Winemaking has undergone a scientific revolution over the past several decades. Young winemakers now graduate from university programs laden with chemistry courses. Sugar levels in the vineyard can be precisely measured to determine picking schedules. Technology allows winemakers to control fermentation temperatures and precisely adjust the amount of color, alcohol, acidity, and tannins. Machines accelerate the aging process. Winemakers add flavor components through choice of commercial yeasts or subtract them through elaborate filtration devices. The presence of unwanted bacteria can be detected and removed before they destroy the cuvee.
Science and technology have removed some of the intuition and guesswork from winemaking. The result is a more consistent product and a higher average quality level. Wine lovers should celebrate.
Has winemaking become less of an art because of all this science? No, because there is one crucial part of the winemaking process that science cannot replace—the winemaker’s judgment. Science cannot tell us what a wine should taste like. That is up to the winemaker. Science helps winemakers achieve their artistic aim, but science cannot determine what that aim should be.
It is up to the winemaker to form an idea of what a vintage should taste like, and the potential of this year’s grapes to realize that intention. It is up to the winemaker to understand terroir and judge whether the signal of terroir is apparent or not as the wine develops. Although precise measurement of wine components may help a winemaker know what she is creating during various stages of the winemaking process, only aesthetic tasting and aesthetic judgment can determine whether that is good or bad, in keeping with her aims or not. Knowledge of science helps winemakers avoid mistakes in deciding where to take a wine, but they are still left with a variety of decisions that thoroughly depend on aesthetic judgment.
There is a reason why winemakers constantly taste their wine at various stages of the winemaking process. Their sensibility, their ability to discern components of the wine through their senses, is their most valuable tool.
Has the development of the music synthesizer harmed the artistic potential of music? Has the development of camera technology harmed the artistic aspirations of filmmakers? I doubt it. Technology need not replace artistic vision and it is artistic vision that determines whether something is art or not.
As long as winemakers continue to bite into a grape in the vineyard and imagine lush fruit framed by a touch of oak, supple texture, and a bracing, long, flavorful finish, winemaking will be an art.
After 42 harvests as a winemaker I can say that winemaking is absolutely not an art, requires some understanding of science, but is basically a learned craft. Like turning pottery, the craft is getting the wall thickness the same, not what color you paint it, it takes practice. The end point of wine production ( not winemaking ) is pre determined. If you’re making Pinot Noir it should taste like Pinot Noir. An artist has no say in that. The success of that end point is guaranteed by 5000 years of human intervention and I dare say that the grapevine is genetically hard wired to produce the desired result given the right growing conditions. I like to say that if you’re breeding poodles and keep getting Doberman Pinschers something”s wrong. Calling a wine producer an artist is pretentious at best, although as ego maniacs they dig it.
An artisan is by necessity first a craftsman, no? Maybe I see it overly Japanese, in the “Shokunin” (Master craftsman/artisan) kind of way. My favorite thing a Shokunin once said is this: “I have been practicing my craft for 55 years, and I believe that I may finally be able to glimpse what the peak of my profession and ability might be.”
Craft, knowledge and lastly experience provide the foundation for creativity and expression, hopefully with an undying idealism towards perfection, knowing full well it can never be achieved.
Any notion to the contrary relies on the romance of believing that something like “clairvoyance” exists, especially when knowledge, learning and technology are pitted against the “true” expression of art/craft…
“It is incredibly easy to make wine. It is incredibly hard to make great wine.”
With only 20 years in the wine (and greater beverage) industry, I have found that even with all the training and coursework, it took: 1.) 3-5 years to hone sensory skills; 2.) 5+ years in industry to “connect the dots” to align vision, intention and outcome of a product, and 3.) an ongoing life-long journey to pursue both previous points and shape one’s own style. As always, knowledge is power, yet we still live in the “information age”, not an elusive “age of knowledge”…