Ceci, n’est pas un vin

A couple of years ago, I took my son Julian to see a performance at the Luther Burbank-Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa located right here in Sonoma County. Our seats were on the balcony section so we headed toward the stairway that led up to the upper seating area. Taking the first step I glanced up toward the stairway landing whereupon I saw on the high white wall, artwork consisting of intricate figures made of wire. My gaze panned across the width of the wall where rushing, dancing clusters of human forms spanned across like chattering, gesturing tumbleweeds. The lines of the dark wire and their shadows almost seemed to tremble in the thrum of the crowds making their way through the theater hall. This vision had me stopped in my tracks. Julian cried out, “Mom! C’mon, what are you looking at?” I answered, “This looks like my friend, Pam’s, work or, if it isn’t, someone whose art looks a lot like hers.” I approached the wall and peered at the small placard that read: “Finding Common Ground” Pamela Merory Dernham. “It is Pam’s!” I exclaimed. “Do you remember my friend Pam?” I asked Julian. The man next to me turned to me and asked, “You know the artist?” I smiled with a feeling of astonishment and delight, “I do and I recognized her work”.

I chuckled to myself because Pam and I had just had a philosophical debate about what art is. Not a sweeping intellectual discussion about the nature of art or its role in human society but whether winemaking is an art and whether a winemaker can be considered an artist or not. I proposed that as a winemaker I did not consider myself an artist but, rather, an artisan and that winemaking was my craft. I acknowledged that to make wine and to make it well is a skilled practice in which knowledge and expertise is valuable and that sensitivity and attention to detail and nuance of the medium, in this case grapes, is vital but it wasn’t like creating some kind of masterpiece—it is just a kind of food after all. “Oh, puh-leez, Vanessa” Pam retorted. “You are not some pickle dude in Williamsburg! And we are not talking about food, we’re talking about wine. Not just any old wine, but your wine!” Pam vehemently disagreed with me and insisted that I was an artist. I found this attitude curious coming from a “real” artist. I was not convinced.

I argued that although the wine I make from the grapes we farm on our estate vineyard out on the Sonoma Coast had a certain character it wasn’t like in the way you could easily recognize the vivid colors and energetic brushstrokes of a van Gogh or identify the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “I can name that tune, Tom, in four notes.” Pam countered, “You mean to tell me that one wouldn’t be able to recognize your wine among other wines?” “No!” I blurted and then acquiesced, “uh, okay, well, maybe…” This was an interesting question. I could probably pick out a wine from our vineyard from a reasonable number of other wines but I have trained my palate to have this ability and I know my wines better than just about anybody else. Certainly, I feel that the wines evoke the location in which they are grown, that is to say, they express the terroir of the true West Sonoma Coast and that is a characteristic that many people who know and enjoy wine are able to discern.

But is the pursuit of terroir an artistic expression? It’s not like I am trying to convey some emotion, symbolism, or reality through the wines like the way an artist does in her art. In my mind’s eye, I picture the desolate view of the diner in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or the quiet reverence of Maya Lin’s Vietnam memorial. “I can’t communicate feelings like angst or depression through wine,” I put forward. “Oh, I’ve been depressed by wine when it was bad,” Pam snorted, “and expensive to boot.” “Yeah but it wasn’t the intention of the winemaker to make you feel that way. Gosh, quite the contrary, I imagine!” I exclaimed. “I know, I know. I’m just kidding,” she replied, “but your wines do convey an idea, a process even.” “What do you mean?” I asked, not completely persuaded.

It is true that I do endeavor to convey this sense of place in the wine. This idea that despite the vintage and the winemaking practices (or perhaps because of them) the wines show that the grapes were from our little corner of the Sonoma Coast and not from Napa, nor from the Russian River, Santa Barbara nor Burgundy. My job is to usher these grapes into wine with this notion. Some vintages it is more difficult to find ways to convey this expression because we are just trying to make the best with what little yield Mother Nature gives us that year. Yet, with a vintage like 2012, we had a wonderful yield with such amazing quality that I was blessed with a full palette of wines, all of high caliber, and was really able to pursue the expression of the vineyard to the fullest.

Even with these insights, however, I still had the thought that there was no way a wine could evoke the despair and suffering in Picasso’s Guernica, the passionate romance in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s love sonnets, the joyous elation in Handel’s Hallelujah chorus, or the sorrow in Elgar’s cello concerto. “Well, I don’t feel like an artist,” I sighed. “What is an artist supposed to feel like?” Pam quipped, “kind of fleshy, kind of bony, has a brain and a heart…ergo, a human.” “Ha-ha very funny,’” I stated flatly. “Seriously, why do you do what you do?” she asked.

What an existentialist question to answer! Why do I do what I do? For me making wine is like capturing the journey of a vineyard and its grapes through a season of weather and farming by coordinating a great collaboration of many people’s work and efforts into a tangible form that is set on a family’s dinner table for them to gather around and enjoy in the same way I get pleasure from it. I want to share the place where the grapes are from, the wine’s personal history and how it came to be, and have people join in that journey with me. “Sounds like you’re an artist, babe!” Pam proclaimed, evidently not wanting any more argument from me. Resigned, I puffed an exhale of mild exasperation. She’s not only artistic but tenacious, too; must be a trait of an artist. I did not concede the debate at that time but I knew the moment when I saw her art on the wall at the theater that we indeed were “Finding Common Ground”.

Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.
— Leo Tolstoy, in his essay “What Is Art?”

Recent articles by Vanessa Wong