Why “Terroir Wines” can be Works of Art

oldworld winemaking
Painting by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre. In the public domain

Recently, the usually reliable Andrew Jeffords began a blog post on wine tasting with a bit of oft-repeated nonsense:

Winegrowing is not artistic composition: a true work of art (poem, novel, symphony) is entirely created by the single fashioning mind. Without that mind, the work would not exist. What M. Guigal and Mr Gago do is craft: skillfully growing and then transforming an agricultural crop.

Someone else could do the job, with less skill.

I think many people assume this about a work of art—that it springs entirely from the creative genius of the artist and reflects only that individual’s personal viewpoint. According to this view, because the best winemakers don’t overly manipulate their wines but must allow the grapes and the distinctive characteristics of the grapes’ geographical origins to dictate the final product, winemakers are not artists. They don’t have the freedom that artists have to make what they want.

But this conception of artistic activity is a peculiarly modern, Western view of artistic production. Many artistic traditions think of art quite differently. On this alternative  view, artists are given something to work with—some material, tools, and a history of problems and solutions that represent the tradition they are working in. Creating art is a matter of appreciating and figuring out how to display an object’s distinctive characteristics. The artist must be sensitive and responsive to the potential that exists in the object. Rather than imposing her point of view on the object she is in conversation with it, and her activity is a matter of making sure inessential or irrelevant elements are excluded

This principle that the potential of the object guides the artist’s vision underlies much environmental art. It is the guiding thought behind Japanese aesthetics as well. But even in traditional Western views artists understand themselves to be responsive to their materials.  Michelangelo famously described his art as being responsive to the potential in his material:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it”

And even novelists speak this way when describing their art. They don’t put words in their character’s mouths or invent actions out of thin air. Instead they allow the characters to dictate the course of events by listening to their characters’ voices and allowing them to direct their creative activity. Art is not the product of a “single, fashioning mind” but a result of a “dialogue” between artist, materials, and the past.

The winemaking process is similar, especially when the winemaker is concerned to preserve the sense of place in a wine. Their talent lies, in part, in being responsive to their grapes and what they are capable of. Of course, this does not mean the winemaker is passive; she must still make countless judgments about how to bring out the potential of the grapes she has available. This is why the very same grapes in the hands of different winemakers will produce vastly different wines. Winemakers like artists are not controlling nature; they give expression to the nature of their object, a creative act that depends on the something outside their control.

It is thus only a narrow and timeworn cliché about artistic genius that makes some people skeptical about the artistry of winemaking.

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