Why (some) Wines are Works of Art

Lart of wineast week in response to my commentary on Jon Bonne’s article, which had a brief discussion of wine flaws, commenter Eric, who is apparently a winemaker, took issue with the notion that wine is an art. His comment was interesting enough that, instead of a quick comment, I decided to respond via a more extended post.

Here is Eric’s comment:

Wine flaws are like a box of chocolates. If you’re sensitive to bitter compounds then an 80% cacao chocolate is going to taste flawed. Someone who tolerates high bitterness might claim that the 80% cacao is more authentic and true and therefore the chocolate maker and the chocolate are more artistic. (Apply your own wine analogy.) Making a chocolate more bitter, like making a wine flavored with Bourbon barrels, does not make its creator artistic. The chocolatier or winemaker is just adjusting the character of their product to fill a consumer niche. It’s marketing, sales and hopefully profiteering and fame. We made wine in the 1980s using Bourbon barrels because they were easy to obtain. We determined they made inferior wine. Returning to whiskey barrels is not a brilliant, artistic notion but a retread on a discarded idea in an effort to distinguish a product and create media in an oversaturated wine market. To survive in the wine industry, even if you are a yeast salesman, there seems to be a hyped-up requirement to focus on art. We’re constantly trying to tag wine as art and the mere fact that we debate this (no one ever asks if music is art) tells me that if wine is an art and not a craft then it’s a very low and base form of art. Though wine may taste great and make you feel good and gladden your heart, it is still a trifle when compared to a Van Gough. This lightness is a truth and a disappointment and why the industry, especially wine writers and those of us who’ve invested so much of our lives in wine, are continuously searching to prove and sell the concept that there is fine art in wine. This hubristic fixation to perpetuate a highbrow illusion keeps us away from many realities that surround wine.

Let me start by thanking Eric for the comment; it raises several interesting points worth discussing.

Eric is right that the perception of flaws in wine is sometimes dependent on sensitivity to compounds. If you’re really sensitive to brett or volatile acidity so it overwhelms other dimensions of the wine, you will think the wine flawed. Someone less sensitive won’t have that response. The same is true of chocolate with 80% cacao if you’re very sensitive to bitterness, although I think it is still not known to what degree we can adjust these sensitivities via learning.

I also agree that the choice to make a chocolate of 80% cacao does not make that batch of chocolate “more artistic”. If the choice to make 80% chocolate was a decision about a particular batch of raw materials to bring out certain features of the chocolate that would produce an aesthetic experience, and if the decision exhibited the kind of creativity and originality we associate with art, then perhaps that might be “more artistic”.  I don’t know enough about making chocolate to have a view on it. But 80% is so routine, I’m not sure I see the originality there.

The same is true of the use of bourbon barrels in winemaking. But not because it is an old idea. Painters and musicians employ old ideas and techniques routinely. If bourbon barrels do not contribute anything to the positive aesthetic character of the wine then it’s just a failed experiment. And if it was done with the motive solely to “distinguish a product and create media” with no other intention then it’s claim to be art is suspect. Of course artists and musicians often take steps to distinguish their product and create media. But if that is all they do, if they have no other over-riding intention, then their claim to be artists cannot be taken seriously. They lack the intention to create art.

However, if the dominant intention of a winemaker is to produce an aesthetic experience for people who drink their wine, and if their winemaking displays the degree of creativity we associate with the arts, then I see no reason why wine cannot be art. By “aesthetic experience” I mean an experience in which the aim is to seek out and be open to the widest range of aesthetic properties such as elegance, finesse, beauty, power, intensity, etc. The question of “degree of creativity” is of course difficult. It is a threshold, a matter of degree, but involves the intention to recognize when their wine is developing something unique and distinctive and act on that recognition. It is obviously a collaboration between the winemaking team and nature, a form of environmental art.

Ice cream tastes good and makes me feel good. It isn’t art. It doesn’t produce a wide range of aesthetic properties and it usually is not original although I suppose it could be in the right hands.

As to the comparison with Van Gogh, I’m not sure why wine would be a trifle in comparison. Perhaps Eric has in mind that paintings by talents such as Van Gogh tell stories and have a rich set of meanings to be interpreted. But great wines do tell stories albeit not about war and peace. A wine is an interpretation of a vineyard and the winemaker’s materials. It is also an interpretation and extension of the narrative of the winemaking tradition in which the winemaker is working. What some paintings do have that wine perhaps lacks is semantic richness. They can be about a wide variety of subjects—war, loneliness, love, evil, God, etc.  But much art has no great thematic character. Abstract art and instrumental music are not about any of those themes except in a highly metaphorical sense. But wine can function as metaphor as well.

As to people in the industry seeking “to prove and sell the concept” that wine is art, I really haven’t seen it that much. Some winemakers think it’s art, some do not. Few have a well-developed notion of what art is. (which is my job to figure out in any case)

Surely most wines are not art. Most wine is an industrial product designed to serve a market niche and make a profit. And for most wine drinkers it’s just an alcohol delivery system or a boost to conviviality. That’s fine. Nothing wrong with that. But there are many, many winemakers who are more concerned to do something aesthetically interesting and create something distinctive whether that distinction comes from their vineyards or their imagination. And there are many wine lovers who get a rich, aesthetic experience from drinking wine and appreciate originality when they find it.

There is great danger in treating wine as nothing but a commodity. If it is a commodity like orange juice then we only need three or four companies making wine. That won’t support the well over 9000 wineries in the U.S. alone that struggle to stay afloat.

It’s the search for distinction that is the beating heart of the wine industry and when it’s achieved I see no reason why it is not art.

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