wine, is the exact same allure. Music and wine are sensual human connectors as David so eloquently pointed out.

CCA: What are the similarities between making music and making wine? The differences?

Smith: The mediums are different of course. One is aural, the other is about aroma and flavor, so the techniques vary by medium. The chemistry of how wine blends together bears no similarity to the sonic frequencies of sound and how it meshes into a song. But the constructive theories behind the techniques share a great deal of similarity.  The concepts of harmony and dissonance, point/counterpoint, rhythm, spacing, vibrancy, texture, dimension, etc. all play significant roles in both. For example, when I learned to mix songs at a mixing console, the concept of dimension became critical in establishing a sonic landscape. Where does the snare drum go in the mix? What challenges exist in placing vocals and guitar in a mix that share similar harmonic frequencies? Do I compress a sound, or expand it? What do I drop out of a mix to create space for other instrumentation to breathe? What sonic texture can be created to give a tensional counterpoint that brings a mix alive? How do I organize the component parts to create something exponentially better? Sounds a lot like blending wine to me…  


Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

CCA: A growing number of avant-garde winemakers play music in their vineyards, wineries, or barrel rooms to improve vine growth, fermentation, or aging. Do you think music can impact the winemaking process, or the quality of the wine, from a scientific standpoint?

Smith: I suppose anything is possible and I’m not one to close doors on creative ideas, but I suspect most of these avant-garde techniques have more to do with adjusting human consciousness than wine’s chemistry. 


CCA: We often speak of the harmony in a good wine much like we would praise a harmonious song. Do you think the experience of drinking wine is similar to that of listening to music? How so?

Smith: Some of the studies I’ve read place the aural and sonic sensory receptors in the frontal cortex of the brain where your pleasure and mood receptors reside. I have no proof of this, but I’ve long thought there is a “spongy gusset” between consciousness and sub-consciousness, which is mood. Mood drifts between these spheres in a sort of floating “tweener” state. No one will dispute that music and wine can have a profound effect on mood, which in turn can color both the consciousness and sub-consciousness. In that sense there is clearly some similarity. 


CCA: Music, like winemaking, is at once art and artificial, intuitive and meticulously practiced. Do you think one is easier to excel at, or master? Or are both so appealing for their ephemerality?

Smith: True greatness in either medium is a function of guided intuition. The hours of practice are applied, which unlocks the intuitive magic, a sort of right brain, left brain duality. Some people find each medium intuitively easy, their work flowing like water when inspired, but they have likely invested significant time to understand their craft. They are the visionaries, the savants. Sadly, I am not one. For me wine and music are both a struggle. This is probably why dialectical tension is so important to our winemaking. It reflects the struggle to balance on a pinhead. 


CCA: If harmony, balanced tension, makes a good wine, what kind of mood or tone would a bad wine have?

Smith: Like all art, good and bad are in the eyes of the beholder.  What makes wine sing for me may be your worst nightmare. 


CCA: Speaking to the impact of music on the perception of wine, Clark Smith says that when music and wine have the same intrinsic mood, the wine can taste even better than in silence. Conversely, when the music and wine are discordant, the wine can taste harsh and astringent. Do you find this to be true, and if so, how would you describe your wines musically?

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Smith: I’ve taken Smith’s lecture on impacting the flavor or aroma of wine by changing the music you listen to. It’s pretty wild when you actually do it. Clark does not know for sure why this phenomenon exists, but I believe his theory revolves around “jumping” the neurochemical pathways in the frontal cortex of the brain where sound, taste, and aroma receptors reside in close proximity to each other, or share pathways. To get different results of a wine’s aroma or flavor, you change music passages. I was pretty impressed with the results. I don’t think I heard him articulate it as a mood shift, but that’s my suspicion. That mood is the “gusset,” the coloring agent of perception. Change that and you change perception of a lot of things, wine and music included.


CCA: Are there specific songs or musical styles that you associate with your wine?

Smith: I refrain from making any connections with our wines and specific songs, or artists. I have my favorites, but they are tuned to my psyche, maybe not yours.  Once you are aware that there is a symbiotic relationship, it’s a fun exercise to find your own pairings.      

Jeff Smith playing with Wristrocket. Photo courtesy of Hourglass Vineyards.

Jeff Smith playing with Wristrocket. Photo courtesy of Hourglass Vineyards.

CCA: What does your current band Wristrocket, a band of vintners from different wineries, say about the Napa Valley winemakers’ culture & community?

Smith: It says that killer winemaking is not solely the province of “societal class” as it once was. Wristrocket is a high octane rock band, not a pristine cultured thing. It evokes emotion, passion and high energy, as do our wines. What I love about Napa wine culture is that it lays waste to wine snobbery and pretense of more traditional wine tropes and has redefined global wine culture forever. That’s pretty rock’n’roll! My music heroes are the Stones, The Who, Clash, Talking Heads, Bowie. Game changers. I play music with winemakers like that.




CCA: Do you think Napa is unique in its camaraderie amongst winemakers, or its somewhat rock’n’roll wine history?

Smith: Napa winemaking culture is quite unique. Maybe like the London music scene of the mid-sixties. I just saw a documentary on Jimi Hendrix. There’s killer live footage of him playing at the Marquee Club. He’s wailing away and Pete Townsend and Eric Clapton are on the side stage watching and whispering to each other. Paul McCartney got them to come see Jimi play. Later, Pete Townsend refused to follow Jimi at Monterey Pop Festival, though The Who was a much bigger band at the time. That concert broke Jimi in America and Townsend paved the way for him.  

The wine culture here is very much like that, but I don’t think that culture exist any where else in the wine world to the same degree. All the risk takers, creatives, scofflaws, and misfit adventures of manifest destiny, got pushed West until they could go no further and here they fermented for more than a hundred years. Napa is a byproduct of Northern California with all its “Left Coast” tendencies, and “open source” ways. Take a small geography like Napa (less than an 8th the size of Bordeaux) and mash everyone together by two mountain ranges, combining all our cultural tendencies, and rock on! 

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