I defend the view that wines can be works of art. But certainly not all wines. Most wines in fact are just commodities. So which ones count as works of art? One might naturally suppose that Bordeaux Premier Crus or Napa cult cabernets might be prime candidates for vinous works of art. But I think not, for reasons that Matt Kramer captures in an old issue of the Wine Spectator. (Behind a paywall)
Expensive wines, I wrote, rarely surprise. They are known quantities, from known places and producers. Not least, the vast majority are made within relatively narrow taste parameters. Typically that means oak (a little or a lot) and reliance on a relative handful of well-known and much-pursued grape varieties (you know which ones) from equally well-known and much pursued locations (ditto). These wines are in a word predictable.
The most expensive wines are predictable because their producers have a long list of customers who want to know what they are buying when they fork out hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a bottle. What they want least is experimentation. Thus, such winemakers strive for consistency from year to year.
But art, at least as we have conceived it for the past 150 years, thrives on experimentation and innovation. Artists solve problems in their medium, challenge conventions, and pose new questions. We expect a work of art to be original, an expression of an artist’s imagination that helps us see something in a new way. Thus, works of art that are excessively bound to conventions or designed to cater only to existing taste will fail as works or art regardless of how pleasing they may be to the eye. Similarly a rock band that repeatedly makes roughly the same album will be dismissed by critics regardless of their sales figures.
If a wine is to qualify as art it therefore cannot be excessively predictable or merely a “crowd pleaser” regardless of how exclusive or well-heeled the crowd. And thus the most expensive wines may fall short as works of art.
This is not to say that genuine art must eschew all conventions or ignore existing standards of taste. If a work is to be understood it must make some concession to the past and to existing standards. And this leaves some wiggle room for artists and winemakers to innovate within the constraints imposed by the need for their audience to grasp their point. The mere fact that a work is popular does not efface its artistic merit. But if the “taste parameters” are too narrow we have a Kinkade not a Van Gogh.
Wines with an established reputation, if they are to be works of art, must find a middle way between predictability and innovation. It is achievable but not easily so.
Wines with a less established reputation and devoted to innovation might more readily achieve the status of an art, and that is a good thing for wine lovers of modest means.