“Artistic expression is the window to a person’s soul. Since I began making wine in 2005, La Fenêtre — French for ‘The Window’ — has been the expression of my art: winemaking.” — Wine back-label copy

Is wine art? Is it always art? Or is it nothing more than craft and commerce?

Par Amanda Velocet (Amanda Velocet's Blog) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) ou CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsI had this discussion on Twitter with my friend Rachel Black, a former running buddy and anthropologist who specializes in food and wine. Black, who presented a paper on “the artification of wine” last week (I haven’t seen it) suggested that it’s a good enough topic that people will read a post about it even without a photo — or pointillism painting — of a topless woman. We’ll see.

I believe wine can be art. I think this is obvious. Wine can be a product of creativity; it can be made to express a feeling, and to have its drinker feel something. It can be a means of communicating an idea.

It does not have to be any of these things, and in fact it rarely is. Most wine is not art. Most wine is commercial craft. And that’s fine. One of my first tweets to Rachel on the topic was, “Some wines are art projects, but I would rather drink a wine that the maker considers craft.”

I feel the same way about film, which everyone acknowledges can be art. I’ve done some film criticism, attended film festivals, and I’d much rather watch a well-crafted genre flick than a cutting-edge film art project.

Black wrote, “Once you consume wine it is destroyed, gone. The only possible remain is a tasting note.” That’s also true of the shows of Christo or Laurie Anderson. Art in the 21st century can be fleeting, disposable, leaving nothing but memories, Instagrams and logo gear.

To be “art”  is not synonymous with being “good,” and certainly does not mean “universally appreciated,” in its era or afterward. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. His era, impressionism, was immediately followed by cubist painting, which was important at the time, is still taught as important in art schools and exhibited around the globe and which I personally find ugly, smug and disdainful of the viewer.

Is art in the process or the results? It’s an important question for wine. As Black pointed out, “The immediacy of pleasure does not necessarily make something not art.” In other words, art in wine doesn’t have to taste bad.

I had a 1993 Au Bon Climat Chardonnay from Bien Nacido Vineyard the night before sending this off to be edited. It was lovely, balanced, still fresh, complex. I swatted the hand of the server who tried to take my last sips away. Delicious wine. But it is just a well-made Chardonnay. Is that art? I can’t say that it is.

Here are some of my suggestions of wine as art, that you’ll like:

* Qvevri wines, buried in the ground by vintners who have access to modern technology. The deliciousness, or not, of the final product is beside the point of their existence.

* Xavier Milhade of Château Recougne in Bordeaux is making a single-variety Carménère for various reasons: because he thinks Bordeaux should grow this grape again, because it might be a hedge against global warming. Because he’s curious about how it will taste. Not because it’s delicious (it’s not, sorry Xavier) or because he thinks it will sell.

* David Lett planted Pinot Noir grapes in Oregon in 1965 though UC Davis viticulturists told him not to. He didn’t know what he would get and, if it did get ripe enough to make into wine, he had no way to sell it. So that would make his first wines art projects. Can’t say that about Oregon Pinot now, delicious or not.

* Abe Schoener at the Scholium Project makes the most self-aware art wines in the US, and is more skilled than anyone at discussing them as such.

Now here are some of my suggestions of wine as art that you won’t like:

* Wineries aging wine in the ocean. Maybe it’s just for commercial purposes, but it’s also to say they did it. How is that different from modern performance art?

* Wineries making wine with 200% new oak: aging a wine in one new oak barrel for six months, then transferring it to another new oak barrel for another six months. Isn’t this winemaking to prove a point, like Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang blowing things up?

Francis Ford Coppola said, “An essential element of any art is risk. If you don’t take a risk, then how are you going to make something really beautiful, something that hasn’t been seen before?”

Is the wine of Domaine Romanée-Conti art? They are limited to their tiny area, and they use a minimalist regime, trusting in their terroir and nature. They do have a greater annual weather risk than vintners in, say Russian River Valley, but they have a fortune and a customer base which would buy anything they release; the stakes are low. Doesn’t sound like art.

What about wines that are made with unique technology, like unusually shaped tanks. Is that art? Was the first use of micro-oxygenation art? Remember, just because you or I don’t like it, or because it’s commercial, doesn’t mean it’s not art.

Here’s a thought for you: Cultured yeast in wine is more likely to produce art than native yeast. Native yeast is like pouring paint on the canvas, come what may. Cultured yeast is choosing a brush.

Which leads to this thought: is minimalism in winemaking art? In sculpture, those rocks don’t sculpt themselves.

Who decides what is art? I never have figured that out in the art world. Jack Kirby could draw rings around his contemporary Roy Lichenstein, and used just as much irony. Was it just the size of the canvas?

For that matter, Takashi Murakami is one of Japan’s most popular contemporary artists, and he sells action figures that are intentionally uglier than stuff you can purchase in a Disney World gift shop. So that makes it art.

Apply this thinking to wine. What if someone intentionally makes a wine to disturb the audience. Is that art? Is it art if a winery makes an 18% alcohol Chardonnay by pushing the boundaries of ripening beyond what has been tried before?

I don’t claim to have answers here, just one question. And I’d like your thoughts on it.

When is wine art?

About The Author

W. Blake Gray
Staff Writer

Wine writer W. Blake Gray is Chairman of the Electoral College of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Previously wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, he has contributed articles on wine and sake to The Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, Wine & Spirits, Wine Review Online, and a variety of other publications. He travels frequently to wine regions and enjoys coming home to San Francisco.

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16 Responses

  1. Tyler R Thomas

    Hi Blake,

    I do not think wine is fine art. The Scholium Project does cause me doubt with this assertion, but I believe wine’s end goal limits the ability to define it as wine. Wine is certainly a creative process and has similarities to art projects. But many things are creative that do not end up being art. Additionally, the feeling wine is intended to express is pleasure. I would argue that is all it is intended to express. And it does not express it as much as evoke pleasure. In my opinion this limitation on wine’s expression prevents it from joining other media used to create fine art. Similarly, what ideas can wine express? I suppose one could make a distasteful wine to express their distaste with post-modern world views pervasive in academia? Help me understand your thought process of how wine relates to expressing an idea? If the “final product is beside the point of their existence” I think you step onto a very slippery slope in defining what is art.

    Abe does have me scratching my head a bit. At Scholium Project I gather he is playing with this notion that wine is only designed for pleasure. That is, he is trying to express things other than what seem to be the obvious purpose of wine. I applaud the effort, but I don’t think it suffices as an example to suggest that wine is indeed fine art.

    One final comment. I disagree with Black that after a wine is destroyed (consumed) the only remaining element is a tasting note. That seems to discount the experience, the memory, the nostalgia wine enjoyment can create. That experience/memory/pleasure – recounted correctly or incorrectly – could last a lifetime and continue to influence how the imbiber views wine or whatever/whomever they were with when they destroyed it. Perhaps THAT might make wine more like art, but I remain unconvinced.

  2. Todd Trzaskos

    I think Rachel Black is brilliant, but I cannot agree with the statement “Once you consume wine it is destroyed, gone. The only possible remain is a tasting note.” That’s a limited reductionist view of what wine is, whether it be art-worthy or not. Wine that is consumed is not destroyed, it is integrated. It becomes part of us in the same way that the rest of our food does, in the way the we breath air released from melting ice sheets, in the way we recognize that we are made of stardust. As with great art, artful wines are those that make us aware of the integrative change they facilitate, no matter how subtle, and even more importantly, how they inform our view of the world going forward.

  3. Scrappymutt

    Interesting read. I would consider art a craft: something that must be constructed by hand, that has a limited life span, and something that can’t be truly appreciated until time has elapsed. Like music, some people can succeed selling crap to the masses. Like paintings, some people can succeed by selling bullshit to rich people. And, like both of those things, some wines are are unique, extraordinary, breathtaking, and artistic

  4. Alissa Aron

    Hi Blake. After a year pursuing this question, among others, as part of a Watson Fellowship entitled “Reading Between the Vines: The interface between science and art in winemaking”, I still don’t feel that I could provide a satisfying answer here. For me, the question that quickly became more interesting than trying to decide whether wine is or isn’t an art (or a science, for that matter – my particular interest was looking at how, in many cases, it can be considered both – making wine a bit of an anomaly as art and science are often seen as immiscible), was to understand why we consider it to be so in certain contexts, but not in others. Is seeing wine as art simply a marketing tool? Is it something that only impassioned winos can possibly see as true because of their devoted adoration for the product and the process that creates it? Is it possible using technology, or only in so-called natural wines? (this being one of many subjects under heated discussion w/ Clark Smith at the moment on my own blog nobleroute.wordpress.com ). Thus here I present you with more questions than I answer, but this is one of those issues that merits probing from all sides, and I’m afraid it might lose some of its intrigue if we solve too much of it…

  5. Steve Burch

    Having studied both art history and winemaking (both at universties respected for their programs) My conclusion is very simple: No, wine is not art. For me art implies an act of creation out of the imagination. Wine is a result of thousands of years of evolution and perfect chemistry for turning a fruit into a wine. Consider this: stir up a bucket of paint next to a canvas. Nothing will happen until the paint is applied. Now, stir up a bucket of grapes. Wine will happen. It is my opinion that the greatest of wines have virtually nothing to do with the talent of the winemaker and everything to do with the quality of the grapes. Conversely, the greatest Art has everything to do with the talent of the artist and nothing to do with the quality of the paint (or other media… you get my drift) The best winemakers I know are the best wine chemists that know when to get out of the way and know when to intervene. To those winemakers that believe themselves to be artist, I say, check your ego at the door. It’s not about you. That goes for all wine from the lowliest jug wine to DRC.

    • Alissa Aron

      I appreciate your expert opinion on this issue, as I always feel a bit ill-equipped to respond given my lack of art-related education. Out of curiosity, if we assume, as you say, that great wine is made in the vineyard, that it is the grapes that determine quality, would you say that there is any element of art in viticulture?

      • Steve Burch

        No. Viticulture is farming. The decisions made are always focused on growing better quality. If you call that art then so is growing feed corn.

      • Alissa Aron

        But that search for quality does differentiate viticulture from many types of farming, such as feed corn farming, for instance, where the quest is often more for quantity, often at the expense of quality (a situation which can, of course, also be found in viticulture, but not likely in the production of wines which could potentially be considered as art). Not saying that quality grapes=art either, but I don’t think quality-oriented viticulture should be equated with feed crops.

      • Steve Burch

        But the decisions are the same. Plant nutrition, irrigation, choice of variety, when to harvest. There is no differentiation between a “search” (too romantic. these are science based decisions on ALL counts there is no “airy fairy” in agriculture) for quality wine grapes and quality feed corn.
        Make no mistake, wine is special. It has been the lubricant and sustainant of western civilization and culture for 10K plus years. It occurs with or without human intervention to become a stable beverage capable of carrying calories as well as potable water into the unknown future of human existence. Way to much attention is directed at the folks who make wine and very little is paid to the natural evolution of grape and yeast that produces this truly unique beverage.

  6. D. Levin

    The best wines leave an indelible memory etched in your brain that you can always return back to when you wish to relive it. Life is the sum-total of your experiences and for those seeking to experience life, wine fits into that philosophy and lifestyle well. Regarding wine as art… when a winemaker attempts to capture a distinctive structured and balanced profile (regardless of the specifics) that is the process. Too much easy drinking table wine is made and does not qualify. IMHO, when a winemaker takes their passion for quality and uses it to produce something reflecting his/her vision… that is the definition of art in wine.

    • Alissa Aron

      Is it maybe, then, more of an issue of at which point in a wine’s lifetime that we consider it art or not? Not necessarily an artistic process, but the product could be seen as a work of art?

  7. James Biddle

    I suspect the Plato played around with this question. First because no philosopher could work without sufficient quantities of wine and second because it skirted and flirted with wisdom. The ancient Greeks had two words for “wisdom:” the theoretical twist was to see into the true nature of something whereas the practical twist was craftsmanship (“craft” elevated to its highest level). Great knowledge and understanding were necessary but not sufficient conditions for either form of wisdom; indeed, great knowledge and understanding rarely culminated in either form of wisdom. But somehow, Greek philosophers felt that wine was a necessary element in their quest for both forms of wisdom: it could become an element in ideas (true nature) or in a product (great craftsmanship).

  8. Diana Zahuranec

    It’s a very interesting article, and so thought-provoking that all my responses got tied up and muddled by then end.

    One thing that stood out:

    “Here’s a thought for you: Cultured yeast in wine is more likely to produce art than native yeast. Native yeast is like pouring paint on the canvas, come what may. Cultured yeast is choosing a brush.”

    Yet many people would insist that native yeast produces a more authentic and original wine (the definition of which, in itself, could inspire a discussion!); art is nothing if not original and authentic, right? Therefore, native yeasts in wines are more likely to produce art than cultured yeast.

    This reminds me of oft-disputed modern art in museums, where lots of visitors scoff at a canvas painted blue called “art,” saying that if they could make it, then it can’t be art. Here, it seems like it depends heavily on the eye of the beholder; but if art is in the eye of the beholder, how many beholders need to agree that it’s art before it is “officially” art?

    Sorry for leaving more questions and no definitive answers! Great article that left my mind turning.

    Oh and, here’s a picture of wine that’s art 🙂