Why Fine Wine Is Not Fine Art

July 2010
by Tyler Thomas
I have always wanted to be an artist. I greatly admire talent that can morph a concept into visual allegory, or capture a natural detail and evoke emotion and wonder for days on end. I don’t have a favorite medium (OK, maybe sculpture, photography and literature), but I thoroughly enjoy pieces that seem to delve into the depths of human nature. However, early in adulthood I realized this talent evaded me.  It’s OK, you can’t be everything.

Besides, I’ve found winemaking. Winemaking is about as close to artistry as I think I will get without actually producing art. Now, several colleagues and probably more wine admirers would dispute the suggestion that winemaking does not produce art, but I assert that wine cannot merit this distinction. 

Conversely, wine is not merely a science. I have heard it couched time and time again that one must be either the winemaker scientist, or the winemaker artist. You are either romantic and mystical or analytical and technical. 

I wonder if these poles are constructs from our modern culture, which seems to have trouble with nature and mystique coexisting.  Why is it that one cannot be both mystical and analytical or creative and technical? In my time as a coerced scientist (read: graduate student twice over) I found the individuals I worked with to be incredibly creative and imaginative. It recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson’s perspective that “science does not know its debt to imagination.” I would argue that culture does not know science’s debt to imagination. I think this is true in the wine industry as well.

What can grappling with creativity and the structure of scientific knowledge do for the winemaker? Does creative process alone transform wine into art? Churchill once said, “Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd; without ¬innovation, it is a corpse.” 

Emile Peynaud, winemaster extraordinaire at Château Margaux, famously stated, “Tradition is an experiment that worked.” You see, it takes creativity to experiment, but good analytical thinking to provide constraints to the experiment so that in the end, the knowledge gained is useful. Scientific endeavor ought to inform our brushstrokes, not to define what we create, but to aid in achieving the painting. 

Winemaking involves many decisions that require creativity and many decisions that are aided by analytical interpretation of known scientific certainties about our craft. Blended together, you may wade through the variables of winemaking to ensure a beverage of distinction, but also rest at night knowing all the possibilities were exhausted and imaginatively applied.

So is this artistry? Perhaps. Artists do learn techniques and parameters that they creatively push to achieve their goals. There are similarities to the process of creating art and wine. Where winemaking falls short of becoming a work of art is not in the technique as much as in the end goal. 

Wine is for pleasure—and maybe health—but I can think of little else.  Its purpose is limited to evoking one emotive response: gladness.  And while this can be euphoric and remarkable in how it uses four of five senses at once, the limit to wine’s end goal would seem to eliminate it from contending with, say, the high art of Rodin’s “Hand of God.” 

As art is able to do, winemaking is a beautiful craft that can be transcendent, but it falls short of an art form. High art has the potential to evoke so much more than pleasure and gladness. Art can connect with individuals in a range of feelings and concepts. It is a prism that can diversely project the ideas, emotions and humanity of the artist shining into it. 

Wine has artistic qualities, but is it art? Think of a furniture maker who handcrafts furniture. You can choose to go to IKEA, or a craftsman. Both will produce a table from which you can eat. One is engineered on a mass scale, the other created with extra elements of imagination, beauty and care, but both are still tables. 

No matter, I am happy to forego the distinction of artist and simply be Tyler the Winemaker.

Joining Donelan Family Wines in 2008, Tyler Thomas tapped into his French lineage to cultivate an appreciation for wine while obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in botany from Colorado State University. While earning a master of science in viticulture and enology from the University of California, Davis, he discovered a natural affinity for the “art” and science of winemaking. Prior to arriving at Donelan Wines, Thomas was assistant winemaker for four years with Hyde de Villaine Wines of Napa, Calif. Earlier, he gained experience at both domestic and international wineries.

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