There are things in life that are so beautiful they make me weep. Two in particular are Adagio for Strings, a composition by the late Samuel Barber; and Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir, a voluptuous wine made by Jeff Emery, proprietor-winemaker, Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard.
Before I explain what it is about this composition and this varietal that bring me to my knees, I have to say a few words about their creators, both of whom found their passions early in life. Barber attempted to write his first opera at the innocent age of 10; Emery began a winemaking apprenticeship shortly before reaching the legal age of adulthood.
Samuel Barber. (Photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1944; U.S. Library of Congress)
Jeff Emery samples grapes in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)
Each went on to produce unpretentious “works of art.” The late music critic Olin Downes wrote, “Adagio for Strings is honest music, by an honest musician.” I can say from personal experience that, regardless of vintage, Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir (l lovingly call it “the Creek”) is honest wine, by an honest winemaker, who, like Barber, has a passion for music. I do not know if Barber knew anything about wine (I would like to believe he did), but he certainly knew how to manipulate the senses with a piece so delicately powerful that it is considered by many to be the most popular orchestral work of the 20th century.
B-Flat, consists of the pitches B♭, C, D♭, E♭, F, G♭, and A♭. (Artur Jan Fijalkowski)
Adagio for Strings begins softly, like sexual foreplay, shifting and heightening as the melody suspends slowly upward. It is like being led blindfold down an erotic path by a sensuous, illicit lover—you just don’t know what’s around the corner. After a two-beat hesitation of the violins, cellos and basses follow, encircling you tighter in tense melodies and beautiful harmonies.
The music undulates, taking you from one emotion to the next, until culminating multiple times into significant climaxes—with the final one so powerful it pierces the soul. A long pause follows, and just when you think the concerto is about to end, the opening theme comes forward before softly fading away on a dominant chord that leaves you wanting for more. Adagio for Strings has a haunting finesse, just like the Creek.
Pinot Noir cluster, Branciforte Creek Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains. (Photo by Ken Swegles)
Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir is Adagio for Strings in varietal form. While Adagio envelops the auditory senses, the Creek seduces the olfactory senses. The wine’s aroma is seductive and intoxicating: like a slow, soft, wet, steamy kiss bathed in lavender and rose petal, cola berry, dark cherry, and rhubarb pie—all of which ascend from the glass on angelic wings of perfume.
2010 Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir. (Photo by Cynthia Bournellis)
Elegant and sophisticated, Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir is just as subtle as Adagio for Strings in the way that it manipulates those who experience it. Round, soft and sexy, the Creek caresses your palate with the “hands” of a skillful, tantalizing lover. Intriguing flavors and aromas of cedar and fennel move classically among the layers of deep red fruits, flowers, exotic spices and damp earth.
The unabashed pleasure one derives from the Creek does not stop after the first glass. This elegant Pinot Noir comes forward even more with some time in a decanter, or in-bottle the next day—revealing further nuances that not only arouse the senses, but also culminate in a supple and memorable long, warm finish reminiscent of being adrift in the afterglow of sex. The ultimate tempter, Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir is too delicious and beautiful to experience just once. Besides, you would not want your forbidden lover to ravish you only one time, would you? Like Adagio, the Creek leaves you wanting for more.
A vineyard worker (far left) serenades dormant Pinot Noir vines at Branciforte Creek Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Photo by Ken Swegles)
Listening to Adagio for Strings while sipping Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir is a spellbinding experience filled with sensual flirtation, erotic foreplay, unadulterated passion and sheer ecstasy that will make you sigh with contentment and—above all—weep.
Adagio for Strings musical score.
(New York Philharmonic)
Olin Downes once noted that “[with this piece], Barber achieved something as perfect in mass and detail as his craftsmanship permits.” For Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings may be a lifetime of music expressed in a concerto. For Jeff Emery, well, you would have to ask him. But I believe that Branciforte Creek Pinot Noir is a lifetime of winemaking expressed in a varietal.