A column that appears in the September 2010 edition of Meininger's Wine Business International
Are you an artist or an artisan? The question is one that needs to be carefully considered by anyone in almost any kind of business today. The difference
between these two similarly honourable human activities is quite fundamental. Artisans make things like tables, chairs, clocks, glasses and rugs. They may use artistic skills to render these items aesthetically pleasing, or they can adopt utilitarian designs that place function above form. In either case, however, whatever they produce has, to use the modern jargon, to be fit for purpose.
Tables and chairs usually have four legs of equal length because most customers reject wobbly furniture. Another essential quality expected of artisans is consistency. Even when they are blowing glasses by hand, they still have to produce a set of goblets that are almost identical.
Artists march to the beat of a very different drum. Their task is to express themselves and their personal perception of the world around them. An artist might quite legitimately make a chair out of ice cream cones on which no one could actually sit. Or a clock whose hands never move. Crucially, he or she is rarely expected to explain or defend the artworks they have conceived. These are supposed to speak for themselves - if they have something to say — and it is up to viewers to develop our own understanding of them, possibly with a little help from a well-informed critic.
I’d like to suggest that almost every commercial activity can be more or less pigeonholed into one of these categories. Michelin-starred chefs are artists (though they have to maintain a certain measure of consistency); the cooks in most humbler restaurants are, however, artisans. Most of us would prefer a taxi driver to be an artisan; his job, after all, is to get us from one place to another as efficiently a possible. And the same might be said of authors of factual books, whereas novelists and poets are artists. Journalists are allowed the occasional poetic phrase, but they are as obliged to respect the facts of their stories as carpenters are to create chairs that can withstand the weight of an average human being.
Now let’s look at the world of wine. Most winemakers, even when they are at the helm of enterprises turning out tens of thousands of cases of wine, instinctively consider themselves to be artists, and openly reject many of the characteristics associated with artisanship.
Consistency – unless the wine in question is non-vintage Champagne – is usually treated with disdain. Winemakers take pride in the variation between vintages and, in an astonishing number of cases, are still happy to accept the random oxidation and occasionally mouldy character that inevitably accompany the use of natural corks. The very idea of wanting to iron out vintages is dismissed as “industrial”.
When winemakers talk about the need to “educate” consumers about grapes and regions, it is eerily reminiscent of artists’ calls for more art appreciation courses. European winemakers’ reluctance to provide informative back-labels or main labels that reveal the grape variety used to make the wine, or its sweetness, recall a painter refusing to disclose the meaning of his or her “opus one”.
Art and wine classes are obviously a good thing – for people who choose to take them and absorb their contents. But art, for most people, is probably a mass-produced poster that cheers up an empty bit of wall. And wine is a liquid they enjoy drinking without the expenditure of too much thought.
Winemakers who look down on this kind of attitude should perhaps take the time to look around their own homes. How many of the things by which they are surrounded are the work of artists, and how many conform to more artisan rules?
Does the hand-knitted sweater in the cupboard reveal the nature of the fabric from which it has been made and how ir should be washed? Does the single-estate oliveoil come with recommendations of how long it should be kept? Do the covers of the book on the bedside table include a description of the nature of the story within and a few words about the author?
Someone once bluntly said in response to the suggestion that a bottle of wine was an artistic masterpiece, “If I want art, I’ll buy a painting”. Maybe that was going a little too far, but is it too much to ask for winemakers to accept that they might possibly have more in common with a chair maker or a cheese maker than a sculptor.