The Winemaker as Artist

wine growerIn Club Oenologique, Harry Eyres does a decent job of covering the question of whether winemakers are artists. Along the way he exposes several fallacies that I think threaten to send any discussion of this topic off the rails. The problem does not lie in how winemaking is understood. The problem lies in mistaken assumptions about art and art production.

Eyres’ approach to the question depends largely on asking winemakers about whether they conceive of themselves as artists. Some do and some do not. But this is problematic because each answer presupposes an image of what an artist is that may be inaccurate. And indeed two questionable assumptions emerge early in the discussion. The first is that winemakers cannot be artists because they’re activity is mostly farming.

In truth, very few of the world’s most admirable winemakers make such claims. The vignerons of Burgundy, the winzer of the Mosel or artisan producers in Piedmont tend to be rather humble, not least because they see their work as founded in agriculture: they are wedded to the soil and to the seasons.

Agriculture is the means by which winemakers develop their materials. All artists have to prepare and manipulate recalcitrant materials in order to create art. Painters stretch their canvas, prepare paints, adjust lighting, etc. Some musicians devote much attention to modifying their instruments in order to elicit the sounds they need. In fact some contemporary art that uses textiles or metal is really about exploring the nature of their materials. The fact that winemaking uses agriculture to create and modify their materials is hardly disqualifying. Furthermore, environmental artists such as Andy Goldsworthy or Olafur Eliasson would be surprised to learn that art cannot depend on soil or the seasons.

The second assumption is that winemaking is too dependent on science for it to be considered art.

Many contemporary winemakers and wine growers regard their work as primarily scientific; they speak in the language, and numbers, of science.

But dependence on science is also not disqualifying. Artists throughout history have used whatever intellectual tools were available to them in order to create art. Painters have long relied on color theory to design their works, and many of the old masters used the science of optics and lenses to help with their drawing. Today, artists such as Luke Jerram or James Turrell use the science of perception to find new modes of expression. Science provides powerful tools for almost every human endeavor. But they are tools, not final ends. Any winemaker who thinks you can make great wine by applying a scientific formula is probably not making great wine. As Oliver Humbrecht of Zund Humbrecht reports:

‘Each vine (especially from a massal selection) can be considered a different individual. Each individual will react differently to all the variables that can influence them: climate, human intervention, ecosystem. The art of the wine grower and winemaker is to adapt, change their attitude and react differently to face all these challenges. People also change: taste, ideas, mood… So the artistic wine grower may want to change his or her interpretation as the years pass.’

But the most egregious assumption about art closes the essay:

Wine growers and winemakers today start from a position of humility that is very different from the demiurgic heroism of a Tolstoy, a Beethoven or a Michelangelo. They are shepherds of terroir at the mercy of the weather, the season and all kinds of pests (as we all are, it turns out)

The idea of an artist displaying “demiurgic heroism” is an old romantic notion from the 19th Century. This is the idea that artists simply impose their imaginative ideas on reality by force of will without constraint or sensitivity.  I devote considerable attention to debunking this idea in Beauty and the Yeast. Plein air artists,  writers of historical fiction, haiku poets, performance artists, and the aforementioned environmental artists would be surprised to learn of their god-like powers to shape reality. They are as dependent on nature as winemakers are.

The problem with these discussions of art and winemaking is that they are carried out among people with a sophisticated understanding of winemaking but a very limited understanding of the art world.

4 comments

  1. Each year I host a discussion in my classes about wine and art. And one topic we find quite rewarding is the contract between art and craft. Is winemaking an art or a craft? Over the years, we have arrived at some interesting destinations with this theme. Is craft the mastery of techniques to create something of value? Is art always more than just craft, is it also an exploration of personal expression?

    You are right to point out that few winemakers consider themselves artists. I think it is because of this distinction. Artists create new and interesting concepts. Master of a craft create products to sell. Most winemakers I know are quite reluctant to try something really new…for fear that it would not result in a commercially viable product. That’;s craft. It’s not art.

    And yes, I know why there are so many paintings of the Virgin Mary.

    1. Hi Paul,
      I agree. The distinction between art and craft is really about creativity. Some winemakers are creative. But as you point out many aren’t because of commercial constraints. I cover this in some detail in Beauty and the Yeast.

  2. These issues are well-covered in your book (American Foodie)… and I recommend it to anyone who is curious about the relationships between food (and wine) and art.

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