Mozart and malbec: Vineyard pairs wine with music

WASHINGTON — The tasting room at Stephen and Shannon Mackey’s Loudoun County vineyard is every bit as quaint and cozy as one would expect to find at a local family-run winery.

There is a spacious bar for those coming to sample the vineyard’s varieties, rocking chairs by a large window overlooking the vines, three young boys running outside of the farmhouse … and Metallica blasting through the speakers.


“As former audio engineers, this is the coolest sound system in any winery in the world,” says Stephen Mackey, owner of Notaviva Vineyards in Purcellville, Va.

After a few additional minutes of Metallica, Stephen switches the sound system to Hank Jr., Usher and organ music.

“The music is a little heavy to enjoy with a white, crisp wine,” he says.

“Most people hear that organ come out and they say, ‘Pour me a red!’ This is not a white wine music, you know?”

This eclectic song cycle is something through which Stephen rotates frequently for Notaviva’s unique offering: wine paired with music.

Skipping over more traditional pairings — say, wine and cheese — and going straight for music sounds a little unusual. But for Stephen and Shannon, it makes perfect sense.

Stephen, originally of Sterling, Va., and Shannon, of South Florida, both studied audio engineering technology at University of Miami.

“We both thought we wanted to work in recording studios,” says Stephen, who instead worked as a live music sound engineer, touring with artists including Garth Brooks, Matchbox20, Martina McBride and Amy Grant.

In 2000, Stephen moved back to Loudoun County, and not long after, reconnected with Shannon at a friend’s wedding. After spending some time at Stephen’s property on Short Hill Mountain, the two decided to chase down their dream of buying land and opening a vineyard.

“The next day, I went online and I Googled, ‘How do you grow grapes?'” Stephen says. “It was a complete romantic whim, a leap of faith, that 11 years later is really a dream come true, almost.”

Stephen and Shannon knew they needed to brand their vineyard in a way that set them apart from others in the area’s growing wine industry. Immediately, they decided to build their brand around a passion for music.

At first, the brand started with the name of the vineyard. Stephen explains Notaviva is an aggregation of two words: nota, meaning “music note,” and viva, meaning “with life.”

“When I came up with the word, it was intended to convey music’s impact on human emotion. Notaviva is that feeling you get when you hear your favorite song,” he says.

Now, Stephen and Shannon host an annual summer music and wine pairing at their vineyard. The event is so popular that they hope to soon offer wine and music pairings a few times a month.

The Science Behind Tasting and Hearing

Music and wine may seem like two disparate subjects, but Stephen argues they are quite similar.

“They are both subjective; they’re personal; everyone has his own favorite playlist and [his] own favorite wine list,” he says. “A good wine is a wine you like. A good song is a song you like. If it moves you, it works.”

The Mackeys’ pairing of wine and music is “not a marketing gimmick,” Stephen says. It has been recognized and researched by others who study cross-modal perception — or the interaction between two or more senses.

A 2012 article in The Economist shares the findings of researchers from Oxford University who explored the connections of smells and sounds with volunteer subjects.

The researchers found sweet and sour smells were associated with higher-pitched sounds; smoky and woody smells were associated with lower-pitched sounds. Blackberry and raspberry smells were linked with piano; musk was coupled with brass.

“If you’re smelling or tasting something, the other elements of your environment do impact that,” says Stephen. “[It’s] not just the food in your mouth. [It’s the] other stimuli that are in that moment.”

Basically, the image and the feeling music inspires enhances or diminishes the taste of what you’re drinking. As Stephen says, your environment sets the “vibe.”

“Our tank-fermented viognier is best paired with acoustic guitar rock. We think of that as our ‘party on the patio’ wine. So it’s not necessarily about picking a song; it’s about picking a vibe.”

Stephen describes his cabernet franc as a great “book by the fire wine.”

“Because it’s a medium-bodied wine, it doesn’t go with big, bold music. It goes with more of a chamber-music kind of a vibe.”

However, his favorite moment is when the vineyard’s customers challenge him. One recently told him Notaviva’s cabernet franc is best paired with the blues.

“If you think it goes with the blues, then please drink it with the blues. We just want you to enjoy it and be open to that idea,” he says.

Experiencing a Wine and Music Pairing

The wine and music pairing at Notaviva is similar to a blind taste test.

Stephen pours one of the vineyard’s varieties into a glass and plays eight recordings on the stereo. A playlist might include everything from Journey to classical music and, yes, Metallica.

Each participant then rates how the wine tastes with each song.

“It’s subjective, it’s unique and it’s really personable,” Stephen says.

Then, Stephen collates the data, shares it with participants and publishes it on Notaviva’s website.

At a previous year’s event, Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why” swept the viognier category and B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” dominated the cabernet franc.

But music at Notaviva doesn’t stop with the annual pairing event. Stephen and Shannon incorporate it in any way they can — from violins as decorations to live music performances on peak weekends.

Recently, the duo announced the launch of a full recording studio at Notaviva, complete with a production, mixing and mastering room.

“It was never just about selling wine,” Stephen says. “Notaviva Vineyards is now Loudoun County’s largest recording studio.”

Stephen just finished recording and producing a few tracks for local singer/ songwriter Crys Matthews, and hopes other locals follow suit.

“The idea of Notaviva Vineyards was to foster creativity, to encourage the arts, to encourage culture … It was never about watching wine coming off of a conveyor belt. That sounds like a job.”

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