Palettes, Palates, and Authenticity: The Winemaker’s Art

by Dwight Furrow

SassicaiaIn many traditional wine regions of the world wine, like food, has been a marker of identity. Wine, when properly made, expresses the character of the soil and climate in which grapes are grown, and the sensibilities of the people who make and consume it. Thus, it is a form of cultural expression that sets one culture or region off from another, drawing a contrast with the rest of the world and inducing a sense of local uniqueness and particularity. As a bulwark against the homogenization of wine produced by global corporations for a world market, the authenticity of a wine's expression thus becomes one criterion by which wine quality is assessed. Wine that does not taste of its origins is branded inauthentic.

But just as creative chefs are confronted with the problem of being innovative while maintaining links to traditions, winemakers are faced with a similar dilemma. Wine lovers are nothing if not diviners of secrets. We strain to find the hidden layer of spice that emerges only after an hour of decanting, alertly attend to the ephemeral floral notes from esters so volatile that a few seconds exposure to air whisks them away forever, and obsess over the hint of tobacco that begins to develop only after 10 years in the cellar. If a wine is to qualify as a work of art, it must repay such devoted attention, revealing new dimensions with repeated tastings, especially as it develops with age. It should be an expression of the vision of the winemaker or the terroir of the region in which the grapes were grown, and like great art, a great wine should be a bit of an enigma, yielding pleasure and understanding while leaving the impression that there is something more here to be grasped. But most importantly, a vinous work of art must be unique. Just as Van Gogh's rendering of Arles is great because no predecessor had been able to capture with paint what Van Gogh saw in an ordinary Cyprus tree, a work of vinous art will uncover new dimensions in flavor. But that seems to contradict the demand that wine reflect the traditional flavor profile characteristic of the region from which it comes. How does a winemaker achieve originality while remaining wedded to tradition?

Genuine originality is rare in wine and contributes to artistic merit only if the allure is the product of the winemaker's imagination. If the exquisite secrets lurking in the glass are just the fortuitous meeting of great grapes, sound winemaking practices, and proper aging, with no vision or artistic intention, then the winemaker is an artisan not an artist. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with artisanal products and craftwork. There are countless well-crafted wines in all price ranges that are pleasing to drink and will grace any dinner table. But most of them taste more or less alike once you account for varietal, region, and price. They are, like the painting in your doctor's office, pleasing but not very significant because you've experienced elsewhere. Genuine art, by contrast, is not about fine construction only; it is about imagination.

So how much control over the aesthetic features of wine do winemakers have? Are all those flavor notes the outcome of a process that begins with inspiration and imagination?

With modern technology winemakers can have extensive control over the final product, intervening and making adjustments in virtually every step of the process. From fermentation tanks that precisely control temperature, to hundreds of yeast types each with their own flavor profile, to microoxygenation and reverse osmosis that shape tannins and regulate alcohol and flavor concentration, very little is left to chance in the modern winery. The technology and science of modern winemaking is like a painter's palette enabling the wine maker to “color in” whatever flavor profile reflects the winemaker's vision. However, it is this tendency of winemakers to insert their vision that moves many wine lovers to heap abuse on the notion of wine as art. Matt Kramer, in the October 2008 issue of the Wine Spectator, worries about loss of a sense of place (aka terroir) when winemakers use technological innovations as if they were an artist's color palette.

“Why does this distinction matter? Because abstract though it is, if winemakers and, yes, wine lovers, see wine as art, then the essential connection between what a grape expresses from its site and what we expect is severed. If a winemaker is an “artist,” then he or she, by artistic right, can and should modify the result to suit a personal vision separate from a “mere” expression of place.”

Kramer is right to worry about excessively “innovative” winemaking that severs wine from its connection to place, especially in parts of the world that have highly developed wine traditions. Novelty for its own sake. Originality without substance. Neither makes good wine nor good art. Wines that express their origins in soil and climate are treasures and their authenticity is sometimes a sign of originality since terroirs often have unique characteristics. But is commitment to preserving a sense of place in the glass incompatible with innovation?

Many winemakers seem to agree with Kramer that winemaking is all about the grapes and where they are grown. James Halliday and Hugh Johnson in The Art and Science of Wine quote Australian Winemaker Brian Croser:

“I have a minimalist approach. It relies on an innate faith in the choice of an area, in the choice of a variety and in the choice of a management technique in the vineyard to get the maximum expression of quality. That faith then carries through to the processing of the grapes. From my viewpoint, if you put all the ingredients, all the building blocks, in place, the resultant wine will share the quality parameters that all good wines of the world share. The personalities will be different, but they will share the fundamentals of quality, which are vitality, strength and intensity of flavor, length of flavor, subtlety and reproducible uniqueness.”

According to Croser, the job of the winemaker is custodial–to preserve what nature has wrought in the grapes. In a well-managed vineyard, when varietal, soil, and climate are properly matched, and the weather fortuitous, all the winemaker must do is avoid winery-induced faults and judiciously employ standard winemaking practices. The winemaker's imagination or vision would seem to play little if any role.

But I think this custodial model does not quite capture the whole truth about the role of the winemaker. For if the custodial model were the right account, various wines from well-managed vineyards, and from the same varietal, vintage, and terroir, would produce wines with very similar personalities. But they don't. For example, the approximately 80 wines that are made from grapes grown in Burgundy's 115 acre Clos de Vougeot vineyard are quite variable in style. Although the parcels in Clos de Vougeot are notoriously heterogeneous–the top, mid-section, and bottom of the slope have significantly different soil types and minor differences in microclimate–wines made entirely from grapes of similar quality sourced from the top of the slope nevertheless have quite different personalities. It is not obvious that vineyard management techniques or variations in the age of the vines can explain these differences. Do the dozen or so different producers who source from the nearby Echezeaux Grand Crus vineyards make identical wines? Not at all.

But more importantly, even if the custodial model explained winemaking practice in places where preserving the connection between wine and place is essential, we have no reason to deny that winemakers can sometimes be artists. Kramer in the aforementioned article writes:

“So why isn't fine wine “art”? The answer is surprisingly simple. Art is creation; wine is amplification. The big difference between an artist and a winemaker is that an artist starts with a blank sheet while a winemaker works with the exact opposite. A grape arrives at the winery with all the parts included, a piñata stuffed with goodies, just waiting to be cracked open. Is there a craft to doing that? You bet there is. But where an artist conceives of something out of the proverbial thin air, no winemaker anywhere in the world can do any such thing.”

With all due respect to Mr. Kramer, who is a fine wine writer, artists do not start with a blank slate or conjure their creations out of “thin air”. To the extent they intend to represent an object, artists are constrained, not only by the nature of the object being painted, but by their training and the conventions of painting that exist in their cultural milieu, and by the limitations of the materials they have to work with. If we were to anachronistically sit the great painters of sunsets–Turner, Monet, Van Gogh, and Church–in front of the same sunset and threaten them with death if they don't paint what the sunset really looks like, they would paint radically different versions of the sunset. Painters committed to realism nevertheless differ in how they perceive what is real. Style matters in painting; it matters in winemaking as well.

The constraints that grapes impose on winemakers do not disqualify them from being artists. All artists start out with constraints and their art, their style, is a matter of imaginatively engaging with those constraints. The fact that a winemaker seeks to preserve a sense of place in the flavor profile of a wine doesn't disqualify her product from being art any more than David Hockney's attempt to revive and reinterpret realism disqualified him. Of course, winemakers have an interest in preserving the character of their wine from vintage to vintage–it is a brand that their fans depend on. But that character will show differently in every vintage, and how it shows depends not only on weather but on the decisions winemakers make, decisions that can involve imagination.

How does imagination get into the picture? The most important tool in a winemaker's arsenal is neither a technique nor a machine–it is her palate. And palates differ, inevitably and inexorably. Most winemakers taste obsessively throughout each stage of the winemaking process, looking, not only for faults, but for whether the wine will exhibit the character and personality sought in the finished product. But that vision of what the finished product should be is, in part, an imaginative construct deeply informed by the idiosyncrasies of her tasting history and biology as well as her understanding of how the distinctive characteristics of here own vineyards appear in the glass. In other words, it is impossible to separate “terroir in the glass” from the singularity of the winemaker's palate.

On the one hand, terroir is soil and climate and their influence on grapes. But there is no science of terroir. In the end its meaning is wholly a matter of what we taste in the glass, and no two winemakers will taste or imagine its expression in quite the same way. When the winemaker becomes aware of that singularity of expression she becomes an artist at least by intent. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:

“All nature faithfully”–But by what feint
Can Nature be subdued to art's constraint?
Her smallest fragment is still infinite!
And so he paints but what he likes in it.
What does he like? He likes what he can paint!” (from The Gay Science)

Winemakers like what they can taste. Modern technology gives them more tools to make what they like, but it is that singular combination of taste and imagination that drives decisions in the winery, at least when originality is the aim. Thus, there is a general flavor profile that wines made from grapes sourced from Echezeaux Grand Crus vineyards typically have, but there is no single way to express that flavor profile any more than there is one way to express a personality through a portrait.

In commenting on his portrait of the writer Gertrude Stein, Picasso famously said, “Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will”. Stein wrote later, “I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me.” Picasso found a new way to express the essence of Gertrude Stein and eventually others including Stein came to see it as a superior likeness.

Similarly, creative winemakers find new ways of expressing terroir through the originality of their palate and their skill at implementing that vision. Thus, even on the custodial model a winemaker can contribute originality and uniqueness to the finished product, and if they succeed, they deserve the honorific of “artist”. The custodial model simply asserts that the winemaker must not destroy the influence of terroir. But different winemakers will have different views about how best to show that influence and the most imaginative will create genuinely original expressions.

Wines that are the product of the winemaker's imagination are not necessarily inauthentic. Authenticity and adherence to tradition is not a matter of repeating styles from the past. It is a matter of the winemaker's commitment to expressing terroir and tradition in an original way, in a way that makes flavor references to the past while creating the wines of the future.

For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts