The (Slow) Art of Wine: Part 2

by Dwight Furrow

Wine barrelsOver the past several months I've been writing about creativity in the arts, a project motivated by skepticism among philosophers that winemaking could legitimately be considered an art form. (See Part 1, and here, here, and here)

As Burham and Skilleas write on the decisions made in the vineyard and winery:

These decisions are intentions certainly and wine is also a product of human artifice. However, it is not intention in the same sense as a painter might have when he approaches a blank canvas. 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. (The Aesthetics of Wine, p. 99-100)

Burnham and Skilleas seem to think that although winemakers have intentions they are not about aesthetics. This is a questionable assertion. There are countless decisions made by winemakers and their teams in the vineyard and winery that influence the intensity, harmony, finesse, and elegance of the final product and are intended to do so.

Burham and Skilleas go on to insist that "a vintner is simply not to be understood on the model of Kantian or Romantic aesthetics of fine art for whom originality or creativity are absolutely central features." Again, this is a questionable assertion, although it may be true of commodity wines. As James Frey, proprietor of Tristaetum Winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley and an accomplished artist as well as winemaker, told me in an interview: "Originality matters a great deal. No winemaker wants to hear that his wines taste like those of the winery down the street." Originality and creativity are central concerns of at least those winemakers for whom quality is the primary focus.

In addition to their circumscribed conception of winemaking, I think part of the problem with the analysis of Burnham and Skilleas has to do with confusion about what counts as creative intentions. When we get the right account of creative intentionality in the arts we see that winemaking and artistic production really belong in the same category.

As I argued last month, some of the best wines in the world do not involve a lot of high-tech manipulation in the winery but are largely expressions of their vineyard site. Thus part of the challenge will be to show how these wines, which require the cooperation of nature, can embody the creativity of works of art which are, after all, artifacts.

The role of inspiration in creativity has long puzzled philosophers and gave rise to the ancient idea that artists are divinely inspired, afflicted by a muse, or simply crazy. Where do their outlandish ideas come from? It is not at all obvious that the idea of intention does much work in explaining inspiration because artistic ideas often arise, not when we intend them, but when we least expect them. No doubt some works of art begin with a precise idea about what the artist is aiming at. But many do not. They begin with vague ideas which involve a lot of brainstorming or playing around in a medium until something interesting emerges. Inspired ideas often occur to us when we're not even focused on an artistic project.

A study of the creative process by neuroscientist Nancy Andreasan found common phrases used to describe the serendipity of creativity: "I can't force inspiration. Ideas just come to me when I'm not seeking them-when I'm swimming or running or standing in the shower." "It happens like magic." "I can just see things that other people can't, and I don't know why." "The muse just sits on my shoulder." "If I concentrate on finding the answer it never comes, but if I let my mind just wander, the answer pops in."

Thus it doesn't appear that creative activity at this generative stage requires specific intentions about aesthetic properties. It is the unconscious aspect of this that has fascinated writers throughout the centuries.

However, it would be a mistake to think there are no aesthetic-relevant intentions at work in these moments of inspiration. Behind the scenes there are general intentions that guide artists in their projects. There is a general conception of their project operating in the background. They intend to produce something of aesthetic interest, with some originality, and meaning. They may know the genre they wish a particular work to be placed in, have a sense of what can be done in the media in which they work, and be cognizant of their audience or patrons and what they will respond to. They may adhere to theoretical commitments or a sense of how their own body of work is evolving. Most importantly, through their training, history, and observations artists develop a cluster of norms and ways of making perceptual discriminations among works of art. In other words, they develop an aesthetic sensibility that guides their decisions about their own work. It's one thing to generate lots of ideas that are sufficiently unconventional to count as creative. But successful art is a matter of selecting which ideas are worth pursuing. These general intentions, an artist's sensibility and background, act as a filter enabling the experimentation and brainstorming to be productive and focused by tossing out what doesn't work and preserving what does.

These high-level, general intentions may be unconscious and inarticulable and do not require overt judgments about specific aesthetic properties. Nevertheless, they operate in the background regulating creativity activity. Thus, although specific aesthetic properties of a work of art may not be intended, they are a product of the more generalized intentions that arise from artists working within their art world. This, I want to suggest, is the best way to understand creative intentions that avoids attributing excessive deliberation and calculation to the creative process.

The crucial point for my purpose is that winemakers also have these background commitments that guide their winemaking. They also intend to produce something of aesthetic interest that has meaning in light of the winemaking traditions they work in. They also are cognizant of the creative possibilities within their medium and materials, the genres and styles they work in, how their work is evolving. Many, such as winemakers committed to natural wines, have theoretical commitments to which they adhere. Furthermore, since originality and distinctiveness are abiding concerns, part of this background is an implicit understanding of what counts as original within their winemaking culture. This is not to say they all succeed at making original wines. But neither do all artists succeed in their struggle for distinction.

As noted, there are countless decisions made in the vineyard and winery that are designed to realize these aesthetic intentions. But the most important background commitment that shapes the final product is an aesthetic sensibility developed through years of tasting. Winemakers taste repeatedly throughout the process of winemaking from sampling grapes in the vineyard to determining the final blend. In the end, it is what they taste that determines what they do. And because each individual tastes differently, their final product, if not distorted by the goal of homogeneity or consistency, will be different as well. The goal for many artisan winemakers is to preserve terroir, the distinctive features of grapes from a particular vineyard or region. But what that means will differ for each winemaker; each has an interpretation of what it means to preserve terroir through the idiosyncrasies of taste.

However, there is one fundamental difference between winemaking and creativity in the arts. Painting, music composition, literature, etc. usually involve persistent activity with lots of experimentation, erasure, and more experimentation as the work takes shape. Winemaking is different. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, one of the most inventive winemakers in the world, told me that artisan winemaking primarily involves a lot of "watchful waiting", waiting for the weather to give shape to the growing season, waiting for grapes to develop in the vineyard, waiting for fermentations to finish, and especially waiting for the wine to age in barrel and bottle before it's ready to release. Watchful waiting does not seem like an accurate description of painting or musical composition and performance.

Nevertheless, given the above account of creative intentions, "watchful waiting" in the vineyard and winery turns out to be the way in which winemakers realize their creative intentions.

I've been arguing that we should understand creativity in the arts in terms of the possession of general intentions that regulate decisions, even in the absence of deliberation or the carrying out of specific, consciously held intentions to realize specific aesthetic qualities. I want to suggest that the central regulative role that these general intentions play is to provide criteria for a variety of "stopping heuristics", intuitive judgments about when a process is complete and needs no further additions or modifications. At various stages in every work of art there are points at which the artist says OK—that is what I'm looking for. She may not have known what that was ahead of time; she may in fact be really surprised by the result. So we are not talking about a conscious process here. But that eureka moment when you say "aha that's it", the moment when the aesthetic intention is realized, is possible only given a sensibility that defines the parameters of what she's doing. And of course these commitments can change during the process. This is not a set of rules but a sensibility that defines a point of view that is always a moving target.

Yet that is precisely what winemakers are doing with their watchful waiting. They are, after all, watching for something and waiting for something. These are intentional activities the aim of which is to identify when the grapes or wine show the aesthetic potential intended by the winemaker given her aesthetic sensibility.

Thus, a good artist (or winemaker) is not only someone who has the gift of coming up with new combinations of ideas and the skill to manipulate the medium in which she works. It is someone who also has the ability to react sensitively to his or her results selecting those that correspond to a scheme of artistic value embedded in the aforementioned general intentions. And, of course, part of this scheme will be an understanding of what counts as a new development or a departure from the past.

No doubt, in painting or musical composition there is more active, moment-to-moment, shaping of materials when compared to winemaking. The results of brush strokes or new harmonic configurations can be assessed immediately or at least without undue delay. Not so with winemaking. It is a slow art because experiments can take years to unfold. The results of modifications in vineyard practices or winemaking techniques may not be apparent until the wine has aged for several years. Yet, surely the slow pace of experimental results does not subtract from the aesthetic quality of the intention. Neither does the fact that winemakers depend on the cooperation of their materials, as I argued last month. The fact that winemakers give direction to nature in the development of their work is no more an impediment to artistic intent than the fact that painters depend on the cooperation of light or musicians on the structure of their instruments. The medium always shapes the message.

Thus, when sipping your next glass of Pinot Noir—because if you've made it this far in this essay you probably have one in your near future–slow down and savor the moment, for it was made with more patience than even Monet or Mozart could manage.

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