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02.24.2011

A Short Conversation Between Wine Writers About Wine as Art. Or Not.

If there's one thing that Twitter is good for, it's having meta conversations quietly in a room full of people talking about something else. Yesterday I posted Gerald Asher's keynote speech to the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. Towards the end of that speech he said something which sparked a conversation between a few of us attendees on Twitter.

He made the statement: "I'm not very sympathetic to the world of wine criticism. It's not like music criticism, or any of the arts" in response to my question about whether he distinguished wine writing and wine criticism.

The resulting silent conversation on Twitter was great (if I do say so myself) and reminded me of a little 21st Century virtual version of the group interviews/discussions that Harper's Monthly occasionally publishes, where they get a bunch of really interesting people in a room and get them to talk about some topic.

Now I don't pretend that the players involved here represent luminaries of any kind, nor do I entirely know whether you'll find the conversation as interesting as I did, but I went to the effort of extracting it from Twitter and cleaning it up a bit for your reading pleasure.

For your reference, the primary folks involved are myself; Howard Goldberg, a wine writer for the New York Times; and Bruce Schoenfeld, the food and wine columnist for Travel and Leisure Magazine. We are joined partway through the conversation by Lenn Thompson, fellow wine blogger at the New York Cork Report, and Amy Cleary, blogger and marketing director at U.C. Press, chimes in at one point as well.

Enjoy.

Howard G. Goldberg: I disagree with Gerald. Wine criticism and music criticism, addressing flowing, elusive, unreproducible phenomena, are parallel.

Alder Yarrow: I also disagree with Gerald, on that point. I think there are strong parallels between wine criticism and art criticism

Howard G. Goldberg: I've shared that idea but stumbled on a key element: You can return to the changeless artwork to say more. But never the wine.

Alder Yarrow: Well put, but I think they share a unique challenge: translating a wordless emotional experience into words, insufficiently

Bruce Schoenfeld: And also, art plays a vastly different role in life than wine, don't you think? Though they share elements.

Howard G. Goldberg: Exactly. There's an art of winemaking. The result can be artful. But wine itself is not art.

Alder Yarrow: Absolutely, wine is not art. Wine becomes part of our bodies, it is food. Art is always outside us.

Bruce Schoenfeld: But 99% of wines are just something to drink. No greater ambition is sought. All art is ambitious.

Alder Yarrow: Hmm, not sure I fully agree with the point about ambition.

Bruce Schoenfeld: Art is attempting to do/say something. Most wines are made like most bread is made. Just a food.

Bruce Schoenfeld: I agree w/ Alder. Art is outside us. Wine is something we ingest, and think about or not.

Howard G. Goldberg: Agreed, Bruce, just a food. But I feel that some vintners strive to make philosophical statements.

Lenn Thompson: Don't agree that all art fits the "attempts to do/say something" characterization.

Alder Yarrow: Some kinds of art can simply be about evoking something, some pleasure. Not narrative.

Lenn Thompson: I think that truly great art (as with wine) does get inside us, moves us.

Howard G. Goldberg: I find that great wine moves me considerably. Any critic who has a prostate feels that way.

Bruce Schoenfeld: But the artist aspires to evoke the pleasure. It's purposeful. That distinguishes art from nature.

Lenn Thompson: Winemaking is purposeful. It doesn't happen on its own. Purpose varies of course.

Alder Yarrow: Agreed. Intention may distinguish art from nature, but it doesn't distinguish art from wine.

Bruce Schoenfeld: It does! Art is an attempt to create emotion + can be judged by that standard. Most wine can't.

Lenn Thompson: Right, Alder. Wine is not nature.

Howard G. Goldberg: "Wine is not nature" is a position likely to invite a hand grenade from "natural-wine" champions.

Lenn Thompson: All wine creates an emotion.

Amy Cleary: Really? All wine? I'd say good or even interesting wine. But not all.

Bruce Schoenfeld: NOT all wine creates an emotion in most people. Very few do. And that's just fine with them.

Alder Yarrow: But the critics job is to perceive things that many consumers don't notice, right?

Bruce Schoenfeld: A wine WRITER's job is to use wine to tell stories + stories to explain wine. Not sure what a wine critic does.

Howard G. Goldberg: Critics can't know fully what consumers notice or don't. Their duty is to discover what they haven't noticed.

Bruce Schoenfeld: In art, yes. But in wine, I'd say that isn't the critic's job. Which circles me back around to my 1st comment.

* * *

How about continuing the conversation. What do you think?

Comments (28)

Millie wrote:
02.24.11 at 9:20 PM

Wine is indeed food, but to confine it as just food would be no better than saying "music is just noise." Art as I define it is anything that is created with a purpose to reflect aspects of humanity or society and an intent to evoke emotion through sensual interpretation of the work.

Wines, then, can be judged by the standard Shoenfeld mentioned. Even if a wine doesn't give you an epiphany moment, you're still moved by it. You may finish a glass of Crane Lake Malbec and say "wow that sucked," but disappointment is still an emotion. It may not be an emotion you want to feel when tasting a wine or looking at a painting, but it doesn't discredit the piece as art. And the intent of that Malbec may solely be to make money, but it was created with a purpose, and it reflects many things about society including man's desire for riches and the degradation of quality associated with mass-production, while also its acceptance by certain aspects of the American palate reflects much about the history of wine and food in this country.

Vintners who aspire to make the best wine may be reflecting solely man's desire to perfectly understand and perhaps even harness nature, but that still has a lot to say about humanity. Even nature photography succumbs to man's ideals of what is compositionally or colorfully beautiful. Wine may never be able to make a commentary on the horrors of war or question societies taboos of sexuality, but it is still art.

John wrote:
02.24.11 at 9:32 PM

I think of wine on the C side of Arts and Crafts. There are a lot of similar things where artistry may be invested in the object, but it's first and foremost some kind of object with utility.

K J Karl wrote:
02.25.11 at 4:51 AM

This was fascinating, especially since I highly respect all of the participants. Thank you for sharing.

Tom wrote:
02.25.11 at 5:51 AM

I've tried my hand at music reviews and wine reviews and personally I approach them differently. Music (specifically classical concerts and opera) can take the listener to an emotional place -- wine can too, but in my experience it's back to the experience when the person first tasted a particular wine like that one. It's not quite the same thing. Plus there's a consumer element to wine writing that you don't get in art or music criticism; in the end you're trying to get people to buy the wine and drink it. Music reviews often take place after the fact and people can't go see that concert again.

jim silver wrote:
02.25.11 at 6:41 AM

I just wanted to echo K J K with the same sentiments...an outstanding set of voices speaking at a high level (or typing...)

For me, wine is not art, but it does elicit emotions...those wines that fail to do that I hope to avoid.

And Gerald Asher is giant - with H. Johnson, a titan of wine writing.

Bill in Chicago wrote:
02.25.11 at 8:03 AM

Is wine art? What is art? This is an ageless debate going back to pre Plato. Is a wine artful or art itself? The answer will always be with the wine drinker, not the wine maker. And a perfect question to ponder with a friend as the next cork pops. For me wine consumption can be food or it can be much more. I can drink wine to cure my thirst or I can enjoy a bottle of wine as art, like a flash mob or performance art – just a fleeting moment of enjoyment. So wine is art when I want it to be so, at least for me.

Kabiu wrote:
02.25.11 at 8:31 AM

To the extent that wine-makers are artists, wine is by definition art. Are the folks who create the images hung over hotel beds artists? You may not appreciate their craft, choices, or seek their work, but they create and synthesize which is my definition of art.

Not all that is created amazes me. I don't go to Target to acquire sculpture or framed art (in fact, I don't go to Target much at all, frankly, since they entered the political arena) but many people do.

There are bulk-created wines, just as there is bulk art. Some is more impressive, while some wine-makers are in the business of RE-producing a mass-consumed commodity via a less-creative process. The art at yellowtail is in replicating what appeals to many. The fruit of the winemakers' labor at Kistler, Graziano, Sea Smoke, Banfi, etc., is fine art, more worthy of exploring, and savoring in my opinion (and, perhaps, yours.)

But in the end, it's not a black and white sort of yes/no question, the answer spreads along continuum: the value of art is in the eye of the beholder, and what is created can usually be considered more artful in inverse proportion to the amount it is RE-produced, because reproduction adds distance - in the form of technicians or production lines - between the artist and the final product.

Sao Anash wrote:
02.25.11 at 9:07 AM

I found this really fascinating. Thanks for posting.

Carlos Marques wrote:
02.25.11 at 10:15 AM

Interesting subject. There's a lot on that matter in Terry's Theise book ("Reading Between the Wines", specially on how to really perceive and "judge" wine.

Weston wrote:
02.25.11 at 11:04 AM

Yes

Art tries to create an emotion, wine and food can be emotional, we are emotional creatures, we are affect by a smell, a touch, a look. The smell of a wine can bring is back to a small.

Remember in the movie Ratatouille, the big bad critic eats the dish and his mind has a flashback of his childhood, that scene was probably one of the best scenes in a movie so simple yet I've had that experience.

Give two different winemakers the same fruit, and the wines will both taste different, give two painters the same paint and tell him to pain a vineyard scene they will both be different.

02.25.11 at 12:01 PM

How did that prostate get in there?

Rita wrote:
02.25.11 at 12:10 PM

This was fascinating. An almost philosophical debate between so many well-respected individuals in the wine world, on twitter, no less. I love it.

Most of what has drawn me to wine, and to aspire to be a decent wine blogger, is the fact that I view wine as a sort of art. I don't know if I can compare the consumption of a bottle of wine to a trip to the Louvre, but the feelings within me ARE similar.

Thank you for sharing!

Sidrah wrote:
02.25.11 at 3:49 PM

I would say we are swirling around the difference between ART and art: ART invokes, provokes social movement, consideration, action or reaction. It is a statement for or against the present moment and the cultural environs in process and meant to affect the person experiencing the work within the context of it's existence. art is pretty to look at; it makes me feel at ease, it brings me joy, it lightens my day when I come home from work and lay my eyes upon it. A glass of wine may have the same effect art, but there are, I would argue... wines and WINES. Instead of the WINES affecting the individual they affect the INDUSTRY. Just as Rothkos and Duchamps affected the ART industry.

Big or little much heart goes into the creation of some wines/WINES, while much intent to make $$$ goes into others. Perhaps that balance of intention is really what would settle the overall question.

Jason Cohen wrote:
02.25.11 at 5:35 PM

Wine is most assuredly an art. Every art form has its detractors (Roger Ebert refuses to acknowledge video games because they're user-directed; everybody under 30 hates opera because it's incomprehensible). Art is art whether it can be revisited (like a painting or novel) or not (like a vintage of a particular wine, or the run of a certain play). It's still art as long as it can - in some cases - elicit that emotional response.

As long as the medium has that POTENTIAL, it's an art, as far as I'm concerned. Yes, there are tons of crappy wines...but has anyone been to the movies lately?

vinesnob wrote:
02.25.11 at 5:59 PM

If wine is art then what do we call Fred Franzia?

02.25.11 at 6:32 PM

Alder, please don't jump all over me for this ...

I wish I had taken part in this interesting conversation. But I consciously chose not to bring my computer to the meeting hall because I wanted to give my undivided attention to the live conversation. Am I just an outdated, one-track-mind guy? Or is it fair for me to feel short-changed on something that could have been part of the event we attended?

And most importantly, do you feel you can give your best to an event while live tweeting it?

Alder Yarrow wrote:
02.25.11 at 9:26 PM

Blake,

No worries. Not going to jump down your throat. It's a reasonable question. The answer: your choice of not bringing your computer definitely meant you did not participate in a whole aspect of the session that we were in. It was a public conversation, albeit a silent one, and the only thing stopping you from participating was a keyboard and internet access.

As for "giving my best" to the event, well, you have to remember that participating in this conversation involved the following effort: typing about 5 sentences, and reading about 8 more.

Randy Fuller wrote:
02.26.11 at 8:27 AM

Thanks, Alder, for making the effort to break out this conversation. It's a great read! I picked up bits and pieces of it as it was happening, and I'm glad I had a chance to see it all this way.

Lisa Mattson wrote:
02.26.11 at 3:46 PM

Fascinating indeed. Thanks for posting and for sharing in your Facebook feed.

Peter wrote:
02.26.11 at 5:30 PM

I agree with Alder on most of this one. Wine and Art criticism are parallel. Wine can be very ambitious - be it for profit, or to sing some song that enchants certain consumers.

However to disagree, I think wine can be art. Speaking very concretely wine is not art. But wine is art, in the sense that it represents a fine human skill applied to a natural process. No question at all Wine is Art. It may be science as well, but it represents a culmination of nature, science and art.

02.26.11 at 6:50 PM

If I HAD had my computer with me, I might have made this comment:

Wine is craft, not art. And I think wine criticism is craft criticism, not art criticism. They're close enough to be compared, but they are not the same.

02.27.11 at 10:32 PM

Perhaps performance art? For those that are experiencing it, potentially mind blowing, but if you're not 'in the room' possibly impossible to translate.

02.28.11 at 7:52 AM

As multiple comments have shown, different definitions of "art" can lead to wine being art, or not art, or sometimes art. I think we need to be clear about what definition we are using, and acknowledge that there isn't a "right" definition of art, but rather the definition we choose determines what we are trying to claim about wine.

The OED provides a good starting place.

Part of the confusion is that "art" often refers to "craft" and yet many commenters in this thread distinguish the two. If we use this definition, winemaking is clearly art. I'm not sure we can say that wine itself is art, according to this definition:

3.b) A practical pursuit or trade of a skilled nature, a craft; an activity that can be achieved or mastered by the application of specialist skills; (also) any one of the useful arts (see sense 4b). Cf.

Another definition relies on the application of aesthetic taste (not to be confused with physiological taste). By this definition winemaking is clearly art, though again, there is the question of wine itself:

7) Any of various pursuits or occupations in which creative or imaginative skill is applied according to aesthetic principles (formerly often defined in terms of ‘taste’ (taste n.1 8)); (in pl. with the, sometimes personified) the various branches of creative activity, as painting, sculpture, music, literature, dance, drama, oratory, etc.

Here is the first definition that echoes what many commenters seem to be using:

8.a) The expression or application of creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting, drawing, or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

This definition requires intent ("to be appreciated..."). By this definition, some wine is clearly art, but as several people (Schoenfeld, Cleary, Sidrah) have pointed out, not all wine creates emotion. Cohen counters that the definition refers to the potential, or intent to evoke emotion, not the success or failure in doing so. One might argue that all wine attempts to create emotion, just as all food label art attempts to create emotion, though the emotion might be small, fleeting, humble. Is the label on a soup can different than a Monet? Undoubtedly. Is it in a different category entirely, or merely a different place along a continuum? (think: Andy Warhol).

Some people allude to a visual-centric definition of art. Alder and Schoenfeld point out that art is outside us, but wine we ingest. Well, we hear music - it enters our ear canals, permeates our bodies, tickles the hair cells in our inner ear, and we actively dissect sounds into Fourier-transforms when we listen. If we are going to let the manner of perceiving determine what is and is not art, then the discussion is simple: If art is only visual, then wine is not art. If art is visual and aural but not gustatory, then wine is not art. Have we really said anything significant about wine?

More interesting is whether wine could be classified as "Fine Art", which is the term I believe Sidrah, Millie, and Schoenfeld are alluding to:


fine art-n:

1) In pl., the arts which are concerned with ‘the beautiful’, or which appeal to the faculty of [aesthetic] taste; in the widest use including poetry, eloquence, music, etc., but often applied in a more restricted sense to the arts of design, as painting, sculpture, and architecture. Hence in sing. one of these arts; also transf. an art or employment requiring refined and subtle skill comparable to that required in the practice of ‘the fine arts’.

If you use the restricted sense, then wine clearly isn't fine art. By the more liberal definition, it forces us to ask: Does wine have the potential to evoke the same depth of emotional impact and sense of beauty as the other fine arts? I have to say yes.

------

I don't see any particular definition as "right" or "better." Nor do I see any disagreements between the commenters on the subject of wine itself (save perhaps the question of whether all wine creates some degree of emotion). I would love to hear more from W. Blake Gray on the topic of wine as a craft, but not an art. Specifically I would like to know what this distinction means for the way we think about wine, or criticize wine. Other commenters seem to struggling with wine's relative importance or nobility compared to music, literature, or visual art. To which I would ask: What is a better measure of the importance of a genre: whether it fits certain definitions of "art" or the depth of impact it makes on its most ardent enthusiasts. By the latter measure (as shown by this blog, this article, and this post), wine is pretty damn important.

sondra wrote:
02.28.11 at 8:34 AM

Wine is food, wine is art, winemaking is art and science. Wine writing/criticism can also be art, a bit of science, and a whole lot of subjective impressions, just like art criticism.

From my unique perspective as someone who has photographed hundreds of wines through the microscope, there is no question that wine itself is art. And if you have ever looked at images from inside the body, inside our food, those too are art. Perhaps we could use the word BEAUTY for wine.

In the end, each wine can be seen and experienced very differently. Some are created with an artistic hand, some with the tools of technology, some who knows... Wine is certainly a gift to writers who want to explore one of their passions and for the rest of us, a gift of life.

Lyman Dally wrote:
02.28.11 at 2:43 PM

As an enjoyer of wine and a painter of wine-oriented art I second whomever mentioned wine and art as "craft". A poorly made wine is similar to a poorly made image; some may like either, but the quality is not there. Both the artisan and the "product" benefit from having been made well!

Jason Cohen wrote:
02.28.11 at 3:48 PM

Rajiv,

I think you identified what may well be the central issue in this discussion: the fact that all of us are coming to the table with different definitions of what constitutes an "art" versus a "craft."

Personally, I've never seen the distinction between "art" and "craft" as being very useful. Any craft, when taken to a certain level of expertise, may just as easily be called art; I really dislike the idea that functionality somehow disqualifies a genre or medium from consideration as such.

My favorite example is a furniture donation we received at my workplace for an auction we were holding. It was a STUNNING bench/stool made entirely from a walnut tree (which the creator had felled himself, and then assembled without the use of any metal).

I think it's fair to say that, on the whole, furniture-making is presumed to be more craft than art; stools are clearly meant to be sat on. But when I walked into the office one day and there were no seats left but that wonderful walnut stool, I didn't even CONSIDER using it as a stool, and was legitimately shocked when my boss told me it would be okay.

It was still a work of art, as far as I'm concerned; it just happened to be an excellent piece of craftsmanship, too. So while an "art" and a "craft" aren't necessarily the same, I feel there's definitely room for them to overlap.

Sondra:

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know"

Merrill Witt wrote:
02.28.11 at 6:20 PM

I've come to writing about wine from a background in art history. I'm often struck by the parallels between great art and great wine. Recently I came across this quote from James Suckling about Michel Rolland, who is a consultant winemaker to many of the top wineries in the world: “Rolland’s blending skill is phenomenal… It’s not so much that he is better than other top tasters at evaluating the quality of a wine, or that he knows more tricks as a veteran winemaker. Where he shines is in his ability to taste different lots of wine in a winery and then decide which ones work best together to make a great bottle.”

Sounds like an artist to me. Of course, Rolland backs his palate with a good deal of scientific analysis and works closely with wineries to get the 'raw material' right. But great winemakers, like great artists, know how to weave all the elements together to create something sublime!

Alan wrote:
03.01.11 at 12:58 PM

Roger Scruton has a great book called "Beauty" that deals with a lot of the issues discussed here.

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