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The Wine Exchange

Allen R. Balik, The Wine Exchange: Wine – where art meets science

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: July 24, 2021 series
  • Updated

Whether we look at the role of the winemaker, grower or viticulturalist in the production of wine, it is impossible to delineate where science stops and art begins. The art of winemaking is exhibited in countless ways from vineyard to table, but the scientific foundation is often an overlooked partner.

Perhaps the best way to express the juncture between the artistic and scientific sides of wine is to paraphrase what a prominent winemaker friend once told me. “The art of winemaking is to harness a wine’s complex components into a seamless, harmonious expression where none dominates the other. Yet, it is only through a respect for the science behind winegrowing and winemaking that this goal can be achieved.”

A June 28 posting by “Edible Arts” began with a very opinionated observation that is open to various interpretations. “Many people think wine cannot be art because it lacks the creative vision of painting or the emotional expression of music.” They went on to question this hypothesis by exclaiming, “Such vain attempts to limit what counts as art are likely to fail…[as] the list of media and materials in the production of art is endless.”

Viewpoints on the relationship of art and science in the growing, production and appreciation of wine are widespread in the press with countless studies and opinion pieces featured on a range of related subjects. Some see art as an emotional expression of the painter, composer or musician while others see it as a relationship of the artist to the materials (e.g. paint or sound) and not directly to themselves.

In either case, it is the artist who chooses to communicate her feelings in the most meaningful manner. Yet with winemaking, the final product is not based solely on the winemaker’s personal view of the finished wine, but also what Mother Nature had to offer during the season. So where the “artist” has ultimate control of their work from inception to completion, the winemaker must conceive, adapt and lend his skills throughout the process in an effort to ultimately achieve the style (framed by terroir and vintage) he envisioned.

When looking at the scientific side of wine, we must consider the entire scope of the grape’s journey from vine to bottle. The road begins with root and clonal development and proceeds to propagation and vine growth driven by nutrition. The vine’s metabolism then nurtures bud-break and flowering when photosynthesis steps in to support ripening, veraison (the transfer of energy from the canopy to the grape and marked by its color change) and maturation through harvest.

Science also contributes to many aspects of vinous development in the winery during fermentation and cellar aging to bottling. And most would agree the scientific march continues in the bottle with further aging and into the glass where mouthwatering aromatics and flavors emerge with its exposure to air as they begin to demonstrate the artistic elements of winemaking.

Generally speaking, fine wines that express their terroir-driven sense of place and vintage are more dependent on the winemaker’s artistic approach though somewhat grounded in science. This is best expressed through the blending process that is critical to the expression of any wine’s individual character.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, all wines are blended to some degree even if they are 100 percent varietal and 100 percent from the same vineyard. Thoughtful blending is much like assembling the many pieces of an intricate puzzle before completing the final illustration. Each piece has its place and more importantly must work in combination with all others to present the embodiment of a finished image.

Some people relate the artistic expression of the winemaker to that of a chef. While I see both utilizing art and science to express their individual interpretations, they travel different paths in achieving their conceptual goals. The winemaker is solely dependent on the grape as the base ingredient, whereas a chef has a far broader ingredient selection at his disposal for each preparation.

The chef may be viewed as a “creator” of the dish by marrying compatible and disparate ingredients, whereas the winemaker must, through reliance on enthusiasm, experience and foresight shepherd only the fruit of the vine to express its best character. In the final analysis, both are artists in their own right and both use science wittingly and unwittingly in their respective quests.

As a side note on the relationship of wine and art, there have been several studies by recognized groups and institutions here and abroad relating to the increased enjoyment of wine when listening to music. According to the August 10, 2017 “The Academic Wino” posting, “…very little is known about exactly how or why this behavior occurs. Some research in related fields suggests this wine-music relationship, which is considered a ‘cross-modal correspondence’ could be driven by emotional responses.”

Coming from a scientific background, I fully understand the science while totally appreciating the art of winemaking. Scientific applications have been mastered and passed on from generation to generation by winemaking teams for millennia. But, it’s the winemaker’s artistic side that captures and romanticizes the grape’s journey to your glass.

Within each bottle of wine lies a story of the grape, vineyard, winemaker and all that was going on in the world during the vintage year. And it’s the magnification of the intertwined universes of art and science that makes each story all the more distinctive.

A new dance hall and wine bar has been proposed for downtown Napa. Called Slow Fox Dance Hall, the business plans to open on Main Street in the coming months. Take a peek at some fancy footwork from Slow Fox dancers.

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Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.

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