Melbourne Writers Festival: Wine as Art

September 25, 2014

A tasty Melbourne Writer’s Festival event, Thinking & Drinking: Australian Fine Dining saw wine writer Andrea Frost join a panel with vegetarian blogger Cindy Hauser and the author of Salad Days Ronnie Scott to discuss the ethics of contemporary fine dining in Australia.  Amongst discussions of food guilt, consumer morals and the value of food writing, the panelists gave their opinions on the clash of fuel and art in food, where our resources for survival have become symbols of expression and imagination.  This conversation became increasingly complex when considering wine: not quite a fuel, but is it an art?

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A Hesitant Consumer

It’s a sensation common to every wine drinker: walking into a bottle shop and staring blankly at the shelves, bewildered.  Purchasing wine is intimidating; we distrust our ability to pick the right wine for the right setting and fear rejection for the wrong choice (Olsen).  To soothe this stress, marketers have tried to educate consumers on the technical aspects of wine tasting and production. Historically this seems logical – since its accidental invention in Georgia in 6000 BC, connoisseurs have evaluated wine on technical attributes from tasting notes to temperatures, timeframes and farming methods.  Yet such an approach seems to contradict the drivers behind wine’s worldwide domination.  Just listen to Jeff Buckley’s “Lilac Wine”, read Ernest Hemingway’s wine-washed A Moveable Feast or look at Picasso’s Bottle of Wine: the value of wine is the joy of drinking, the heady pleasures and sometimes the blissful oblivion, the nexus of wine and emotion, the idea of wine as enjoyable art.

Image: Bottle of Wine by Pablo Picasso

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The Spectrum of Art

Art is defined as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power”.  Where food is relied on for fuel, wine’s greatest virtue is in its aesthetic value.  Seeing wine in such a way makes space for a spectrum of appreciation.  But how does this help the plight of the punter?

Wine, as a luxury category, maintains strong associations with high art, to being the Michelangelos and Da Vincis of beverages.  This also perpetuates a focus on technical attributes that only hold meaning for connoisseurs or Oenophiles, for those with extensive experience and knowledge.  It’s about the brushstrokes rather than the public appeal.  In turn, this fails to praise the sociality and ritual of wine as something to be freely enjoyed, something open to the punter.  This is where the tension arises.

But art also sits along a spectrum.  For instance, art in Australia has recently championed its grassroots appeal – think Melbourne Now and White Night – acknowledging the distinction between high art and low art, between Da Vincis and Banksys.  Wine can be pinned along a similar spectrum: if you’re not going to understand the technical masterpiece, why not opt for the unknown local artist?

Seeing wine along such a spectrum can change consumer perspectives in the category so that walking into a bottle shop isn’t so intimidating.  It allows us to recognize that knowing the technical aspects of a wine doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it, just like knowing the artistic techniques of a painting doesn’t mean you’ll like it.  It’s about the subjective emotional power that a particular taste may hold; the context, the experience, the aesthetics.  It recognises that a $20 wine with great company and upbeat music may be infinitely more valuable than a $120 wine with unpleasant company and unappealing music.  In fact, background music alone has been shown to have a significant effect on the taste of wine (North), and this makes wine “inherently inevaluable” (Hsee); the value is in the context, not the price tag.

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But what does it mean, Sherlock?

This is an example of finding potential in a narrative that goes against category aspirations.  Wine always tries to aspire upwards, relying on a discourse of sophistication, elegance, class and – let’s admit it – a little bit of snobbery.  But let’s compare this to beer, usually consumed alongside wine.  Beer is based on context, sociality, playfulness and informality.  What would be the effect if wine adopted codes from beer, embraced the values of the accessible art movement, became more humble and aspired downwards?


Amelia is a new addition to The Lab team and has written articles for Broadsheet, Milk Bar Mag, Cleaver and Culinarian (a publication she established with friends whilst living in New York).