Log In / Join Now

To Paraphrase Duke Ellington...

Are there really only two kinds of wine?
Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
The Duke's maxim for music also works for wine. There are only two kinds: good ones, and the other kind.

Posted: Oct 24, 2012 10:10am ET

Some of us believe that Duke Ellington was America's greatest composer, even though he wrote in an idiom that many people then (and now) do not consider serious enough—jazz. His being something of an outsider, both because of his race and his musical genre, probably prompted his most famous quote, that "there are only two kinds of music: good music, and the other kind."

It's a telling remark, one that resonated with me the first time I ever heard it as a music student. I like to quote it today, when the diversity of the music we can pipe through our iPod earphones covers a range even the Duke couldn't imagine.

The same could be said about our favorite beverage. We can experience a wider choice of good wines today than ever before. And we are having the same kind of arguments over how to define good wine as those we had over just what constituted good music in Duke Ellington's day, or today, for that matter.

Then, the arguments among us music students centered on the modernist "classical" composers of the mid-20th century who wrote dissonant, often hard-to-like music. We loved it (or pretended to). Audiences didn't.

We also argued over whether other forms of music, besides classical, could qualify as "good" music. Jazz usually made the cut because of its harmonic complexity and high level of difficulty to execute well. That did not mean all jazz was good music, any more than all classical music was good. Fair minds can differ on pieces such as Joe Zawinul's "Watermelon Man" or Pachelbel's "Canon in D."

Pop music? Some of us argued that Frank Sinatra's vocal command and phrasing made him every bit as musically compelling as a great opera singer, even if he couldn't project his sound in a concert hall without amplification.

OK, then, what about Elvis and the early stages of rock 'n roll? Or the way Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline could transcend the country music genre? Or, later, the Beatles? The first time I heard it, the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album rocked my world as much as my first exposure to Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. The Beach Boys layered their music into something as complex and fascinating as a Bach fantasia. Others dismissed all that, but I had Duke Ellington's words reverberating in my brain, and I tried to accept what I heard without prejudice.

Genres in wine get us riled up in much the same way. We tend to apply the same kind of misinformed generalizations to whole regions (Australia doesn't count any more) and grape varieties (New World Chardonnays are too big and buttery) as we do to country music (it's all so twangy) and hip-hop (where's the melody?).

Now we're having arguments over "natural" wines and "authentic" wines, categories in which true believers seem willing to overlook glaring faults for laudable ideas. Purists hate the idea of "industrial" wines, wines that can gain huge popularity without the cachet of rarity. But when you taste the wine, just the wine, does it look, smell, taste and feel like a good wine, or not?

For me, it's not the category that matters. It's not the perceived wisdom either. Look (or listen, or taste) past that and make your own judgment of how good each individual wine might be. That's where Duke Ellington's wisdom comes into the wine picture. There really are only two kinds: good ones and the other kind.

Charlie Humphreys
Fort Collins, CO —  October 24, 2012 12:10pm ET
Being a musician and a wine professional I constantly am drawing comparisons between music and wine. Whenever I taste massive, overripe, overoaked wines that get lauded with big scores I think of the notion that if this were music then louder is better, which of course is not the case. Don't get me wrong, there is something amazing about the power of a Marshall stack or a new world cab but subtlety (ie Mark Knopfler or a muted Miles trumpet) brings me to the world of terroir, Burgundy, you get the drift. Dig the article Harvey, but one small correction, not to be a nitpicker, Watermelon Man is a classic Herbie Hancock composition, not Joe Zawinul, who of course killed it with Weather Report but maybe is best known for his standard Mercy, Mercy, Mercy. Keep the music/wine coming!
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  October 24, 2012 1:55pm ET
One aspect of this argument that you haven't mentioned is the maturity and sophistication of the individual who is experiencing the taste of wine or the music he is listening to. As a child I couldn't understand what all the fuss was about Billie Holiday. Her voice was raspy, and I couldn't get my mind around what she was trying to tell me. It was only as I matured that I became enamored of her music. While her instrument was not comparable to someone like Sarah Vaughan, she told a story like no other jazz or popular singer ever has.

Likewise, in wine the same can be said for the taster. A couple of months ago we had a young couple at our house (30-plus years younger) and served two very different wines, one French and one from Napa, that had both received 95 ratings from Wine Spectator, which I hadn't realized until after the meal. It wasn't until after the meal that the husband commented that he preferred the Napa wine much more than the French one. The Napa wine was much more powerful and fruit forward than the French one which was more subtle, but to my taste more complex. He obviously preferred the more opulent wine that grabbed his taste buds as a young person with little music sophistication would prefer a rap singer (pardon my lack of knowledge of the genre to name one) to Frank Sinatra.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 24, 2012 3:10pm ET
Nitpicking accepted, Charlie. Herbie Hancock it is. For what it's worth, Watermelon Man (and Mercy, Mercy, Mercy) were quality opportunity ear worms. Hmm, is there a blog in the vinous equivalent of an ear worm?
Peter Vangsness
Springfield, MA —  October 24, 2012 3:34pm ET
I believe Ellington also said "If it sounds good, it is good".
Just had this experience at my local package store. In the closeout bin were several bottles of 2002 Trefethen "Double T" red wine, essentially a Bordeaux blend. Never heard of this wine - WS gave it 84 pts.
Paid the $5 and took one home. It was smooth, rich and drinking beautifully. Immediately went back and scooped up the the remaning bottles.
If it tastes good, it is good!!
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  October 24, 2012 7:38pm ET
Was just trying to figure out how to make the same point with some friends as I was driving home listening to 12/29/77 Winterland Dick's Picks (Grateful Dead). There was wonderful layering, complex rhythmic accents, and, yes, sometimes a lovely dissonance making the whole greater than its parts. I can't imaging a better parallel to what makes wine enjoyable. Layered favors, complexity, challenge, the sum greater than its parts.

My friends are not very familiar with the Dead, but we often drink wine together and they are both musically inclined. I wonder if the analogous descriptions would be an effective tool in explaining one of my strong musical influences.

He'll, even if they don't see the same things I do, the more good wine I feed them, the less they'll care! ;-)

We can't be the first with these thoughts. It's probably why many musicians become fans of good wine. Tastes differ, but the same challenging aspects that make each interesting are shared.
Charlie Humphreys
Fort Collins, CO —  October 25, 2012 7:22pm ET
Thrilled to see the Dead mentioned, the Terrapin encore of the 12/29/77 show is awesome. I always equate the Dead to Burgundy to explain it to people, when they are not on (or the Burgundy isn't showing well) most people just don't get it, but when they are on ( and that Burgundy is in a happy place) it is the greatest thing on earth. Sometimes imperfections can make things that much more real and perfect when everything is on. The Grateful Dead and great wine, a great combination!
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  October 26, 2012 1:25am ET
As a fellow student of music (BFA), I learned not to use the word "good" to describe it! It's judgmental, the opposite of true "appreciation", and immediately sets up a challenge for someone else to knock down (good/bad, us/them). So why start the fight by placing such declarations upon art in the first place? Art/Music exists in the eye/ear of the beholder, and its value (goodness?) isn't solely determined by beauty, for example. "Painful" (heart-wrenching, agitated, dissonant) is also a goal of some great art (and music), also varied in scope (as are a million other adjectives). "Beautiful" is also different to different individuals, and will never attain a universal meaning.

So I feel that while it's totally valid to say "I like this", "this evokes (this or that feeling) to me", or "that was an effective use of tremolo", it's not meaningful to proclaim art or music to be "good", even if it is a compliment, because it necessarily questions the experiences of others.

Wine? Well, I'm not so sure... it can be argued there's as much (or more) science than art involved. In that scientific steps are taken to create and improve the "product", I don't think I can call it art, nor protect it from pronouncements of being bad. Some of it just plain "is bad", which is one reason I subscribe. :)
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 27, 2012 1:25pm ET
Don, I've been thinking about your point, that "good" is too judgmental. I think that's why Ellington used that word. His music was being trashed by some as not worthy of being called "good music." Hard to believe in these open-minded times, isn't it?

To me good music has something to say and uses musical means distinctively to say it. I may prefer one form over another, but I'll keep my ears open for music that captures my attention, even if it's not something I listen to on a regular basis. Same with wine. My taste buds are always ready for flavors and textures that surprise and delight.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  October 28, 2012 12:39pm ET
Harvey, I completely agree. The closed mind will seldom delight in a new discovery. Being open-minded will lead you to music & wine experiences you could never predict, and those are sometimes the most exciting discoveries, largely because of the surpise. Enjoyment of either is certainly best when we allow them to speak to us without prejudice or preconception. Just speaking of my own wine experience, I remember many surprises that came from (the art of) inventive food pairings that might swim against the current of "conventional wisdom". Cheers.
David Williams
Carlsbad, CA —  October 31, 2012 10:19pm ET
"I always equate the Dead to Burgundy to explain it to people."

I've never been bored to tears drinking Burgundy.
Scott Oneil
Denver, CO —  November 1, 2012 10:27am ET
Harvey, you had me until you compared the Beach Boys to Bach! :D ;) Seriously though, the parallels between music and wine and the enjoyment of both are certainly valid. The quote from Ellington that Peter mentioned allegedly occurred in a conversation in which someone (obviously a 'newbie') said essentially that they enjoyed music but that they couldn't really tell if it was truly 'good' music. I find the same thing with wine, where the newly introduced will say something to the effect that they don't have the appreciation or understanding for great wine, or that they 'expensive stuff' may be 'wasted' on them. Ellington's response, "If it sounds good, it IS good," is the musical equivalent to the wine world's "Trust your palate." If we're willing to explore and experience for ourselves, we can ALL tell the difference and appreciate greatness, and the best stuff is never wasted on anyone with an open mind.

Excellent topic, and I couldn't agree more.
Tom Ewing
Cold Spring, NY —  November 6, 2012 2:51pm ET
Great post, Harvey, and such a coincidence because I have just finished Talking Heads David Byrnes book, "How Music Works" and there is much that he says about music that can be applied to wine. Byrne goes into great detail about music being the sum of much more than its effect on the senses. Every aspect of its sound and construction has an emotional impact, right up to the way it's distributed, even marketed, and the machines on which it's consumed. In wine, that's what we call "terroir".

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.
Most Recent Posts
Mar 21, 2018
The Music of Wine
Dec 19, 2017
Wine Kludges

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.