Is Wine Art?

Feb 28, 2010

Years ago I got into an argument with a colleague of mine. We were talking about art and wine while working in a wine store. At the time I was writing tasting notes for wine displays, using quotes from poets, philosophers and authors on wine. What sparked the conversation is my comment that even though wine is a cultural product and brings us pleasure it is not Art (with a capital 'A'). 

"What about the art of wine?" Leah, my cute, red-haired colleague asked in her perky voice.

I replied by saying that when we speak about the 'art of wine', we really mean the 'craftsmanship' behind making wine. 

"But wine is beautiful. It brings us pleasure."

I nodded. "Of course."

"And even though it isn't a 'Mona Lisa', people can appreciate it."

"But we don't drink the Mona Lisa."

"We take it in," she said emphatically.

"Yes, I see. But it isn't Art. We can pick up the sheet music of Bach or the poetry of Ovid. We will never find again the wine of ancient Rome or the wines Goethe consumed in the Rhine."

I can't remember what exactly she said after that. I think it heated it up from there. 

Recently I picked up the Art Instinct by Denis Dutton (a professor at the Univ. of Canterbury, New Zealand). Dutton's book is focused on providing a link between art and evolutionary science. The main argument is that our love of art and beauty is inborn in us. Our love of a landscape goes back to our roots when men and women wandered the earth is search of food and shelter. Our ideal landscape is green with trees and water, suggesting to our ancestors the presence of wildlife and food. 

Towards the end of the book he discusses the distinction between craft and art, quoting from R.G. Collingwood's The Principles of Art.

A craft is anything related to recipes, formulas, methods and routines. A craft is skilled work "for the purpose of creating a final product or designed artifact." The craftsman's "foreknowledge is required by the very idea of the craft." 

In the case of wine, it is a craft as opposed to Art. The winemaker knows that when he takes his harvest of Merlot, crushes the berries and allows them to ferment in vats, eventually he's going to end up with an alcoholic beverage. There is also the method of pruning vineyards, the recipe of a wine.

In the case of Leonardo da Vinci, he had never painted a "Mona Lisa" until he painted the "Mona Lisa". A winemaker has made wine before. The artist, yes has made art before but the works he creates are singular and particular. 

In Art, even though the finished work of art is the goal, the contents or the journey towards completion is filled with insecurity, wonder, creativity and other decisions. Wine, however follows a logical procession, from harvest to bottle. Even though the wine maker may choose to decide to blend his wine or let it remain in oak barrels for six months as opposed to three, these decisions are based on an idea of the outcome. The end result for an artist may that he intended to write a symphony and ended up with a tone poem; the poet may have wanted to write an elegy and instead wrote a sonnet; and the author started a story and ended up with an epic. 

In the case of vinifcation, the winemaker is setting out to make wine -  not juice, not jelly, not jam or pie. 

I don't know if Leah could argue with that. I'm sure she could. Not only could she make me mad but when she got mad at something that bothered her, that she couldn't fight, those cute white cheeks of hers would get pink and her green eyes would engulf you in the prettiest flames. 

So if the "Craft Vs. Art" argument doesn't work, Leah, thankfully Dutton has my back (and even if he doesn't, getting smacked by you will be a pleasure).

In Chapter 3, 'What is Art' Dutton provides a criteria guideline for judging art. They are as follows:

1.) Direct Pleasure
2.) Skill and Virtuosity
3.) Style
4.) Novelty and Creativity
5.) Criticism
6.) Representation
7.) Special Focus
8.) Expressive Individuality
9.) Emotional Saturation
10.) Intellectual Challenge
11.) Art tradition and Institutions
12.) Imaginative Experience

For wine to be art, it would have to fulfill 90% of the above. 

Direct Pleasure - True wine brings pleasure unless you absolutely detest wine or it leaves you numb.

Skill and virtuosity - Wine takes skill to make but virtuosity... hmmm... We would describe a violinist who has mastered Bach's Partitas and Sonatas as a virtuoso (Joshua Bell). A winemaker as a virtuoso - that sounds a bit exaggerated to me (moreover, would you call him a magician?). 

Style - Wines do have styles but these styles are dependent on the grape, the country of origin and popular taste. The styles of wine preferred by Robert Parker are big and juicy. The styles of France tend to lean towards area of origin. Burgundy can be robust depending on the region but their style is that of Pinot Noir.

Novelty and creativity - There isn't really novelty in wine. It's been around a long time. It is more of a food with aesthetic attributes. This is novel but not unique as there are other foods with aesthetic aspects - i.e. sushi. As for Creativity, yes, to some extent but as I mentioned above, the decisions of a winemaker may be creative, they also happen to come from a craftsman's bag, a limited range of things one can do to wine (you shouldn't set it on fire or try to use it as paint).

Criticism - Yes, wine is routinely criticized. 

Representation - For art to be art, it must represent something. True music doesn't necessarily represent scenes in nature but music is closer to the abstract while wine is wine. A painting depicts people having a beautiful afternoon (Renoir's La Grande Jatte) but wine doesn't really depict anything but itself. It is what it is.

Special Focus, Expressive Individuality, Emotional Saturation and Intellectual Challenge - Art is individual, unique, unto itself and there is both an emotional content and cerebral aspect. Wine may challenge our senses and our recollection of certain scents and flavour but in no way does it fulfill the rest. While wine might be remind us of the wooden smell of a dock or your mother's blackberry jam, the emotional saturation of your experience relies on your singular memory and not an emotion intrinsic in the wine. 

Art Tradition and Institutions - There is no way we can physically judge the wine of five hundred, a thousand years ago, or of Ancient Rome let alone the Greece of Homer against the wines today.  We have description of wine from Pliny the Elder but that doesn't help us. Whereas we have the writings of Euripides and we can compare him to Eugene O'Neil, we can't take the Falernum of Rome and compare them to modern Bordeaux, Sautern and Burgundy, nor the wines of Campania. 

Imaginative Experience - While wine evokes flavours and scents, the imagination depends on us. Again, if we smell wood and think of a dock and a first kiss, that is us, not the wine. Within wine, there are no sunsets, no dreams of true love and no lovers. We tend to bring the wine to those experience that enhance our lives.

So there is it, Leah. Wine doesn't really fit the criteria above. I'm right and you're wrong. Don't worry, you would have put up a good fight, I'm sure... that is if we got into the argument today. It's taken awhile and I've held no grudges. 

Silliness and teasing of Leah aside, this doesn't mean I don't de-value wine. Wine is an art within itself. Wine to me can bring aesthetic beauty to a moment. In Roger Scruton's Beauty, he discusses everyday beauty or the beauty found in our daily lives. Think of a hostess in her home preparing the table for a dinner party. Instead of using the bottle, Scruton observes, the hostess decides to use a carafe to pour the wine. The touch may not be on the level of artistic genius but it brings something new to her table.

Wine is part of the everyday beauty of our lives. We drink wine to see the world differently, to feel a reverence we may not feel while completely sober. This is not to say that being drunk is preferable but just as we eat chocolate to feel a richness in our bodies, wine is that nectar that loosens us. Just as young men eager to talk with young women at the bar drink beer to get 'Dutch courage', wine is that sometimes solemn, sometimes poignant addition to conversation. Everything in a balance.

So no, wine isn't Art (capital 'A'). But wine is definitely beautiful and essential to the beauty of life. The craft and art of wine brings us closer to something special, a je ne said quoi in a given moment. In many ways I think it helps shape our understanding of beauty.

Mind you, if I had a decision to see the art in a modern art gallery (I think of  Manzoni's Merda d'artista or 'shit of the artist' - and it literally is just a piece of shit... I'm not joking), I'd prefer a glass of wine. Modern art is typically no longer beautiful while wine remains so. That's something to be said, eh, Leah?


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My focus is mainly on wine culture, history and education. I love the stories behind wine - the people, places and the regional personalities of the wine-countries around the world.

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