It may seem a bit absurd to write a blog about a wine experience and not mention the vineyard, the name of the winery or even the country of origin of the wine. After all, wine is often the star of the show when it comes to a memorable travel experience; as it was when I did a tasting of wines from Castello di Tornano at their vineyard in Tuscany. And if not the star, then the wine is a key supporting player, as when I was dining al fresco at the Hotel Italia e Lido in Rapallo, Italy while enjoying a spectacular Mediterranean sunset. Occasionally, however, the wine is merely an accessory, whose performance is dependent upon other factors. My experience during an Alaskan cruise is a perfect example of this later case.
After an exciting and rather exhausting day touring Sitka, Alaska (we docked at 7am), I noticed on the list of daily activities aboard my cruise ship that there was an ensemble playing “Movie Classics” at something called the Lincoln Center Stage. I was anticipating hearing “Tara’s Theme” or some other hackneyed piece of motion picture musicality, so my expectations were not very high. But the allure of the casino had already diminished and I had absolutely no desire to attend a spa lecture on reducing wrinkles. So, I thought that this would be a good way to unwind before dinner after a long day of touring. And by unwinding I mean relaxing with a glass of wine in hand.
The ensemble was composed of a string quartet (Atlys Music), which was accompanied by pianist and arranger John Arndt. Atlys was formed in December 2015 in Chicago, where they were all attending school. Before forming the group, Jinty McTavish (violin), Sabrina Tabby (Violin), Rita Andrade (viola) and Genevieve Tabby (Cello) all played together in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, an apprentice orchestra of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. They all knew each other, played well together and decided to give it a go as a group,
Not expecting much, I choose a seat in an adjoining room, just in case I wanted to make an early unobtrusive exit, and ordered a Chardonnay from one of the ever present stewards. When I had arrived the ensemble had already started and was just finishing up with music from “Forrest Gump”. An interesting choice, I thought. So, I settled in and waited to see what was next on the program. I was not disappointed. Their next selection was the theme from “Cinema Paradiso”, a 1988 movie about a filmmaker’s recollection of how a friendship with the projectionist at the movie theater in his boyhood home led to a lifelong love of motion pictures. Not just a great movie, but a personal favorite of mine. And like much of the music from Puccini, the moving love theme by Ennio Morricone never fails to bring a tear to my eye and send a shiver down my spine. How did they know? It was as if they chose that particular piece just for me. Which is probably the ultimate goal of a live performance, that is, to make the listener feel like they are playing specifically for them. Any thoughts of leaving early had evaporated and in an instant I was mentally transported to Italy and went from drinking a forgettable white wine from a unknown vineyard from an unspecified country to sipping a Bianco D’Alcamo in a cafe in sunny Sicily, where the movie takes place.
Was it the best wine I had during my vacation? Absolutely not! But it was one of the most memorable wines of the cruise. Maybe it was the unexpected pleasure of hearing a personal favorite. Or possibly the music was the perfect ending to an amazing day exploring the amazing totem poles at Sitka National Historical Park. Or perhaps it was the fact that I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the music. I wasn’t quite sure. But I did know this: The wine, which I had considered barely acceptable at dinner the night before, now seemed a perfect accompaniment to the music. A great wine is great pretty much all the time and a terrible wine is terrible regardless of circumstance. But with the right conditions, a mediocre wine can rise up to the occasion and be a contributing factor to a memorable experience. Such is the psychology of wine.
According to their Facebook page, “Atlys Music is a string quartet composed of four strong women, who are at a crossroads in their musical lives.” With an opportunity from Lincoln Center, they began performing on the Holland America Cruise Line, and thus embarking on a voyage around the globe. As Jinty explains, “We want to connect to the world through our music. In the next few months we will be curating a program that draws music from artists around the world including Ireland, Africa, Sri Lanka, Iceland, Europe and South America. We want to map the world with our music.” Which partly explains why they choose Atlys as their name. Jinty clued me in on the other reason: “And because Atlys is the top bone on the spine that turns the head, we see our spine as being our string quartet sound, but we want to be able to pivot to look into different genres and sounds.” To this end, they’ve already created music videos in Spain, Portugal and Puerto Rico. Collaboration is a big focus for the group. Once they have the funding and support, they hope to continue their voyage to other countries and collaborate with top artists from around the world, continuing to map their “atlas” of music.
The ensemble continued with another piece by Ennio Morricone, this time a rousing rendition of the theme from Sergio Leone’s “The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” complete with brilliant howling coyote sound effects supplied by John Arndt. (In addition to the music from this film, Ennio Morricone also did the music for all of Clint Eastwood’s “Spaghetti Westerns.”) After Michel Legrand’s haunting “Windmills of Your Mind” from the “Thomas Crown Affair“, they turned to Bernard Herrmann, a composer/conductor who had worked with a string of famous directors; going all the way back to Orson Welles (“Citizen Kane”) and ending with Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver“). They chose his score from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Pschyo.” Being a huge Hitchcock fan, this was another direct personal connection for me. As soon as they started playing the infamous discordant glissandos of the second movement, I could not only visualize the famous shower scene with Janet Leigh, but I suddenly had this overwhelming desire to switch to red wine. This time it was a nameless Merlot.
Normally I like to know the details of what I’m drinking, but in this case, any information about the Merlot was totally irrelevant. I was enjoying the moment and there was no need to clutter my mind with trivialities. As I continued to be enthralled by music from The “Red Violin”, “Schindler’s List” and lastly John Williams’ Cantina Band sequence from “Star Wars”, the merlot, like the Chardonnay, gradually obtained equal status with the music. And just like Atlys is making a musical map of the world, I could now add these wines and my visit to Sitka to my personal “atlas” of wine tasting experiences. As William Congreve famously said in “The Mourning Bride” back in 1697, “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks or bend a knotted oak.” It also has the ability to transform the most mediocre of wines into something great. Such is the psychology of wine. And such is the power of music!