I’m no luddite. I wouldn’t want to do without my machines. And I surely don’t long for the days of must and battery acid in a bad vintage. The revolution in winemaking technology over the past 30 years has made good wine more plentiful and accessible. What’s not to like?
But I wonder, as we plunge down the techno rabbit hole, whether wine quality is always best served by technology. Technology gives winemakers more control over their final product and enables them to eliminate flaws that in the past warranted a pour down the drain. But there are flaws that make a wine undrinkable—TCA, too much volatile acidity—and flaws that give wines character—a little brett, a modicum of volatile acidity, or grippy tannins that make the finish sing. One flaw that give some wines their unique character is varying degrees of berry ripeness, which optical sorting machines are making a thing of the past.
Do we risk creating an excessively standardized winescape—lots of great wines that taste the same—when winemakers employ too much technology. Will perfectly coiffed and manicured wines support an army of serious wine drinkers who look for difference, originality, and sometimes eccentricity?
An analogy with creativity in the arts is useful here. Artists and musicians seldom report beginning a project with a clear idea of how it will finally look or sound. It is only via the process of trial and error, working around obstacles, and solving problems that spontaneously arise, that a work of art finally takes shape. And it is usually impossible to know ahead of time when a work will be finished; at some point it just seems like further modifications and additions will not be an improvement. What counts as a flaw often cannot be determined early on.
Back in the day when I was a musician and songwriter, I would begin to write a song with only the vaguest notion of what it will sound like in the end. Often what seemed to be a flaw, a problem to be solved, would stubbornly persist and become the leitmotif of the work. The recording process was serendipitous in the same way. The fortuitous mistake would be the theme that makes the recording pop.
We are just not that good at imagining perfection before it falls in our lap and we can only tolerate perfection when it is something that is constantly slipping away from us.
Giving winemakers more control is a good thing for the creative process just as the development of the synthesizer has been a good thing for musical creativity. But technology that forecloses possibilities, that makes the happy accident unlikely, will not in the end serve the artistry of winemaking.
Technology must serve aesthetics; not vice versa.