After offering my take on ingredient labeling for wine, I got to thinking about why this is such a vexing issue. We do, after all, want to know what goes into what we consume, including wine. The tricky aspect for wine, of course, is that what goes in does not necessarily wind up in the bottle.
All of the adjustments winemakers can apply to wine remind me of what can happen in making music recordings. It's an apt analogy on several levels. One can even argue that, as humans, we need music as much as we need food and wine. At least some of us do.
Here's the thing. Just as manipulations in the winery can make a wine seem like more than what the vineyard actually produced, what we hear on most recordings is not exactly what the musicians actually played and sang. Sophisticated electronic and digital processes add reverberation, replace flubbed notes, and these days can even modify pitch to get a sour note in tune.
You would think there would be none of this in classical music, but you would be wrong. The San Francisco Symphony won several Grammy Awards for its outstanding "live" recordings of the complete Mahler symphonies. And indeed, live performances were recorded, but the process did not end there. The orchestra went back into the empty hall and rerecorded sections that could have been done better. With digital editing, the results were seamless. And, I might add, exciting.
In the 1950s the great Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad recorded a landmark performance in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. It contains a beautiful climactic high C. What we actually hear on the recording is not Flagstad, however, but another great soprano, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, better known for somewhat lighter Mozart and Strauss. The recording interpolated her brilliant voice for that one note, a fact that came to light only years later.
Some purists say such "tweaks" diminish the quality or value of these recordings. The popular music world must hurt its sides laughing at music snobs who might be so persnickety.
Here's the parallel with wine. With a musical recording, most of us are happy to have something that strives for perfection and doesn't make us wince at hearing the sort of mistakes again and again that we might tolerate in live performance. With wine, only purists really care whether the winemaker used egg white or isinglass to fine the impurities out of the wine, or even amped up the color with a grape concentrate such as MegaPurple.
For music most of us cannot tell just by listening, and for wine by tasting alone, whether an outstanding result comes from great material and careful non-interventionist production or from deft application of what we might call post-production techniques. Was that complex, mind-spinning sound made by the musicians or the engineer? Was that complex, expressive range of flavors from the grapes alone or application of modern science?
What matters is what our senses tell us. After all, the object is a good experience, isn't it?