Creativity in Winemaking — Intuition and its Empirical Foundation

“Intuition is no miracle; it is a spark that will fly once a large enough charge of knowledge, experiments, thought, and meditation has been built up.”

- Edmond Roudnitska

With winemaking and all of the other household arts it is wise to first distinguish between uppercase Art and lowercase art. Like cooking and brewing winemaking falls firmly into the small “a” art category. Creativity is of course involved in both types as is a keen focus on the aesthetic aspects of perception. However, the creation of Art is the desire to escape the permanently unstable equilibrium of the aesthetic life as a famous critic once phrased it. This longing for transcendence is one of the primary motive forces of both Art and religion, and thus by extension of life itself. We yearn to escape from ordinary time and space. Our imaginations desire to travel beyond this world and beyond this life. Religion is a clear manifestation of this urge in daily life. So too is partaking in the wide range of substances that change our state of mind from mild and soothing wine itself up through to the wild effects of psychedelics. Almost all forms of Art deal with this basic human need which arises out of our self-conscious awareness of our own mortality.

We wish to be something beyond merely mortal and temporal beings. With Art there is also the possibility that we may leave something tangible behind besides the memory of our self. With wine the transcendence of Art is not possible. Nor is the relative permanence of Art possible, because wine exists in a constant dynamic of development and decay much like the biological life of humans. Wine is not and can never be Art. In some ways it functions better as a metaphor for life. The only transcendence available in wine is in its ability to chemically transform the mind and heart. Also, even more so than ourselves wine is short lived. It is rare for a wine to stay vital for more than 20 years,

Winemaking is more like impressionism than like classical art. Classical art seeks for a reality that does not change. It portrays a structure with a precision similar to and congruent with our visual perception.[1] For this reason representational painting was traditionally considered the art of arts. Wine on the other hand does not lend itself to a visionary clarity. It is more like listening to the strains of barely heard music. Wine is ever ephemeral always changing in the light of how it is perceived — always an interpretation never a conclusion.[2]

Intuitive thinking is an essential skill needed for creating fine wine. Intuition is not an inherited characteristic. True intuition can only be developed by a diet rich in empiricism. Without deep wells of empiric knowledge intuition is not possible. Empiricism is an approach to knowledge based on observation and experience. It is a way of discovering and testing technique. It is both method and access to tools. This type of thinking has the reputation of being dry, practical, and skeptical. While it is not naturally associated with creativity it does not preclude it. In my view it supports creativity. One way of thinking about empiricism’s relationship to creativity is to think of it as the grammar and vocabulary that underlies the poetry.[3] It provides the materials from which the creation will arise. Like grammar empiricism establishes a common agreement about the rules used for communication. What you communicate is up to you. How you communicate makes the difference between speech and nonsense. It is not so much what you do but rather how you are doing it that has the greatest impact. Without tried and tested means and methods the likely result of work is not creation, but rather chaos.

Intuition is essential for the creation of fine wine. Intuition is widely misunderstood as a concept and viewed with suspicion by many. It is often thought of as gut thinking — as if it were going on somewhere besides the mind. People associate it with guesswork, but its formal definition precludes guessing — “the faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.”

The reason that confidence in intuitive decision making is so critical in winemaking is that the number of variables is too vast in winegrowing to think your way through in a logical or systematic way. Hundreds of decisions must be made during the creation each wine. The gestation period for wine is long. If you attempt to create logically you will be stymied and paralyzed by the complexity of the paths leading out from any given decision. No algorithm will ever replace the winemaker’s intuition. Over the years I have been asked why I recommended one procedure over another, or how I reached a conclusion. Invariably I have had to respond, “It would take too long to explain — literally years. You would have to have made countless wines yourself to understand.” Or even more honestly, “I can’t tell you why this is the right answer as I don’t even have a specific explanation for myself. But even lacking a specific reason why, I am also at the same time confidant that it is a correct decision.” This is the purpose of intuition — to answer questions that are too complex to explicate the thought processes involved.

Examining some examples of aesthetic decisions in day to day life may help illustrate the role of intuition in winemaking. Music because of its non-symbolic and largely non-verbal nature comes to mind first. Wine it should be noted shares these two characteristics as well. Baroque music will serve as well as any. When listening to composition by Zelenka you immediately recognize it as inferior to Bach’s work. If you have experience listening to baroque music, you do not need to think about it you simply know that Zelenka is inferior. He is considered a minor baroque composer for a reason. You know intuitively because you have listened to much of this genre of music and your mind takes all this experience and makes a judgment. You have trained your mind to recognize quality without consciously thinking about it. This is your intuition at work, which as we noted earlier is the reaching of a conclusion without having to think about it rationally.

Stylistic preferences illustrate an essentially separate aspect of intuitive judgment. Let us say you listen to a Bach cantata and a Handel cantata. Both composers were of the same period and worked within the same formal constraints. Both are rightly considered of the very highest quality — yet you still prefer one over the other, perhaps strongly prefer. The choice you make between them here is still intuitive, but the preference you are expressing is not based on quality but rather on style. This distinction between quality and style is crucial in any area that deals with perceptions and the emotions. In wine they are frequently conflated and confused. Style and quality preferences are made using the same facility but are not the same subject. It is crucial to distinguish between them. In some sense the perception of quality differences is intellectual, while the choice between styles in more akin to an emotional decision.

I believe that the study of Art can aid one in the creation of wine. Art in general is a full of examples of quality and style distinctions. The visual and musical arts are a particularly good place to focus on these concepts. They are more purely aesthetic than the literary arts.[4] This is why both these areas of art are such good training ground for gaining confidence in intuitive aesthetic judgment. Various aesthetic streams combine to feed the river of creativity. Intuition can be strengthened by exercising judgment in any of the areas which involve taste and the emotions. The study of Chemistry may give one insight into the structure of a wine, but the study of Art or Music offers more aid in making aesthetic decisions about the flavors of wine.

[1] This is likely linked to the fact that most of our brain is focused on processing visual information.

[2] No doubt a result of so little of the brain’s capacity being devoted to aroma and flavor analysis.

[3] An individual wine is like poetry in the sense that it is an original. Wine and poetry are original in both meanings of the word — the sense of uniqueness and the sense of a return to origin.

[4][4] Character, plot and all the other devices of the literary or verbal arts tend to distract from issues of style. Literature is my favorite of all the arts, but I think it is much more difficult to focus on stylistic issues with language.

Larry has been reading and writing for a long time. He’s mostly known as a winemaker’s winemaker.

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