AN oft-used phrase by wine lovers is “wine is bottled poetry.” But are winemaking and wine appreciation truly creative endeavors? Is wine a beverage that reflects and elicits the best of human creative instincts?
In this week’s column, I’ll use three approaches to address these questions.
Most winemakers consider modern viticulture and enology to be a combination of science and creativity. In his autobiography, “Harvests of Joy,” American wine pioneer Robert Mondavi stated that “making good wine is a skill; fine wine is an art.”
Science is important from the selection and planting of specially selected vine clones to the technicalities of the final bottling process. Every modern large-scale winery has a laboratory that analyzes the wines during every step of winemaking. Smaller wineries typically outsource these scientific and analytical steps.
Science and detailed analysis are used to achieve the desired color, aroma, taste and finish of the wine. The art or creativity in winemaking may be more abstruse, but science and human creativity synergistically coexist in all aspects of winemaking.
Devises are used to measure the brix, PH and TA technical aspects of ripeness of the grapes and the winemaker also picks and tastes the grapes to determine the perfect time to harvest.
Creativity in winemaking continues with the selection of yeast. For all the science involved in selecting from the innumerable range of native and non-native yeasts, the exact yeast to use for fermentation in a specific vintage remains an imperfect science that relies on a healthy dose of creativity.
Many of the winemakers I’ve met have readily admitted that once the science of choosing the yeast is exhausted they often enjoy a glass of wine and rely on intuition. Modern science has unquestionably improved the quality of wines but human inspiration and creativity still play an essential role in making great wines.
Years ago I was invited to an exclusive conference held in the resplendent hills of Abruzzo overlooking the Adriatic Sea. For one week a cross section of wine writers, winemakers, wine buyers and sellers as well as psychologists from around the world drank copious amounts of Italian wines while discussing the psychology of wine purchase.
In other words, what makes consumers in different parts of the globe choose one wine or another? With a reasonable degree of sobriety, we concluded in addition to brands, awards, wine styles and regions, the label of a wine plays an important role.
Wine experts may cringe at the thought, but the decision to purchase a specific wine over another bottle often comes down to the aesthetic appeal of the label.
For purposes of clarity and brevity we can divide the world of wine labels into two categories, namely the traditional and the modern. Traditional labels are mostly based on European designs that honor or celebrate specific regional styles or culture of specific wine regions.
The classic Bordeaux label is a fine example. With the notable exception of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild and a few others, the style of Bordeaux wine labels is rather staid, unchanging and simple. Many simple labels have a drawing of the Chateau and requisite information as stipulated by the appellation control authorities.
The first Mouton vintage with art on the label was the 1924 wine that featured a drawing by French poster artist Jean Carlu. However, the practice wasn’t started on an annual basis until 1945 when Baron Philip de Rothschild decided each vintage of the then second growth Pauillac wine would feature a label designed by a notable artist.
Celebrated artists who have had their work on Mouton labels include Picasso, Miro, Chagall, Dali, Balthus and others. Even Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, has designed a label.
New World producers as well as a growing number of European producers are increasingly using creative designs that stand out on the store shelves.
Brilliant colors and extravagant designs are used to make a label standout. Sometimes icons of the past like Marilyn Monroe are flamboyantly depicted on the labels. In Australia and New Zealand, drawings and paintings of unique indigenous animals are increasingly popular.
The most stunning and beautiful labels may facilitate a first sale but if the wine is dreadful it will definitely be a one-off purchase. With this in mind, I would like to recommend some quality wines with creative labels that will appeal to your artistic sentiments.
Naturally, if money is no object, Mouton-Rothschild is a no brainer, however more budget-conscious buyers should consider the Riber del Duero producer Miros, which features modern Spanish artists on its labels. Miros also happens to make terrific, deeply flavored and distinctive Tempranillo red wines.
Perhaps because I’m a frequent flier, I also fancy the label of Boarding Pass Shiraz, a South Australia wine that as its name denotes has a label designed like a boarding pass with flight details replaced by wine information like varietal, vintage, region, etc.
A final angle on the relationship between wine and creativity I’d like to delve into pertains to drinking. Does drinking wine in fact foster creativity? The list of inspired thinkers who adored wine is indeed long.
Socrates, Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson are just a few great thinkers who extolled the virtues of wines and in particular the ability of fine wines to help elicit creativity and inspired thought.
Some of the greatest writers of the more recent past including Edgar Allen Poe, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce were firm believers that wine and alcohol in general were great liberators of the mind. More contemporary writers like Michael Gelb in his book “Thinking Like Leonardo da Vinci” claim wine is a catalyst for conviviality and creativity.
Gelb further states that Western philosophical and cultural traditions evolved in tune with the sharing of wine, poetry, music and humor. Of course, in Chinese history we have the great poet Li Bai.
Studies at the universities of Illinois and Georgia have examined the relationship between alcohol consumption and creative thinking. These studies site the need for moderation, something Hemingway and Joyce may have taken issue with, but they did find that lessening of inhibitions did help release creative impulses.
Perhaps, it was best put by Hemingway himself when he succinctly said, “write drunk, edit sober.”