It was well after closing hours, but dozens of people were at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. They came out in droves for the opportunity of a lifetime — the chance to see the portraits of former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama before they returned to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.
Painted by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama weren’t shown with wine in their hands. But the wine flowed at the museum nonetheless. People took sips while contemplating the paintings during an event that matched the portraits with wine.
The pairing was merely another chapter in Brooklyn Museum’s seasonal Art History Happy Hour program. However, the event tapped into something that researchers have been looking into: that combining art and wine will enhance the perception of both.
Art and wine connect
Visitors were treated to guided talks from art curators to get a deeper understanding of the various works on display, while also trying a selection of wines that seemed to capture the taste of what they experienced visually. The wines were chosen by Marquis Williams, a wine buyer who started his career nearly a decade ago at 67 Wine & Spirits in New York, before he branched out and created a digital wine club and consulting company, Highly Recommended.
“We wanted to create something that felt very intimate. That’s where Marquis came in,” says Lauren Zelaya, Brooklyn Museum’s director of public programs. “I appreciated his vibe and energy and his commitment to making wine tasting and appreciating wine more accessible. That was very much in alignment with our mission at the museum — to make appreciating art and celebrating artistic excellence more accessible.”
For Williams, choosing wines that will express the art is a welcome challenge. “Wine is like an art form in and of itself: the process in which it’s made, the way it offers a sense of place, how every vintage captures a moment in time,” he says.
It was exciting for Williams to see people’s eyes light up when they connected the esthetics between a portrait as stately as Wiley’s painting of Barack Obama and a wine as noble as Domaine de l’Échelette la Belouse Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2020.
”I remember pouring up a Burgundy while thinking about [Wiley’s] painting and what Obama represents. Burgundy is one of those super sought out regions. Wines from there are very smooth and subtle but also very complex. They’re well-respected throughout the world. Obama is like that,” says Williams. “He’s a smooth guy and very subtle, but he gets his point across. He’s very regal and well-respected like a Burgundy, and that comes across in Wiley’s work.”
“It raises curiosity in people. ‘Why would I think that what I’m tasting matches what I’m hearing or what I’m seeing in this painting?’ They feel something … It’s interesting to see people make those connections that they normally don’t think about.”
What linking does
Linking art and wine is not a novel idea. People have been doing it for centuries. Winemakers have long tapped contemporary artists to help with label designs, or even teamed up with artists to create multisensory experiences that pair wine with music. With every new release of Grand Cuvée, for example, Champagne Krug works with a musical artist to create a playlist that best represents the taste of the new bottle.
Art can also enhance the perception of what’s in the glass. It’s a notion Professor Charles Spence, the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at Oxford University, has studied in depth. Spence has led many notable multisensory experiments exploring how wine and music interact and how environments can affect what you taste, see, or hear.
“It’s a way to explore this kind of unity of the senses. The sensors do connect, and there’s some surprising correspondence between them,” Spence says.
Spence’s experiments often combine wine with classical music. People are given a choice of concertos to match with their wine and, more often than not, they tend to choose the white wine while listening to the clarinet and pair the red wine with heavy strings.
“It raises curiosity in people. ‘Why would I think that what I’m tasting matches what I’m hearing or what I’m seeing in this painting?’ They feel something. How we explain this kind of connection to ourselves is fascinating. Is it because of the colors? The size of the painting, the heaviness of the song, that makes us feel like we need a bolder red wine?” Spence says. “It’s interesting to see people make those connections that they normally don’t think about.”
Given the grandeur of these types of multisensory explorations, the wine and the art could be merely enhancing people’s perception of luxury. Expensive art primes expensive taste, or so it’s been said. However, Spence believes that what’s key is the time that people take to actually sit and think about what’s being tasted and viewed.
“Focusing on what we are tasting, rather than being distracted by our mobile devices or TVs, is one of the biggest ways to enhance our experiences. You’re focusing on the moment, focusing on these sensory connections, and being more mindful of our senses,” Spence says.
Something everyone can appreciate
So far, the Art History Happy Hours have been a hit with visitors. Tickets for the Obama portraits event sold out, as did the Art History Happy Hour for the Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibit in November and Williams’ pairing for the Andy Warhol exhibit in December.
“The way that he explains the wine and how it relates to the art, it’s very interesting,” says Zelaya. “It’s an event that provides a new entry point to appreciate different forms of art, and people have been really grateful for the opportunity. Everybody loves wine.”
Of course, wine lovers don’t have to travel to a museum with a bottle to enjoy a multisensory experience. Scroll through a collection of art online at home and pour a glass. Does the taste enhance what’s being digested visually? It’s an aspect anyone can explore if the time is taken to really sit with what you’re drinking and viewing.