The Art of Wine: Part 1

by Dwight Furrow

CezanneAmong the most striking developments in the art world in the past 150 years is the proliferation of objects that count as works of art. The term “art” is no longer appropriately applied only to paintings, sculpture, symphonic music, literature or theatre but includes architecture, photographs, film and television, found objects, assorted musical genres, conceptual works, environments, etc. The Museum of Modern Art in New York proudly displays a Jaguar XKE roadster as a work of art. As Jacques Rancière writes regarding the modernist aesthetic that begins to emerge in the 18th Century:

“The aesthetic regime asserts the absolute singularity of art and, at the same time, destroying any pragmatic criterion for isolating this singularity. It simultaneously establishes the autonomy of art and the identity of its forms with the forms that life uses to shape itself.”*

Rancière argues that with the proliferation of objects that now count as art, contemporary art is neither autonomous from nor fully absorbed into everyday life but occupies a borderland between the everyday and the extraordinary that is art's function to continually negotiate. Art is about having a certain kind of aesthetic experience; it is no longer about a particular kind of object.

Wine is among the most prevalent of everyday objects that have no function except to provide an aesthetic experience. And so the question naturally arises: Can wine be a work of art?

No doubt some will immediately object that wine is not designed to provide aesthetic experience but rather to get you drunk. But as an alcohol delivery system wine is terribly inefficient and expensive; the alcohol by itself doesn't explain why connoisseurs love wine. More importantly, the mild buzz one gets from the kind of restrained imbibing associated with wine appreciation is not only compatible with aesthetic appreciation but in fact enhances it. The presence of mild intoxication is hardly incompatible with the appreciation of art as the frequent invocation of Dionysius in the history of art can attest. If we are to understand aesthetic experience as something incompatible with the ecstasies we have clearly lost our way in trying to understand the phenomenon.

Neither is the question of whether wine is an art an idle conceptual matter. The issue is important because it is really about the future of wine (and perhaps art as well). The important thing about art is that it is inexhaustible—there are constantly new developments and new modes of self-expression that enliven art for each new generation. Can something similar be said about wine? Will wine continue to develop as an aesthetic experience with new flavors and textures to explore? If the answer to that is yes then wine will continue to command the interest of people with an interest in taste. So thinking of it as an art not only reflects that aesthetic potential but it will encourage the right sort of engagement with wine, treating it as an aesthetic object rather than merely a commodity. On the other hand, if wine lacks the kind of aesthetic potential that we associate with art, perhaps in the future, it will reach a point where there are few new developments because we've reached a limit to what can be done with wine and thus it becomes a mere commodity like orange juice or milk.

Of course, the answer to this question of whether some wines may be works of art will depend on how you define art which is a vexed question in philosophy and something guaranteed to trap any conversation in endless epicycles of assertions and counter-examples. But it seems reasonable to claim that art, whatever else it might be, is a product of an artist's distinctive vision, imagination, and creativity. At least that is how we understand art today. So I would propose that we think of a work of art as any object that was produced with the primary intent to provide an aesthetic experience and that exhibits a substantial level of creativity in its production.

As noted, wine provides us with aesthetic experiences, and for many winemakers that is their primary intention. But it isn't obvious that winemakers exhibit the kind of creativity associated with the arts. And truth be told, most philosophers do not think winemaking is an art because it is thought that winemakers don't have the same ability to control their product in the way that artist's do. As Skilleas and Burnham in The Aesthetics of Wine insist:

“Vintner's decisions have only a very tenuous connection with expression in the arts which is typically expressions of aesthetic intention, feeling and the like….Wine is not as malleable to intention as paint and the most important factor beyond the vintner's control is the weather. Try as they might few vintners can remove the sensory impact of the vintage.” [99]

While Skilleas and Burham are right that a vintner cannot erase the influence of weather, this quoted passage does underplay the degree to which modern technology has influenced winemaking. Vineyard managers can now measure the amount of water uptake for each leaf on the vine and regulate water supply to each individual vine through irrigation; sophisticated planting strategies and canopy management optimizes sun exposure; careful clonal selection produce vines more adaptable to local weather conditions; and optical sorting devices eliminate all but the best grapes from the crush. In the winery, fermentation temperatures can be precisely controlled, aromas given off by the fermenting grapes can be captured and reintroduced, microbursts of oxygen can be introduced at various points in the process to build and control structure, not to mention the availability of hundreds of yeasts, oak products, and chemical additives that contribute to flavor, aroma, and texture. Given modern winemaking techniques and technology, increasingly winemakers have the tools to really shape their wines according to their aesthetic vision suggesting that wine might be a medium of self-expression and creativity for winemakers.

But the problem with using this increased technological control as support for the prominence of creative intention in the winemaking process is that many of the best wines in the world are made the old fashioned way, using few of these newest technologies. The production of these “artisanal” wines seem to have less to do with the winemakers imagination, creativity, and self expression and more to do with using various techniques to bring out the inherent nature of the grapes. At least that is the expressed ideology of the producers who emphasize the importance of terroir, the French term meaning “of the earth”. Today there is a great deal of controversy in the wine world about a fundamental contrast between wines that express the geographical features of the vineyard or region vs. wines that are heavily “manipulated” in the winery. I think it is safe to say that most wine writers and dedicated wine lovers prefer wines that express terroir. One of the most intriguing features of wine grapes is their ability to reflect geographical differences. That is a key element in the romance of wine. If wine is in the end more of an expression of the vineyard or region and not the winemaker's imagination and creativity, then winemaking looks less like an art and more like a craft.

Thus, although we could draw a distinction between art wines and artisan wines based on how much control and creative intention is exerted in the winery, since many artisan wines are at least as aesthetically pleasing as art wines, this distinction seems artificial and incapable of capturing the aesthetic dimension of wine quality. It would be strange to argue that wine is an art but the most aesthetically interesting wines don't count.

But is it really the case that artisanal approaches to winemaking lack creativity, imagination, and self-expression? It has become popular among winemakers to be modest about their contribution to the final product and to adopt what might be called a custodial view of winemaking—basically their idea is just don't screw up the grapes and let them express themselves. But I'm not at all persuaded that this custodial view quite captures the decisions that winemakers, viticulturalists and vineyard managers make, even those who are committed to preserving terroir using traditional methods. After all, you can give different winemakers the same grapes and they will produce different wines. And grapes that share terroir often make wines that exhibit substantial differences. Is it true that artists can express their intentions with few constraints while winemakers are stuck doing the best they can with the grapes they have? I think there is some misunderstanding of the nature of art in starkly drawing such a contrast.

No doubt the nature of the grapes one uses will strongly influence the style of wine one produces. But that is also true of artists. The nature of an artist's materials will strongly influence the kind of art she produces. Oils produce a quite different look than do watercolors. A melody played by a violin will sound differently when played by an oboe. Painters must work with a two-dimensional space. The whole history of modern art is a struggle with that limitation. All artists work under the constraints of their materials just as winemakers do.

The fact that winemakers are limited by their grapes therefore does not disqualify artisanal wines from being works of art. In fact, the social scientist Jon Elster in his book Ulysses Unbound defines creativity in the arts as the maximization of aesthetic value under constraint. The reference to constraint is important. Elster thinks the relationship between creativity and the constraints imposed on the creative process is an upside down U-curve. The greater the constraint, the more potential for creativity exists unless the constraints are so severe that creativity becomes impossible. Thus, the constraints that weather and other contingencies impose on winemakers encourage creativity; they don't preclude it. But the question of control and intention raised by Burnham and Skilleas in the above quote is an important one. If the aesthetic features of a wine are not something intended or created by the winemaker and her team then it is implausible to think of wine as an art.

In my essay on Creative Receptivity last month I began to sort out what it means to have a creative intention in the arts. No doubt part of the creative process is akin to brainstorming—juxtaposing ideas in new combinations. Painters juxtapose shapes, colors, and lines. Musicians juxtapose notes, rhythmic sequences, and sound textures when conceptualizing how to proceed with a new work. The analog in winemaking is the tasting winemakers do in the vineyard and in the winery trying to conceptualize what the finished wine will be like giving what they taste in the grapes. Experienced winemakers, including artisan winemakers using traditional methods, have a sense of their style preferences and know the tendencies and dispositions of their vineyards. Yet, every year because of the influence of weather and changes in vineyard practices they must revisit those intentions re-conceptualizing their intention when their tasting reveals something new or unexpected as it routinely does. Creative intentions are present in winemaking but can be solidified only after tasting.

But this need to develop creative intentions only after assessing the condition of one's materials is not unique to winemaking. An equally important part of the creative process in the arts is the adoption of an aesthetic attitude toward the work as it is developing. Genuine artistic ability involves selecting which of the brainstormed ideas is worth pursuing and, crucially, which of them can be realized in the materials one has available. Creativity in the arts is about execution in a physical medium and that means being receptive to how the world is, reacting to one's materials as they are developing and shaping one's intentions in light of that development. No artist or musician can successfully make her materials do what they are not disposed to do. All materials have dispositional properties that the artist must be intimately acquainted with. It's that obduracy of matter, the stubbornness of physical objects, which gives art its friction, and makes art more than the idle spinning of ideas.

Thus, artists and winemakers are in the same boat in that their intentions are limited and shaped by their materials. If there is a difference between winemakers and artists it will be a matter of degree. Yet I doubt the differences are substantial. Our common understanding of how intentions work in the creative process are incomplete and, once that picture is filled in, the differences between creativity in winemaking vs. the arts shrink. But more on that next month in Part 2.

Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, London: Bloomsbury, 2013,p. 19.

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