Contemplating the Hermeneutics Of Wine As Art

BostDegasThere is and has for a long time been an inclination among some to treat wine as art. Oftentimes we see the winemaker referred to as the artist. The wine itself is regularly referred to as an artistic creation.  I'm often inclined to wince at these descriptions of wine and its making primarily because wine is not art, winemakers are not artists and the label "art" applied to wine seems an affectation of sorts to me.

And yet, there is no question if wine is treated like it is art, there are unique opportunities to delve much deeper into the meaning of wine, its history and its characteristics. This was the point that occured to me today as I gazed upon a beautiful full page add in the New York Times touting a new show at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that explores the nudes of Degas.The show promises to examine the artist's "ravishing look at the female form" and his exploration of "the beauty of unguarded moments".

The argument that wine is art is probably best made by looking at the way wine is treated at the apex of its appreciation. Like art, wine is auctioned at the most prestigious auction houses in the world, even coming with highly produced, glossy catalogues. Like art, there are bottlings and "artists" whose works are coveted beyond all others and bring absurdly high prices. Like art, wine is too often "displayed" not only in homes but in galleries known as fine wine shops where it sits carefully on well constructed shelves. As we are with art, we are asked to carefully contemplate the contours, craftsmanship, characteristics and meaning of a wine through careful examination. And, on rare occasions, we are given the opportunity to examine the meaning of a "movement" or "class" or genre of wine, much like the Boston Museum of Fine Art is presenting the opportunity to examine a class of work from Degas.

It is this last example of how art and wine are similar that interests me. While we don't necessarily have Picas"shows" for wine in the sense that there are shows of Degas' Nudes or Picasso's Blue Period, there are opportunities to deeply examine specific kinds of works of wine. I'm not thinking here of large tastings where 50 or 100 or 300 wineries come together to pour. I'm thinking more of the kind of events that are curated by The Wine Workshop from Acker Merrall in New York.

On it's face, Acker-Merrall's Wine Workshop is merely the merchant's events arm and focuses on staging high-end tastings of coveted wines. But when you consider these events as "shows" in the sense that the Degas Nudes is a show, we see how wine can be treated very similarly to art. Consider some of the "shows" that Acker has put on:

Experience a century of Chateau Margaux with Paul Pontallier at this extraordinary and historic event at two of New York's greatest restaurants. Chateau Margaux has a long and distinguished history that dates back to the 12 century. Over the last 100 years many legendary bottles of Margaux have been produced. Join us for a once in a lifetime experience at this historic vertical of one of the greatest wines on the planet. Vintages include: 1900, 1905, 1907, 1908, 1909, 1910, 1915, 1917, 1918, 1919, 1921, 1922, 1925, 1933, 1934, 1936, 1942, 1943, 1945, 1946, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1959, 1961, 1969, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1991, 1993, 1996 and 2000.

2001 is destined to go down in history as one of the all-time greatest vintages Germany has ever seen. This vintage shed the spotlight on Germany, re-establishing the region as a dominate player on the world wine stage. Ever since 2001, German Rieslings have sky rocketed in popularity. These are monumental wines equally expressive of terroir as the best of White Burgundy….It will be fascinating to compare these different cuvées from the same vineyards in such a great year.

This all-star lineup of classic California Cabernets exemplifies a who's-who of the pioneers that started it all. It will be an extraordinary experience tasting these mature wines. We will focus on five of the greatest estates in California Cabernet history: Heitz, Louis Martini, Mayacamas, Beaulieu and Diamond Creek. Heitz Marthas Vineyard is arguably Californias greatest Cabernet and we will taste the 1974 Marthas which many consider the greatest California Cabernet ever produced. The older wines of Louis Martini embodies the essence of traditional California. These wines are elegant, structured and built to last. Mayacamas is one of the first boutique California wineries. Andre Tchelistcheff, known as the founder of modern California wine, had a major role in creating the iconic Beaulieu Vineyard. Diamond Creek consists of different vineyards with three distinct soil types (volcanic, gravelly and red rock) these terrior driven wines have always been highly allocated and sought after.

As the descriptions of these "tastings" make clear, the goal is not merely to drink down some good stuff. There is context, meaning, historic elements and a reverence that is wildly similar to the way art is treated when gathered together for a show. It is these kinds of events that keep us, drinkers and non drinkers, ready to give wine a corner in the art world.

RenoirAgain, while I don't subscribe to the idea that wine is art, I recognize that there is fantastic opportunity for true wine geeks to indulge in very deep dives into the hermeneutics of wine. Arcane as this may seem, the pursuit is a legitimate educational experience. And I can imagine any number of possible  "wine shows" that would fall under this categorization:

Evolution in Style: An Examination of the Impact of Changing Winemakers at Beaulieu Vineyards
The style of Beaulieu Vineyardss Cabernets is considered from the perspective of the winemaker as various vintages of BV Cabs are looked at and are considered with an eye on how changing winemakers have contributed to those stylistic detours.

The Zinfandel Canvas
California's iconic grape might be considered a blank canvas for the exploration of style. This grape is subject to more stylistic renderings than most other grapes be it sweet and light "White Zinfandels", richly rendered late harvest invocations of the grape, claret-style dry works of wine or the briary and big style of Zinfandel pursued by many makers over the past 20 years. This show will examine these styles and the seek to interpret the meaning of a grape that has no standard character.

The Changing Pinot Noir Paradigm: From Definition to Anarchy
There was a time when Pinot Noir was defined by its Burgundian rendition. Yet over the past 25 years, ambitious wineries around the world have given nods to the Burgundian tradition while redefining the meaning of this grape by rendering it into numerous styles of wine built on new terroirs and new ideas of what Pinot Noir should be. This examination of New World Pinot Noirs seeks to understand the motivations of new producers' wines and explore their contribution to a wine world seen by many as having fallen into stylistic anarchy.

Of course the possibilities of using wine to explore trends in taste, in culture and in personal style are endless. Furthermore, history is a subject that can be deeply explored through the lens of wine. Even philosophy can be brought to bare its murky meanings to wine.

Though a craft and not art, wine can be, if treated in the same way art, understood and appreciated as an intellectual pursuit and a deeper pleasure can be wrought from its examination.


16 Responses

  1. Edible Arts - November 4, 2011

    Forgive me for not quite grasping your point. You seem to grant that wine exhibits a rich set of aesthetic properties, functions as a symbol system representing a variety of phenomena from communal traditions to traditions in winemaking, and is deeply meaningful to the people who produce and drink it in ways that go beyond its ability to produce pleasure.So why is winemaking not an art?
    Granted, not all wines are works of art. Neither are all paintings or musical compositions. And granted wine is a commodity. But, as you point out, so are paintings and musical compositions.
    What additional features would wine have to exhibit in order to be a genre of art?
    As a professional philosopher I can confirm your assertion. “Even philosophy can be brought to bare its murky meanings to wine.” (I might demur at the characterization “murky”.) My sense is that most of the debates in aesthetics can be usefully applied to wine (and food for that matter).

  2. Thomas Pellechia - November 4, 2011

    Wine is separate from the arts because the only way to appreciate wine is to devour it.
    After you read a poem, the words still exist; after you view a painting, the canvas remains; after you hear a composition, the music does not vanish from the page; after you gaze at an architectural wonder, the building still stands.
    After you drink the wine, what else but your memory remains?
    Collecting wine isn’t even in the same league as collecting art, since holding the bottle in storage may go along way to stroke one’s ego but it offers nothing regarding the intrinsic value of the product.

  3. Edible Arts - November 4, 2011

    I don’t think semi-permanence can be a necessary condition for art. That would exclude all non-recorded performances (especially much jazz)and environmental art (e.g. Goldsworthy) from the realm of art. And I can experience the same wine repeatedly if other bottles of the same vintage exist. (The work of art is not the individual bottle)
    I’m not sure why you say holding wine doesn’t enhance its intrinsic value. Some wines do improve with age up to a point. How does the intrinsic worth of a Picasso improve with age?

  4. Thomas Pellechia - November 4, 2011

    Edible arts,
    1. The performance of music is craft; the music composition is the art.
    2. You cannot experience the same wine repeatedly if other bottles of the same vintage exist, and while that’s a more technical matter than this discussion warrants, it does point out the fact that one painting is one thing and one wine may be many things.
    3.”Intrinsic” refers to the essential nature of a thing. The essential nature of a painting is for it to be seen. The essential nature of a wine is for it to be consumed and not to be saved for viewing.
    4. The intrinsic worth of anything has less to do with its worth as it has to do with our perception of its worth, and nothing guarantees that it gains in value as it ages, but the odds of a painting outlasting a wine are greater than you may think. Still, the ability to age is not in itself a definition of art.

  5. Edible Arts - November 4, 2011

    1. So no improvisational works or improvisational components of composed works can be art? That would be very questionable even in classical music; it surely is untenable in jazz, classical Indian music, etc.
    2. You say “You cannot experience the same wine repeatedly if other bottles of the same vintage exist”. I have no idea why. You offer no defense.
    3. We are not using the word “intrinsic” in the same sense. But I doubt the readers of this esteemed blog want to read a discourse in semantics. Granted the essential nature of wine is to be consumed, painting to be viewed, music to be heard. So what. Why does the fact of consumption disqualify wine from being an art? If it were our practice to burn paintings upon viewing them as offerings to the gods, they would be no less works of art.
    4. “The ability to age is not itself a definition of art”. Precisely. Semi-permanence seems entirely irrelevant.

  6. Thomas Pellechia - November 5, 2011

    To answers your question regarding my comment “You cannot experience the same wine repeatedly if other bottles of the same vintage exist” I also said that this is a technical matter.
    Each wine reacts in its bottle at its own pace and in its own environment. That means that you could open two bottles from the same case at the same time, and after tasting each you could conceivably get separate results. If you were to open two bottles of the same wine but they came from a different case under different storage conditions, odds are even better that you will get separate results.
    The last time I visited the Louvre, there was only one Monalisa. Same thing with Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight,” it’s the same on paper as it was when he and Cootie Williams wrote it.
    Wine, however, changes. I guess we might say that a bottle of wine is performance art 😉
    Anyway, what’s the definition of “art”?

  7. Edible Arts - November 5, 2011

    Granted each individual bottle of an aged wine will be different depending on the aging environment but they are nevertheless related to the original bottling. When Parker in 2011 opens a 2000 Lafite and proclaims it is drinking well he is referring to the 2000 Lafite, not some orphan. In this case the difference between an individual bottle and the original bottling is analogous to the difference between a performance of a symphony and the original composition. Each performance is distinctly different but related to the composition. Each is a token of a type in both symphonies and wines.
    Although there is one Mona Lisa, it too changes because of age and environment much as a wine does. A painting such as the Mona Lisa has undergone many degradations and imperfect restorations. It is no less a work of art because of that impermanence.
    And I doubt that Monk ever played “Round Midnight” the same way twice. Jazz compositions are typically rough guidelines, not fixed icons.
    Finally, there are lots of definitions of art. I like this one: Culturally significant meaning, skillfully embodied in an affective, sensuous medium, and capable of bearing aesthetic properties when experienced.

  8. Thomas Pellechia - November 6, 2011

    Your reference to refurbishing Mona, and performances of compositions are not persuasive arguments.
    (I won’t quibble about Parker and Lafite, except to say that whenever the critic speaks he speaks of himself…)
    You can’t refurbish a bottle of wine, but you can refurbish the original painting.
    In the case of Monk–it’s notable that he demanded of those who played with him to stick with the melody even while improvising, because that’s where you found the intent of the original artist. Listen carefully to his improvisations.
    To end on a note of agreement, however: I like that definition of art, too…
    …and this was a stimulating debate; don’t get many of those these days.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - November 6, 2011

    I wanted to take this to email, but don’t know your email address: The only reservation that I have concerning the definition of art is with the word “aesthetic.”
    Appreciation in aesthetic properties is not a constant from person to person, culture to culture, or from experience and knowledge in the subject under aesthetic consideration to the lack thereof.
    This is why I am not a fan of aesthetic criticism and why the definition of art is a moving target.

  10. Edible Arts - November 6, 2011

    Indeed the debate has been stimulating, and thanks to Tom for his original post.
    As to “aesthetic properties”, the evaluation of art can’t rest entirely on them but they are necessary despite their inconstancy. Without aesthetic properties we just have an application of skill or a craft, not art.
    info at

  11. Marcia M - November 6, 2011

    I’m a bit surprised at your conclusion that musical performance is craft and not art (and the composition is the art).
    The composer’s work, following the lines of your argument, is but lines and dots on the page – (not unlike the 1’s and zeros running everything computerized these days). It isn’t until a musical instrument interprets the music that the ‘art’ comes to life.
    Surely the poor plunking out of one of Bach’s studies by an 8th grader forced into piano lessons bears no comparison to the ‘art’ produced by Misha Dichter’s playing of the same piece?
    Is ballet (or other forms of dance) also merely a craft? (What about the broader definition of the “Fine Arts” to which dance belongs?) Was not a performance of Baryshnikov in Coppelia art in motion?
    I’m not trying to beat a dead horse (argument) here, but it seems to me the line blurs between art and craft and is not as black and white as you would have it be. (Note: I surely would not begin more argument about wine as art or craft !LOL)

  12. Thomas Pellechia - November 7, 2011

    Yes, Marcia, the line does blur, and then there’s that pesky aesthetic thing, too.
    Those lines and dots on the page that you refer to are so much more than that it is hard for me to believe that you were being serious. Have you any idea how much creative effort it takes to put the dots on the lines so that they sound like music and not cacophony? As for the performance as craft–that is THE blurry part, I admit, and yet it isn’t until the instrument plays the dots on the page that the art is realized. More to the point, it isn’t until our ears hear and interpret the sounds as music that the art fulfills its destiny, which is to be heard.
    Nothing stops a musician from playing without sheet music and from even composing that way, but if all musicians did that, we’d certainly have a lot more music from which to draw pleasure. Fact is, not every musician is a composer.
    One reason to question the idea that winemaking is art is that winemaking is far more constraining on self expression than people like to believe it is.
    I don’t come to these ideas lightly. As you know, I’ve produced wine; I also play piano, as well as paint, and of course, I write. It’s only in my writing (and not all of it) that I consider myself an artist, because that is the only endeavor in which I practice self expression; since I’ve learned piano through hearing music, I cannot compose music; and my painting is confined to realism. To me, when I play or paint, it is more like copying than creating.

  13. Tom Wark - November 7, 2011

    John Lopresti Writes in Via Email With This Comment:
    I was going to draw a comparison between the critter labeledwinemaking style and other sorts of labels indicating a more nuancedsort of enologic contents of the winebottle.
    However, instead, I will draw here a comparison to sculpture, having noticed in some autobiographical notes to a digital art expo in Beijing fairly recently the following statement from a
    sculptor-professor concerning what constitutes an artwork:
    “Art is alchemy. Alchemy is the magic, observation, process and ritual of life. My sculptures, both virtual and actual, are conversations regarding the archetypal forms that are the basic structures of nature. I build alien abstract worlds that become familiar through
    frequent immersion. These worlds are constructed to open exploration to the deepest regions of the human psyche for development within the landscape of the imagination.”
    That excerpt, at least, references the ‘plastic’ art sculpture.
    However, I would add, as well, an observation about the sculptor’s fortuitous selection of the notion of alchemy as a spiritual artform.
    As Tom Pellechia alludes, there are alive biological processes in making wine, to which the winemaker is only a careful attendant.
    Professionally, there is lots more than watching a ferment a winemaker may accomplish, including liason with the grape source, suggesting viticultural practices, weighing merits of fruit varietals and multi-bloc blends, clone selection and rootstock perhaps, target harvest attributes, processing equipment and techniques. So, there is a mundane side to enologists’ work.
    I would not put T Monk in a category with long ago famous winemaker A Tchelistcheff; yet, perhaps I should. Jazz and modern food science both have advanced in the past 30+ years.

  14. Thomas Pellechia - November 7, 2011

    Ha! I wonder if Thelonius smoked as much as Andre…

  15. Edible Arts - November 7, 2011

    A fascinating, rich quotation. An alchemy consisting of “…conversations regarding the archtypal forms that are the basic structures of nature” sounds like a description of wine and food.
    But there is also a reservation.
    “These worlds are constructed to open exploration to the deepest regions of the human psyche for development within the landscape of the imagination.”
    Is the “taste-imagination” as rich and varied as the “visual-imagination?” I’m not sure. But it is interesting that food science (and the science of wine) are expanding the “horizon” of taste-imagination.

  16. Web design melbourne, web design sydney - November 8, 2011

    The intrinsic worth of anything has less to do with its worth as it has to do with our perception of its worth, and nothing guarantees that it gains in value as it ages, but the odds of a painting outlasting a wine are greater than you may think. Still, the ability to age is not in itself a definition of art.

Leave a Reply