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winemakerOliver Styles, as usual, raises an interesting question in his latest article for Wine Searcher: Do we over-emphasize the impact a winemaker has on the finished wine?

My immediate response to the question was “well, it depends on the wine and the winemaker”—a point he readily acknowledges.

As he points out, sometimes accidents contribute to great wines. Some winemakers are working within long-established traditions, have exceptional vineyards to work with, or do work framed by a celebrated “house-style” established long before they were on the scene. Some winemakers operate under more commercial pressure than others; business models help to determine whcih wine gets made.

The general point to draw from this is that wine is made by a community, not an individual. Viticulturalists, farmers and vineyard workers, cellar hands, owners, marketing staffs, accountants,  tasting panels that enforce standards, peer pressure, critics, and the consuming pubic through their feedback, as well as the winemaker, all play a role in the finished product. So do the climate, weather, and soils not to mention the vines themselves.

How should we apportion credit given this long list of inputs? As I noted, that is a good question.

One question I think is utterly irrelevant is the one he keeps coming back to:

How do we know what wines one winemaker would make if completely free of responsibilities to the board, responsibilities to the market, the pressures of their peers (this latter is a factor, especially in natural wine circles)? In other words, we can’t be sure that the winemaker we praise wouldn’t have made a completely different wine to the one we like if left completely to her or his own devices.

The answer is we can’t know. We call these “counterfactuals” in the philosophy business and their epistemology is obscure. When a baseball team wins the World Series we don’t wonder whether the manager could have won with a different team. The answer is probably not but that doesn’t detract from the manager’s accomplishment. Would Monet have painted the series entitled  “Waterlilies” if he lacked a garden in Giverny to inspire him? Probably not. So what? We are evaluating an accomplishment under the conditions that explain its genesis, not some alternative accomplishment under different conditions.

He asks: “imagine our top Bordeaux winemakers were transposed into Languedoc-Roussillon without any of their current reputation, would we be using words like “kudos” or “bravo” when talking about them and their Cabardes or their Costieres de Nimes?”

No because skillfully making an average wine, while praiseworthy for the skill involved, isn’t producing a noteworthy finished product.

My point is the way we praise winemakers is somewhat problematic: are we praising the person themselves and their abilities; are we praising the employee of a company for doing her or his job; are we praising their ability to please us?

Wine is an aesthetic object (at least many wines are) and as such it’s primarily the aesthetic quality of the object we are interested in. Whatever praise is due the winemaker flows from that quality.

Of course, we could just bracket the finished product and evaluate the abilities of the winemaker, the way they do their job, or their knack for assessing the market. There is nothing wrong with these evaluations for certain purposes but in doing so we are losing touch with the aesthetic accomplishment.

He closes with another peculiar question:

That doesn’t mean I don’t think winemakers should get any credit, I’m just struck by the possibility of someone out there getting “kudos” for making a wine they themselves don’t like. It must be akin to an actor realizing for the first time they are being typecast.

This contains a genuine puzzle. We praise people for their accomplishments even when there is luck involved. Works of art often have aesthetic affects that were not intended by the artist. That doesn’t diminish the accomplishment. But Oliver is raising a different kind of case. How do we evaluate a case in which the winemaker makes a wine she intended to make, the wine is of high quality, but it’s in a style she doesn’t prefer?

It isn’t obvious to me that the winemaker’s preferences should matter. Presumably, the finished product reflects her skill and aesthetic judgement—she made the right moves to produce the wine. Why would we withhold praise because she would prefer to make a different wine?