Winemaking: The Vital Difference

living cellsWine is about continuous variation–differences between regions, varietals, vineyards, winemaking styles, weather and climate variation, soil variation, bottle variation. Wine enthusiasts devote most of their attention to tracking variation.

Life, vitality, is also fundamentally about variation. Thus, the art of winemaking is basically the art of expressing vitality.

(Fair warning, there is metaphysics up ahead)

Reality is not merely a collection of objects dispersed in space and time. Reality is also a field of potential differences, latent, unactualized dispositions that inhere in material objects and their relations to be unlocked when some new event traverses a threshold. New relations expose new dispositions like when you meet someone new and they bring out a hidden dimension in your personality, or when weather variations expose new flavor potential in a vineyard.

Living things have a special role to play in this economy of change. Living things have an active internal structure that uses matter and energy to resist degradation while accelerating and directing change. As Darwin showed, life is creative, a continuous process of developing novelty, that pulls the past into the present, using it as springboard for the future, without plan or program.

Any individual entity that emerges out of the chemical soup is merely a passageway, a stage, a provisional outcome within a larger process of change. But that individual is also a solution to a problem posed by the convergence of conflicting forces. Living things contract, select and harmonize the conflicting forces that create them thus making a life for themselves.

Yet, a living thing never quite achieves self-identity. There is always disparity, a new problem to solve, a variation that must be integrated—it’s difference and disparity that drives the life process. Resistance to degradation, continuous variation, and continuous yet failed integration are the hallmarks of all life.

I think it could be argued that all art infuses matter with life, not by imposing form on an inert substance but by unlocking hidden dimensions of the artist’s materials. An artist’s materials are a swarm of unactualized dispositions, a capacity for variation, that the artist intensifies and actualizes. Art intensifies and transforms the artist’s materials, giving something non-living a life of its own, integrating conflicting forces in the process, and those materials in turn intensify and transform life.

This is certainly true of wine. The winemaker’s job is to find the singularities, the variations in their vineyards and grapes that promise a new direction, intensify those variations and then integrate them into something people want to drink, building in to the wine a capacity to resist degradation and support continuous change as the wine lives on in barrel and bottle.

Winemaking is the quintessential expression of vitality, harvesting living organisms, accelerating variation and change through the fermentation process, and then taking the resulting inorganic liquid and building back in the features of an organism—life becomes art becomes life becomes….

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