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  • Christina Pickard

Sounding Terroir

Recently I had the very good fortune to attend Rootstock Sydney, Australia’s inaugural ‘Sustainable and Artisan Wine and Food Festival’.

The day was packed both in terms of numbers of people and events/wines to taste. I did manage to make it to one masterclass: James Erskine and Eugene Ughetti’s ‘Sounding Terroir’.

At the door we received a rock from one of the vineyards James sources fruit from for his Jauma wines. We were also handed a glass of wine and were instructed not to drink it until told.

An affable, laid-back, bandana-wearing James introduced Eugene, a small young man in smart shoes and crisp trousers–the antithesis of James.

In a nutshell, Eugene is a percussionist who has teamed up with James to pair music to his wines.

James gave us some background as to how he came to this experiment (he and his Natural Selection Theory gang have been playing with music and wine for several years). Back in his restauranting days he said, “I was curious about changing the environment people were dining in by changing the lighting, music, etc. These elements changed people’s perceptions of the wine they were drinking. When you’re drinking in a wine bar or at home, only 20% of what you experience is coming from the wine itself. But there is so much else. There is the emotional response. So Eugene and I wanted to explore how one art form can cross-pollinate with another to help people understand the journey that the wine has gone on.”

Eugene created several layers of percussion-based music to replicate the journey of James’s wine in the 2011 vintage. He played the first to us, which consisted of sounds of water and wind chimes. James told us he set up speakers in the vineyards and projected this music to the vines as the grapes grew. (The vineyard owner was unsurprisingly miffed. “What the f**ck are you doing James?!” were his exact words if I remember correctly).

The second layer of music Eugene played us was a series of drumbeats, meant to replicate the “popping” sounds of the wine fermenting in the barrel. James asked us to imagine we were in the barrel with the wine. And indeed the music was effective at transporting even this slightly sceptical wino into that barrel.

The third musical layer represented the ageing of the wine in the barrel, and since 2011 was a tannic year, the wine hung out in barrel for awhile. The sounds of this piece were echoey and random with cymbals crashing sporadically.

Finally, James asked us to drink our wine–that very same 2011 wine which had had that very same music played to it (and was made specifically for this purpose, it would not be sold)–while Eugene combined all of the layers into a live performance of his (and our) emotional response to the wine. Watching Eugene was fascinating. His instruments looked like they were built for Thumbelina-tiny cymbals, miniature bongos, baby maracas, and something that looked like a rat tail hanging from a tin can which emitted a haunting thundery sound (I found out later the mini-instruments were only because they were what would fit in Eugene’s suitcase!).

While I’m not sure if it was down to the fact that I was intensely focused on the wine, or whether it was the atmosphere Eugene created with his music, or that I was a fan of James’s wines already, but I enjoyed that glass immensely.

James (on right) and Erinn Klein of Ngeringa wines at Rootstock

Call it hippy nonsense, or call it the future of wine tasting (I suspect it’s something in between) but you’ve got to hand it to James and all of the Natural Selection Theory boys; they’re doing something different; pushing boundaries and making people think about wine in a new way. That takes cojones. And a little bit of crazy. But it sure is a welcome breath of fresh air in the all-too-often stifling world of wine.

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