Exploring The Slime-Factor In Winemaking

In response to Monday’s post about how the creation of new grape varieties will enhance winemakers’ status as "artist", one dear reader offered this comment:

"How can anything you ultimately excrete be called art?"

This is a darn good question that deserves and answer.

Most often you hear winemaking referred to as both an art AND a science. Technically I think winemaking is clearly more "art" than science, unless you think of winemakers as mainly practitioners of the "fermentation sciences".

You could make an argument that winemakers are not so much artists as they are "craftsmen", in the way that a designer of fine rocking chairs is a craftsman. The difference between the terms "craftsman" and artist seems to come down to the difference between being proficient with particular tools for the purpose of creating a high quality item and being primarily creative for the sake of communicating an idea or perspective.

It turns out that both the craftsman and the artist need to have some general knowledge of and make use of various scientific disciplines in the same way that a winemaker must. But having that knowledge of, say, fermentation sciences, won’t get us where we need to be. Where we need to go to call a winemaker an artist is to make the case that a bottle of wine is truly a piece of art.

We could have a lively debate as to what constitutes "art". In fact, the commenter who provoked this post had something to say about that: "Either the word "art" is definable, or else anything you want to call art, is art."

I think art is definable in a way that isn’t just applied to particular subject matter or materials. For me, "art" has always been something that attempts to convey a particular idea about the nature of reality and about the perspective of the artist and that was created from scratch for just this purpose.

Wine is created from scratch. But in its finished form does it convey the winemaker’s perspective on an idea about the nature of reality? I think so. The winemaker surely has an idea in mind when they create the  wine. They have an idea about style, texture, longevity, aroma, and color. But what’s important is that they have a myriad of choices as to how they can approach each of these aspects of a wine. And more important, as technology gives the winemaker the tools to achieve just about any style and character they want in a wine, what make the difference is the idea of the wine in the winemaker’s head.

But my commenter makes another point that is cogent: If it’s consumable, is it art?: "I’ve stood in front of great paintings, and i’ve maybe had a coupla
glasses of great wine no comparison and when i came back from the men’s
room, the painting was still there, on the wall, not on its
subterranean trip to the sewage treatment plant."

The suggestion here is that it one must be able to repeat their experience with an object in order for it to be art. That is, we need to be able to visit the restroom, then return with ever expectation that the art will be around to be experienced. This is very different than the idea that the wine must be consumed in order to be experienced because once consumed the experience cannot be repeated, at least it can’t once all the bottlings of a particular wine is gone. I guess my response is that since when can art only be experienced through our eyes, ears and touch? Why can’t it be experienced through out mouth and nose?

My commenter ends with a reiteration: "As for winemakers being artists, once again, PUUHLEEEZZE! don’t make me
choke on my Conundrum. Bartenders are more worthy of the title. Winemakers and lawyers are basically equivalent on the slime scale-—just below writers and above married senators who cruise airport mens

I haven’t thought much about the "slime scale". It’s an intriguing concept. The problem with my commenter’s depiction of this scale is that we don’t know what falls at the lowest end of the Slime Scale, that end of the scale that indicates what possesses the least amount of slimishness. But I don’t think my commenter means to say that winemakers and lawyers occupy that position.

5 Responses

  1. wineguy - August 29, 2007

    To the commentator: Most people feel that dance and music are art forms, but when you come back from intermission the performance isn’t there any more. Your definition of art is either very limited, or not very well thought out.

  2. Fredric Koeppel - August 30, 2007

    Winemakers have an idea about what they’re doing or making, but it’s an idea about the thing itself, the wine; artists’ ideas extend beyond the thing itself that they make into the sphere of questions about existence and the human spirit. Wine, as wonderful as it can be, cannot really be compared to dance or theater, music, literature and the visual arts, those entities that cannect us to the larger, transcendent realms. On the other hand, your commentor seems obsessed with reducing everything we eat and drink to its ultimately disposible form as excrement; for this person, food and drink seem to be nothing more than fuel in a system of energy exchanges. If that were the case, why eat at French Laundry or even your neighborhood bistro, why uncork a great bottle of wine or even a nice drinkable bit of plonk to go with a burger? The manifold pleasures we get from food and wine may not be the same pleasures we derive from great art, but they are among the essential personal and public glories of human life.

  3. buntmarker - August 31, 2007

    wow great exploration and explanation of your thinking on the subject proving whether wine is art, or not, wasn’t so much my point i just want people to think about it before they blithely make the connection plus, it’s obvious that those selling us all this overpriced fruit juice are cashing in on the equation in europe, (no, i haven’t been there) i doubt many consider winemakers to be artists from what i gather from the few european winemakers i know personally, they (winemakers or, more commonly, winegrowers, or enologists) value the mysterious intellectual/aesthetic experience that great wine can provide, they know their role is crucial, but don’t try to take all the credit for their creation, and acknowledge that it is an agricultural product they seem to have a lot more emotional attachment to and respect for agriculture than we do i am not interested in winning an argument, shouting anybody down or being “right” what is worthwhile to me is the exercise of having to formulate and state my ideas, and to see the responses, then reexamine my thinking in that light i never bothered with blogs before and was curious to see the level of discourse you all impress me to WINEGUY- touche in fact, in my original post, i intended to describe my idea of what art was, so to argue that wine didn’t fit it i couldn’t even define my own concept of art yes sometimes it’s temporally transient, or episodic, or ephemeral and no works of man are timeless, not even intellectual ones (THERE’S ANOTHER LATENT ARGUMENT!) to do what i should have in the first place, let me just state my opinion, that neither wine nor food seem to me to supply the level of intellectual or emotional stimulation i expect from art that they can offer beauty and have aesthetic value, i would never deny i am a winemaker, a very modestly accomplished and anonymous one, but i’ve been doing it much of my life, and obviously wine is pretty important to me, on many levels i know some pretty good, pretty famous, pretty creative winemakers, and also some you will never hear of one is also an artist that person paints maybe it’s sour grapes, but the cult of the winemaker, just like the obsession with certain wines for whatever reason, seems the antithesis of all the good things wine has had to offer man over the ages
    TO FREDRIC very eloquent! i ‘m not really obsessed with potty it was just a jumping off point that seemed valid like assuming too easily that wine is an art form, it is, these days, especially when deep in the pages of a marv shanken publication, very common to accept that hedonism and the pursuit of sensory stimulation and gratification is inherently good some pretty smart greek and roman philosophers (no slouches themselves in the eating and drinking category) might disagree with that premise why go to the french laundry, indeed personally, the french laundry represents for me all that i despise in the wine and food business it is a temple dedicated to self-indulgence and the concept of luxury consumerism, a place where, of course, food is art, and the cook is an artist i can’t cook quite that well at home, but then, a lamb shank and bottle of wine won’t cost me $200 at home plus, i enjoy eating in my boxers i am happy for you if you are able to afford to enjoy the personal glories available at mssr keller’s table, but i don’t think they are “essential” bon appetit, and keep the literary amuses bouches coming

  4. Trevor B - September 2, 2007

    This was an interesting subject and a fairly well informed dissertation (although, as a trained artist, I tire from this age old question that laypeople often pose). To settle the debate; art is in fact definable, but not according to definitive terms. There is arguably a line between the craftsman and the artist, but it’s really more of a gradated transition. The artist and craftsman are the same because any and every endeavor born out of the humans desire to evolve requires a universal skill set that must be present to achieve the stated objective. I say universal because they are applied to most every edifice we father, intellectual or otherwise. These skills, as they were, are really just principals that must be minded by someone who comprehends their relevance and understands how one must implement them. Oddly enough many of these principals sound like the qualities we look for in a good glass of wine, such as Balance, Rhythm, Harmony and Repetition… They apply to the entirety of our human existence, so you could argue that life itself is art. All bias aside, I would have to say that is correct. But just as with fine art, life isn’t always pretty. Cheers.

  5. BradGad - September 3, 2007

    >This is a darn good question that deserves and answer.
    Actually, it’s not a particularly good question. With some thought, Randy could have elevated to one, but instead, he did everything he could to make me dismiss anything he has to say: bad analogies, sleazy diction, 4th grade grammar and syntax, tasteless comparisons, and — above all — the absence of an actual argument.
    I applaud the rest of your readers, though, for taking up your post in the spirit with which it was intended.

Leave a Reply