Winemaking has undergone a scientific revolution over the past 40 yrs. Fledgling 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? I think 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 (and the consumer). 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.
If you don’t like technological interventions in the winemaking process, blame the winemaker, not the science.
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.
Complaining about science in winemaking is like complaining about the paints and pigments artists use. It isn’t the material or the technology that makes the end product. It’s the person using those materials and technologies.