Cultural activities of any significance are not habits or automatic routines. They are burdened with frustration and difficulty, and thus we are confronted with the need to make decisions. The activities of culture—how to cook, how to sing, how to dress, and how to make and taste wine–are woven everywhere with alternatives, antagonisms, and taboos as we negotiate what should be done. It’s through these negotiations that we become aware of ourselves as agents with the main goal to define ourselves, to stake out a territory and claim it as our own. We want our activity to be stamped with our own attitudes, sensibility, and personal history.
Yet we don’t want our cultural activity to be merely idiosyncratic. If we were satisfied with that, we could just retreat to our silos and avoid all the conflict. We want our cultural activity to be meaningful to others; we want to communicate our sensibility and attitudes.
This is one way to think about the motivations behind art. It’s a struggle to communicate one’s attitudes and sensibility through the medium of painting or music. But I think this is not the right way to understand most works of art, and it fails as an account of winemaking as well. The problem with this view is that the object is treated as a mere means of personal expression. The object is a cipher awaiting the imprint of the artist’s imagination.
But there are many artists who aren’t trying to communicate something about themselves. There are painters who delight in the properties of paint, and there are musicians who love the properties of sound. They are communicating something about their materials and their respect for those materials. A genuine work of art, unlike a manufactured commodity, is meaningful because it is the result of the activity of discovering, through the exploration and shaping of their materials, what can be done with paint, sound, stone, words, or light
Winemaking, at least for those winemakers who make wines of terroir, falls into this latter camp. Yes, winemakers have intentions and a sensibility that’s expressed in their wine. But what they want to communicate are the capacities and potentials of their materials, especially the imprint of geography on their grapes and vineyards.
Conceptual art aside, art isn’t just an idea. It’s a physical object. Wine is not just a pleasant experience but an evocation of place. Our understanding of both art and wine suffer when the physical object is devalued.