Winemaking and Creative Theories of Art

by Dwight Furrow

Theories that specify which properties are essential for an object to be a work of art are perilous. The nature of art is a moving target and its social function changes over time. But if we’re trying to capture what art has become over the past 150 years within the art institutions of Europe and the United States, we must make room for the central role of creativity and originality. Objects worthy of the honorific “art” are distinct from objects unsuccessfully aspiring to be art by the degree of creativity or originality on display. (I am understanding “art” as a normative concept here.)

The creative theory of art emphasizes the distinctiveness of an artist’s vision or an artist’s ability to manipulate media in new ways as the defining feature of art. (Nick Zangwill offers one such theory in his book Aesthetic Creation.)

This picture of art as creativity is complicated in discussions about whether wine can be art. Although winemakers have vision and bring that vision of what a particular wine should taste like to the blending table, their art depends inevitably on nature and nature’s “creativity.” Some philosophers might hesitate to attribute creativity to nature. Nature has neither intentions nor vision. It lacks a subjectivity that can be expressed in a point of view. Yet, nature does produce continuous variation, especially with regard to wine grapes that are highly sensitive to differences in climate, weather, and soil. These variations are the raw material with which winemakers work. Whatever their aesthetic intentions, they are constrained and limited by the variations in their raw materials.

However, this dependence on something beyond the winemaker’s control does not disqualify wine from being art. Even in the visual arts or music, creativity is often not the result of specific intentions fully under the artist’s control. Many artists allow chance and happenstance to govern their process—for example, the work of Jackson Pollock or Francis Bacon. Their creative intentions are general—an intention to create something aesthetically distinctive. But the specific form that takes is not directed by the artist. In this respect, they are no different from at least some winemakers.

Furthermore, many works of art are primarily about the materials from which they are made, the media in which they appear, and their hidden dimensions that artists uncover. Again, the analogy with winemaking is directly appropriate. Works of vinous art uncover new dimensions of a vineyard or a varietal. Nature produces the variations with the help of sound viticultural practices. The winemaker grabs hold of the variations and makes them art. If she is to succeed, she must work creatively with the variations that nature provides. Contrary to the reigning ideology in some parts of the wine world, wine does not make itself. There are countless decisions made in the vineyard and winery that shape the final product, all guided by an intention to find the best aesthetic expression of the raw materials. Creativity and originality are never independent of the specific nature of the materials with which artists work. The subjectivity expressed in such works are a dependent variable. Environmental art, such as that of Andy Goldsworthy, suggests that the co-creativity of nature and human artists belongs in the art world.

This dependence on materials and chance does not entail that personal expression is not important. Most cultural activities including art and winemaking are burdened with difficulty, and woven with alternatives, conflicts, and taboos that must be negotiated. Through these negotiations we become aware of ourselves as agents with the main goal to define ourselves, to stake out a territory and claim it as our own and communicate those attitudes and sensibilities to others. Self-expression of this kind is one of the motivations behind art. But not the only motive. An art object is not a mere means of personal expression, a cipher awaiting the imprint of the artist’s imagination. Any object has dispositions of its own that the artist must manage.

Many artists are not primarily trying to communicate something about themselves. There are painters who delight in the properties of paint, and musicians who love the properties of sound. They are communicating something about their materials and their respect for those materials. A genuine work of art, unlike a manufactured commodity, is meaningful because it is the result of the activity of discovering, through the exploration and shaping of their materials, what can be done with paint, sound, stone, words, or light.

Winemaking, at least for those winemakers who make wines of terroir, falls into this latter camp. Yes, winemakers have aesthetic intentions and a sensibility that is expressed in their wine. But what they want to communicate are the capacities and potentials of their materials, especially the imprint of geography on their grapes and vineyards.

The creative theory, of course, does not apply to all wines. Many wines are industrial products, the result of a standardized production process that aims for consistency, not originality or distinctiveness. But some wines are an exploration of what can be done with soil, weather, grapes, yeast, wood, and the human body, especially the body’s sensitivity toward taste and flavor. If a winemaker is not curious about what can be done with these materials, she likely won’t consistently make interesting wine, and if wine drinkers are not curious about them, they will struggle to learn how to appreciate distinctive wine.

Of course, the difficulty is to say which wines deserve the honorific “art.” It is true that one must know something about how a wine is produced and the context of its production—how it relates to other wines of its type, previous vintages, etc.—before one can make a judgment about its artistic merit. But this is equally true of the visual arts or music. Originality and distinctiveness are relational values that are manifest only when viewed from the perspective of historical and contextual factors.

The foregoing thus leads us to a straightforward criterion to determine whether a particular wine is a work of art. 20th Century German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote that art is ‘‘the image of what is beyond exchange.” Unlike a replaceable commodity, a genuine work of art is meaningful because its creation (or performance) is a distinctive, singular act of discovery.

Thus, if you want to know if a wine is a work of art, ask one or both of these questions:

If this winemaker were not around could someone else have made this wine?

If this plot of land did not exist could this wine have been made elsewhere?

If the answer is yes to either of these questions, the wine is not a work of art. It’s a commercial or industrial product. If the answer is no, then it is.

Regarding the creative theory of art when applied to wine, one might object “but what about taste?” One can imagine a distinctive wine that does not taste good just as one might imagine a distinctive work of visual art that gives no pleasure to the viewer. However, this is the wrong question to ask. The creative theory treats art and wine as an accomplishment. Works are offered for aesthetic appreciation, and they succeed only if there is something there to be appreciated. In other words, the creativity or originality is such as to be appreciated as an aesthetic accomplishment and it’s the aesthetic properties that are to be judged as embodying originality and creativity.

However, whether one happens to enjoy a work or not is not particularly relevant to the question of whether it is art. Many works of art are difficult and require an unusual sensibility to appreciate. The same is true of wine. Some of the best tasting wines are utterly banal with nothing distinctive about them. By contrast, some distinctive wines require training and expertise to appreciate. (Some natural wines, skin-contact whites, and non-vinifera varietals are the current “difficult” wines. In any case, the appreciation of creativity or originality is in part an intellectual pleasure. They demand interpretation and understanding, and their appreciation depends on a learning process.

No one wants to drink a wine that can’t be appreciated, but that doesn’t distinguish wine from art.

For more on the philosophy of wine visit Edible Arts or consult Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love.