In The Museum of Fine Arts: The Wine Wing
I had a jarring experience today. I was challenged on my usefulness as a wine blogger. I’d never yet had a discussion with anyone about wine blogging who, while familiar with genre, saw absolutely no value in it.
I can quote her: “Why spend time writing about a drink when there are so many other important things happening in the world? It just seems wasteful.”
She had a point.
The cultural and social consequences of wine appreciation and the wine business do pale before the consequences of trying to protect our country, the fight to protect a fragile environment, of creating a reasonable state and national budgets, or of the attempt to invent even better schools.
I had to stop and think about what was a very important point to her. Then I realized what she was missing by considering an overly serious interest in wine barely useful. She didn’t see wine as an art and didn’t appreciate a serious interest in wine as the mode of art appreciation that it really is.
Some readily accepts the idea of wine as art. By many others though, the idea of elevating wine into a category including the likes of The Mona Lisa, The Thinker, Raging Bull, Twelfth Night and Rhapsody in Blue just doesn’t quite sit well. But this makes sense. “Real Art” has always been created in mediums that most people know only from observing: Clay, oils, words, and celluloid. Those art forms that we have a closer acquaintance with (fashion, architecture, furniture making) don’t have the same mystique. We look at them as more associated with pop art than “Real Art.”
Then there are the Disposable Arts: Wine and food. They are art mediums we not only have a closer acquaintance with; we actually chew them and swallow them. It’s easy to understand how “wine as art” falls somewhere below the work of Brittany Spears in the list that is the response to the question: “What is Art?”
I’m here to argue that wine should be understood as art alongside the likes of Painting, Sculpture, Music and Writing. (Though this is not to say I’ve never tasted the Brittany Spears of wine now and then)
I’m not going to defend the idea of wine as art by listing the virtues of fine wine, by describing the different styles of wine, or by offering the sensual elements of wine. This idea of perfectly sensible and really can’t be argued with. I’d say that anyone who can’t see the aesthetic elements of wine simply doesn’t have an eye for it. Let’s just say it’s a given.
What I want to instead suggest is that the art of wine exists inside a kind of environment that is filled with all the prerequisites absolutely necessary to turn a skill or craft into an art form.
1. AN AUDIENCE FOR THE HEADINESS OF WINE AS A PLEASURE AND INTEREST
If there’s no one willing to pay for a wine that is more than simple, thin, alcoholic juice, then you don’t even get the chance to practice your art. There must be a crowd willing to pay you for your efforts that are beyond the commonplace. The world is, and has been, populated by a relatively small but consistently visible crowd of people who get off on a flavor packed wine, a port filled with heady perfumes, and the doughy intensity of a bracing champagne. And we are willing to spend pretty good money for it. You can get “wine” for $2 a bottle and forty cents a glass. But we are willing to pay $20 a bottle fairly regularly, sometimes $50 and many have been known to quickly drop over $100 on a bottle of wine. No. Finding an audience for his art is not the problem for the winemaker.
2. A COLLEGIAL SET OF PEERS WHOM SEE WINEMAKING AS AN ARTISTIC ENDEVOR AS MUCH AS A BUSINESS.
Imagine putting your heart into something, having a group of people willing to appreciate it and even buy it, but having no one else around to talk to about your art and who understands what you are talking about. Imagine having no peers.
Without a set of peers who have an equal passion for taking the craft beyond the norm you simply can’t have an art form. There will be no innovation, no discoveries, no advances and no trends. Luckily, artists have always tended to band together. Whether out of the need for approval, company, support or dialogue, they have always formed extraordinary communities among themselves. Wine is no different.
Two winemaker who don’t speak a common language can still have a conversation. They’ll often learn more and enjoy themselves more too than if they were talking to an outsider in their own language who doesn’t know oak barrels from coke cans. And consider. There’s a heck of lot more of the latter. The community of peers in the wine industry is international and always has been.
In their own regions they form unions, organizations, have tastings, judge each other’s wines, travel together, know the same people and constantly challenge each other while also copying one another. And generally, there is an amazing openness between them with regards to technique, grape sources, and the ideas behind their wines. Look at any thriving art form and you’ll find the same type of community swirling beneath the surface.
3. A SET OF QUALITY MARKERS THAT ARE INFLUENCED BY A STRING OF HISTORIC BENCHMARKS OF ACKNOWLEDGED STYLES AND HIGH ARTISANSHIP.
Does anyone remember that scene in “School of Rock” where Jack Black is outlining on a chalkboard the family tree of Rock n Roll? He was teaching 7th graders how the Blues and Gospel led to Chuck Berry and Elvis, how they in turn led to The Beatles, how the Doors and Led Zepplin and David Bowie were the influencers of the early Punk groups.
All great art forms must have this kind of stylistic history and benchmarks of quality. Without it the artisans have nothing to reach for or learn from. It is the artisans’ and consumers’ cache of great expectations.
It’s fairly easy to follow back the major movements in painting and identify the greats of particular styles of painting. You can do the same with movies and architecture. Wine has its lineage too. And it is a history that continues to have its influence on the present. Winemakers as well of wine drinkers are aware of the historic greatness of Bordeaux, of the lasting achievement of the monk Dom Perignon, and of the difference between Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Salt Lake City Syrah. Winemakers of course can see much deeper down the neck of wine history and its movements. All understand the continuum of changing style that follows wine on its geographic path from the equator outward. They can probably play the game “7 Degrees of Helen Turley”. And a good many of them can bring educated expectations to a tasting of a 1961 First Growth Bordeaux. Some wine drinkers can do the same. These represent the magnificently obsessed that you see crowding around any kind of art world.
4. AN EDUCATED SET WILLING TO JUDGE THE QUALITY OF THE ART…AND TELL EVERYONE WHAT THEY THINK (CRITICS).
This last necessary piece of the environment that lifts a craft into the world of fine art is what keeps soap making, hair braiding, and building houses out of cards from reaching the big leagues of “Fine Art”. It’s also the sure sign that wine is indeed in that category.
While criticism can itself be an art, wine’s designs on that title are assured by the existence of “The Wine Review”. Critics don’t emerge without an audience. So, this last element of the artful environment is dependant on the first. It is in fact the logical extension of the first. Critics reflect many things. Their judgments reflect the tastes of an educated class. They reflect their experiences of wading down deep into the art and being engulfed in it. They are the guinea pigs of innovative minds and talents.
The Critic has been on the tail of wine for quite some time. We have century old judgments and opinions on wines from practiced drinkers in sandals and togas. We have Victorian wine critics. There were wine critics who dabbled in the transportation of wine via sailing ships. And of course we have profession wine critics that sway the tastes and techniques of nations.
The thing is, without really well educated and serious critics who care deeply about wine as art, you can’t develop any levels or standardizations for greatness. You don’t have well articulated benchmarks of quality. Without this the wine drinker and winemaker alike, as well as the trade that popularizes the art, have nothing to aspire to. Inspiration and the desire for approval as well as achievement is what almost always drive the craftsman into the realm of artist. And it is also at the heart of what drives an audience of admirers and connoisseurs to always want to indulge a little bit more. The critic sets the tone for this harmless and motivating compulsion for “more”. They help drive the art forward.
As it turns out, I aspire to be neither the critic nor the artist. I work in the wine trade and blog about what I see. It’s satisfying, allows me to write and gives me a forum to pop off now and again on topics of interest to my trade and fellow wine lovers. Yet I don’t think this explanation would have satisfied the critic of FERMENTATIONS and its author. In fact it didn’t. I wish I had had time to explain why wine was every bit as eligible for membership in the fine arts guild as painting, music and sculpture are. If I could have done that, then I would have asked her, “Do you believe there is need for artistic expression in our chaotic world and room for its appreciation?
More to the point, if you enjoy spending your time doing something, then it’s worth doing. What’s the point of spending all that time building a model cutty sark when there are more important things to do in this world? What’s the point of reading a novel when you could be diffusing tensions in the middle east?
Wine doesn’t need to be justified as art to be a worthwhile pursuit and a worthwhile subject to pontificate on.
Steve’s point is well taken. This is a great blog on its own. And the pursuit of wine, like so many other pursuits, is indeed worth doing. Besides, if I may be blunt–your profession is wine, yes? What have you to offer on US Foreign policy, educational reform, etc? Not that you have nothing to say–we all have our ideas and opinions. But when I want to read about US politics, I read Hewitt, Barone, Sullivan, etc. When I want to read about wine–I turn to you.
By the way, my comment wasn’t intended to dismiss that wine (and winemaking) can be thought of as an art. Indeed, it certainly can be (and often is)!