Tim James: Wine, art and agriculture

By , 13 November 2023



The Red Vineyard, Vincent van Gogh.

The question of whether wine is an art is one that crops up occasionally, but usually, it seems to me. amongst wine-lovers of a philosophical bent rather than among wine producers themselves. I can only recall one winemaker specifically indicating to me that he thought of himself as an artist.

This topic occurred to me in a negative sort of way when I was thinking how, increasingly, winemakers talk (oh, how they talk) about how all they want to do is express this vineyard or that patch of terroir as transparently as possible, with the minimum of cellar intervention. Perhaps a more wordy extension of the idea that a great wine (and presumably a not-so great one, often enough) is made in the vineyard.

If the vineyard is all, so much the less opportunity for artistry, it occurred to me – and in fact, take the winemaker at their word, and there’s not all that much glory available for those in the cellar, where the producer ambition is to be a mere conduit of the vineyard’s potential. And perhaps that’s why so many of our finest winegrowers (to use a less restrictive word), at least the ones that really mean what they say, seem to spend a great deal more time working amongst the vines than they do in the cellar – where there’s often another highly skilled and carefully trained person, but much less famous – doing the intervention, minimal or otherwise.

At this point of the discussion, however, one learns that minimal is by no means an absolute: there are in fact myriad small and large decisions to be taken in the cellar at all points of a wine’s elevage – even if some of them are decisions to avoid doing something or other. “Minimal” means, really, as few inputs as possible and none that are going to significantly affect the aroma and flavour and chemistry of the wine – though texture is perhaps another matter.

Artistry, though? I can’t see it. Craft, perhaps – but the line between craft and art is admittedly not always easy to draw in most fields of human creativity. Craft and, maybe even more, science; in fact, the best winemakers seem to have a fine understanding of the chemistry behind what they’re doing.

Science is not for all, however. Take the great Burgundian vigneronne, Lalou Bise Leroy (cited in an interesting online article I found about wine and art, with a whole lot of interesting quotations from winemakers). She says: “Wine is a work of art, winemakers are craftsmen. We don’t make the wine…. The interaction between the winemaker and the vine is essential”. So far so good, and that’s the good-sense bit in a combination of sense and nonsense, but Lalou is a devotee of such stuff as astrology and biodynamics, and the inside bit of her quotation is: “The vine is the artist but also an animal. Wine producers are craftsmen and must really apply themselves to make wine happy and stress-free.”  That might all appeal to you and seem meaningful; it doesn’t to me.

While I’m happy to unthinkingly use aesthetic categories, like beauty and harmony, for wine, I’ve only once tried delving deeper into the subject, in a 2016 article called “Wine, kitsch and the avant-garde”, for World of Fine Wine. (I see it’s available online, uncredited, if you might be interested, though I must warn you that Eben Sadie told me he’d started it three times and wasn’t able to get far.).

I started that article by saying that “If wine is not art in the way that, say, painting, music, and poetry are art, it thrives somewhere in fine art’s hinterland.” And I’m now, rereading it, sufficiently content with my closing paragraph, which includes the following: “Wine is not art but agriculture — that is, rooted in the infinite variety that plant, soil, slope, and sun can produce in conjunction with human effort and ingenuity. Merely that — but what could be more profound? To claim that wine is art is primarily to protest at how much of it has been turned away from agriculture into industry, commodified. Nonetheless, wine’s distance from art is not great, and it has qualities and aspects in common with art.”

I do think that the crying up of terroir and the stress on “minimal intervention” too much downplays the role of the winemaker, much as the previously dominant hero-worship of the winemaker (seldom the viticulturist) overstressed their role. What is obvious to me is that some winemakers are much better than others (in, ok, expressing the terroir). And a few of them seem to have a something that transcends craftsmanship. I remember in the early years of Chris Alheit’s winemaking thinking that perhaps for the first time I was convinced by the idea of a magical touch in the human hand guiding a wine from vine to bottle – something that went beyond science and the infinite taking of pains. But the idea of art doesn’t help, especially as it’s ever-harder to have a coherent and convincing idea of what that damned word means in any application at all.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.
  • For an argument that wine can indeed be art offered by editor Christian Eedes, see here.


1 comment(s)

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    Ronell Wiid | 17 November 2023

    Hi Tim. Thank You for delving into the whole package that is a finished bottle of wine. The winemaker has a rather big role to play in guiding the process of grapes to wine to maturation to blending to bottle. However,there is a team of roleplayers ,that starts at the choice of site,rootstock,clone,growing condition and vineyard care given, that is intrinsically part of the bottled product . We are craftsmen that takes allready NOT blank canvases or paper and fine tune this to hopefully not dissapoint the eventual appraiser. And let us be humble about our role ,allways .

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