Thursday, January 06, 2011

Portrait of the Artist as a Winemaker

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.


  1. Robert, I really enjoy the perspective you bring. In fact, the term "artisan" in French has very positive connotations; it suggests craftsmanship, and a certain hand-made individuality - and thus many winemakers I know willingly embrace it. Others however continue to stubbornly focus on their winemaking "art" with little or no attention to the commercial realities of the world in which we all live. Fine if you're a person of private means or a trustafarian, but trickier if you have a number of mouths to feed. I salute those who combine the two: who create interesting, exciting, soulful wines that folk actually want to buy... and which have a valid commercial proposition. I look forward to seeing you again in 2011. Best wishes, bonne année, Louise Hurren

  2. Another example of why it is a shame that Meiningers has no online presence - an interesting question worthy of debate.

    I started a long reply but must consider the argument more first (got tied in knots - expertly tied, hand-made and organically grown ones, of course).

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. As a winemaker, I've always hated the "art vs. science" debate and argued that winemaking was a craft.

    Just like making a beautiful pot, you need the artistic flair to make it aesthetically pleasing, but also the technical knowledge of the limitations and scope of the material you're working with.

    And just like being a potter, you won't learn your craft from a book but from years of experience that give a "feel" to your hands.

  4. Thanks Louise for a characteristically thoughtful response. The heart of the matter, to my mind, lies in separating individuality from consistency. The maker of a non-vintage Champagne would claim to offer both - in possibly industrial quantities. Most still wine producers confuse the unarguable benefit of having an individual character ('house style') with the - to most consumers - more questionable desirability of each vintage having a flavour of its own.

  5. Thanks Karina. I agree 100% re the benefit of experience - especially the experience of knowing how a vineyard behaves in different climatic conditions. Then the question lies in deciding whether to try to iron out those differences - for the average consumer - or highlight them interestingly and pleasurably for the enthusiast.

  6. How do you classify a perfume creator?
    And what about parenthood? The winemakers I met, the trustworthy ones, are the ones that live with their vines, raise them, educate them and love them. Then they harvest and create something from the juice. And when you talk to them they are always willing to explain you, and you can see the passion in their eyes. And there's always an answer, and always a reason. I wouldn't even try to pigeonhole them anyway, but if I have to they are talented artisans to me more than artists probably because their passion and love for what they do are bigger than their ego.
    Very interesting post, thanks for bringing the subject out!

  7. It seems what you have highlighted is a difference in attitude, with consistency and engaging with the consumers key points.

    A winemaker can freely choose to think of him/herself as an artist or artisan, but commercial reality will deliver the verdict on the sustainability of their chosen path.

    I wish them both success!

  8. I am a winemaker, or as I often say, I make wine for a living and have often used the chair analogy in justifying my view of winemaking as craft. There is an expected function, or profile if you prefer, to wine, even if it is spoiled grape juice. There are many degrees and directions that spoilage can take (sorry if this sounds irreverent), but in the end, the winemaker should not have to do too much explaining in order that the drinker understand that what he or she has in the glass is wine. Though it is perfectly fine for someone to view a chair and say "Gosh, I've never seen on quite like that!", it should still be obvious that it is a chair and that it should do what a chair is expected to do. With respect to consistency across vintages, I'd say it depends on the scale on which one is working. Champagne is a great case in point: The Grande Marques have always sought consistency within their house style, but the rise and acceptance of small production grower Champagnes shows that there is room for individuality, too.

    Cheers to a great post!

    Kevin Hamel

  9. Thanks Kevin. We seem to be in pretty close agreement on this..!

  10. It is a bit of a paradox that it is the artisan, rather than an artist who is likely to produce the far more interesting wine. An artisan, who regards his work as expressing the latent potential of the vineyard site may produce a vin de terroir, a reflection of Nature's intelligence and complexity, whereas the artist, producing a vin d'effort, must rely upon his own more limited imagination.

  11. Thanks Randall. Maybe that has more to do with would-be artists. (True artists hopefully having a bit more imagination)...

  12. well, just meake sure youre enjoying what you do, writing and wine...that sounds so relaxing that i think can help a lot with Women's Health

  13. A very good question, but one I think you answer when you describe a chef vs a cook. Both are as you say honourable and wonderful pursuits, each with their time and place, each with their price tag.
    However, I'd like to turn the question around a bit: what should consumers and critics look for in wine? Truth or Beauty?

    1. Beauty is famously in the eye of the beholder. Truth should be more of an absolute; but often it's not. But even the most inventive chef still has to offer consistency of a kind. Few could get away with the waywardness of many "artists". Just imagine a restaurant offering the equivalent of a blank canvas of 4 minutes & 33 seconds of silence. An artist (my father was one) can say, this is something I knocked off when I had a bit of a hangover; what do you think? Chef's don't get much applause for that. We don't accept waiters saying "Sorry, your steak's tough, but the meat wasn't very good at the market today". But we are expected to welcome (or ateast accept) the "truth" of a green weedy wine from a cold, rainy vintage.