Wine and Nature’s Rift

by Dwight Furrow

Vineyard3Most of the wine purchased in the U.S is an industrial product made by mega-companies that seek to eliminate the uncertainties of nature in pursuit of a reliable, inexpensive, standardized commodity. But most of the wineries in the U.S. are small-to-mid-sized, artisan producers who lack both the technology and the inclination to make a standardized product immune to nature's whims. For these producers and their customers, the call of the wild is at least a murmur.

Although wine is one of the most alluring products of culture, its attraction is in part due to its capacity to reveal nature. When made with proper care, wine in its structure and flavor reflects its origins in grapes grown in a particular geographical location with unique soils, weather, native yeasts, bacteria, etc. Although the grape juice becomes wine via a controlled fermentation process and is the outcome of an idea brought to fruition by means of technology, the basic material came into existence through natures' bounty– roots, trunk and leaves interacting with soil, sun, and rain. Despite the technological transformations that occur downstream, the character of the wine is thoroughly dependent on what takes place inside the clusters of grapes hanging on the vine in a particular, unique location. As any winemaker will tell you, you cannot make good wine from bad grapes and the character of a wine will depend substantially on those natural processes in the vineyard. When you savor a delicious wine you savor the effects of morning fog, midday heat, wind that banishes disease, soil that regulates water and nutrient uptake, bacteria that influence vine health, native yeasts that influence fermentation, the effects of frost in the spring, of rain during harvest—an endless litany of natural processes over which winemakers and viticulturists often have only limited control.

In this respect wine differs from most other beverages some of which are made in a factory by putting ingredients together according to a recipe; others which are directly a product of agriculture but don't display so readily the unique character of their origins. Orange juice from California tastes like orange juice from Florida. Beer can be made anywhere without significant geographical effects on flavor or texture. Not so with grapes. For most wine lovers, it is that taste of geographical difference that fascinates, a difference that is, in part, nature's murmuring.

But of course the nature revealed through wine is not “unspoiled nature”. All agriculture is a form of cultivation and thus equally part of culture. The influence of nature on wine is made possible by countless human decisions in the vineyard and in the winery. Those aforementioned natural processes can be encouraged or discouraged. The effects of midday heat can be shaped by positioning vine shoots on wires and controlling the leaf canopy, vine health can be controlled through chemical sprays, the effects of native yeast counteracted by commercial yeast, the threat of spring frost mitigated by wind machines and thoughtful planting. And of course, the processes of vinification and aging also contribute substantially to the final product. Wine does not make itself and, although grapes can grow wild, only careful cultivation in the vineyard and the winery will make a wine drinkable, let alone worthy of being savored.

It is not “unspoiled” nature (whatever that means) that wine lovers admire but nature highly edited. Yet it is nature nevertheless because the central fact about winemaking is that nature is obdurate, recalcitrant, always pushing back against even the most ingenious cultivation. Despite our significant advances in technology, winemaking is a matter of riding the maelstrom. Or, to employ a different metaphor, nature throws curves that only the best winemakers can hit out of the park and every curveball is a little different from the last. Even minor variations in weather, especially the timing of weather events, can have profound impact on the condition of the grapes and ultimately the taste of the wine. Whatever the intentions of the winemaker, they will be influenced by nature, and woe to the winemaker who ignores those limitations–which is why there can be no recipe for making wine. Every vintage is like a new baby and past practices can be only a rough guide.

Many wine writers argue that this fundamental dependence on nature and the constraints it imposes on a winemaker's intentions means that wine cannot be an art. The Wine Spectator's Matt Kramer wrote:

“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.” (Kramer, WS, October 2008)

I think this view of art and winemaking is mistaken. The inflection point where creativity fully enters the winemaking process begins when the grapes are sampled in the vineyard and the winemaker begins to develop a vision of what those grapes can become. If something new, something different and unfamiliar is tasted sparking a “vision” of new ways of expressing nature in the finished wine, then winemaking begins to look more like art than a craft. Imagination as well as tasting acuity are pre-requisites for great winemaking.

Two quotes from the history of art highlight this idea that discovery is essential to the process of creation. Michelangelo is reputed to have said:

“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

By studying the network of lines and fissures in a piece of marble he was able to “set free” the subject of the work.

And with a similar theme, the Renaissance painter Albrecht Durer wrote:

“For in truth, art lies hidden in nature; he who can wrest it from her, has it.”

20th Century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, citing the Durer quote as inspiration, argued that great art begins with an initial sketch, what he called a “rift design”, in which the artist discovers the rift in her materials—a creative response to what the materials offer up as possibilities. Mutatis mutandi, that strikes me as a good description of what winemakers do when seeking an original expression from their vineyards.

Heidegger emphasized the “thingly character”, the tension introduced by materials and their resistance to human intention, as crucial to great art. All materials are “things” that have limits and can take on some form but not others. For painters, oil differs from water colors; for music composers one can elicit a particular sound from an oboe but not a piano. Understanding the resistances and possibilities inherent in materials is the work of creativity in both art and winemaking. The winemaker's art is in finding the point in nature where something genuinely new can find its world, can find its place within culture, where nature, the unfamiliar, expresses a salient possibility that can be realized in our phenomenal experience.

In responding to the contingencies and uncertainties of nature, it is essential for winemakers to know the relevant science because what happens in nature depends on chemistry. The making of a great wine usually requires knowing the numbers—sugar levels, types and strength of acids, fermentation temperature, and other more exotic measurements–if only to avoid making a mistake by taking the wine in a direction it will refuse to go. Science helps understand the constraints of the winemaker's materials and presents possible avenues to respond to them. Yet two wines with roughly the same vital statistics may taste quite differently. Science will not reveal the beautiful; only intuitive judgment and imagination can.

This display of the rift in nature that enables its entry into culture is a large part of wine's attraction. This is why wine lovers' current fascination with terroir, the French word meaning “of the earth”, is so necessary for wine to maintain its allure. We want the connection with nature that is revealed despite the cultivation. It reminds us of a world long lost in which nature was a mysterious, blind impress, yet is refined enough for us to witness the human cultivation of beauty, albeit by a tenuous hand, never quite in control. It symbolizes a kind of care, a form of attention to nature that is too quickly fading from our lives. Wine is a powerful symbol of nature because nature with its impenetrability and resistance to human intention is a significant factor in its cultivation.

No other product quite combines the obduracy of nature with such exquisite culturally embedded refinement. More than simply “tasting good” wine is a symbol of the ambivalent and complicated rift within nature that is culture's horizon.

For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.