Artful Intervention: Is there a sweet spot?

A few weeks ago I was privileged to be asked to speak on wine and art at a soirée hosted by one of the most dynamic patrons of the New Zealand art world.  It was a fascinating topic to research.  I come from a wine technologist background, so it goes without saying that I’m a total geek when it comes to the scientific aspects of winemaking.  But I’ll admit the question of whether wine is art wasn’t something I’d spent a lot of time pondering.

There was the mandatory googling of definitions of art (conclusion: there isn’t one – hooray!) the fossicking through historic papers debating the topic of what is and isn’t art, and of course, the mulling over where wine fits into this construct.

I’ll spare you the intellectual pontificating, but suffice to say that based on the majority of definitions (creativity, expressing a feeling, eliciting a feeling in the viewer, communicating an idea), wine itself can very much be considered art.

But what about the process of creation?  If an artist throws paint at a canvas and allows it to dribble where it will, it’s still art right? But does anyone appreciate the result?  Is it more or less artistic in merit than the product of an artist who spends hours mastering the techniques and materials and planning his or her composition?  Does the artistic merit, in fact, boil down to the audience?

These questions got me thinking about the winemaking process and its effect on the resulting wine.

For example, much of the extreme natural wine movement is grounded philosophically in a winemaking approach that relinquishes control of the process to nature and microscopic organisms. Combined with a reluctance to use sulphur dioxide (SO2) – the most important and traditional natural preservative used in winemaking – and the lack of stabilising and filtering, many natural wines ultimately end up tasting of ‘nowhere and everywhere’. That is to say the very sense of place that is so prized in wine is masked by the lack of thoughtful intervention during winemaking.  In this case, though it feels a lot like art (thanks to the colourful personalities, contagious passion and persuasive philosophy), like the paint left to drip and dry on the canvas, the results of natural winemaking can be at best inconsistent, and sometimes down-right ugly (think spritzy and cloudy!)

At the other extreme, where science reigns supreme, winemaking is far more akin to craft than art.  This space is all about commercial bang for buck and as such, wines undergo maximum winemaker intervention in the quest for product consistency and flavours that please the general palate.  The perception that these wines are expressing an idea or a principle is, in most cases, just marketing.  Excessive chemical intervention, high alcohol, additives and processing aids eliminate most traces of the wine’s original personality, reducing it to nothing more than a commodity. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with this space – it turns over-cropped fruit into wholly drinkable (if uninteresting) wine, at an affordable price.

Ironic isn’t it?  The extreme natural and the extreme commercial schools of winemaking are diametrically opposed, yet the wines they produce are often destined to share the same fate; the masking of the sense of time and place that distinguishes them from other wines, and creates the wonderful diversity that wine has been known and loved for throughout the ages.

So is there a winemaking ‘sweet spot’ where both the result and the process can be deemed worthy of the title ‘art’? Perhaps.  For me, it’s where intuition and methodology meet; an approach I call sympathetic winemaking.  At this intersection there is an appreciation of and respect for nature but also an acknowledgement of the essential role of science.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but in sympathetic winemaking the part of the winemaker is more like that of an orchestra conductor.  Conductors must of course have an exceptional understanding of the theory, analysis and composition of music. However, it is the ability to interpret the composition, and to effectively guide each musician towards this vision, that makes a great conductor and a great performance. Similarly, sympathetic winemaking walks the line between methodology and intuition in order deliver the best interpretation of the vintage that nature has bestowed.

Does this approach improve the chances of an artistic result?  Possibly. Didn’t the old masters’ capture something divine and fleeting, which connected both the artist and the appreciator?  But more importantly, this is the place where wine diversity flourishes and where curious wine consumers find an evergreen playground.