What a tattoo artist has to teach winemakers
Can a winemaker make artisanal wine without knowing how to make academically correct wine?
The great Philip Milic, my tattoo artist at Old Crow, was teaching his newest student, Ciara, a lesson in drawing. Ciara had drawn a kind of angel-lady with long, Pre-Raphaelite braided hair and a tropical bird, and also a grinning skull. Philip critiqued them. Some of Ciara’s lines, he told her, were out of balance, too thick, crooked. He pointed out aspects of the skull’s teeth and the nymph’s hair and the bird’s wing, and, with a few corrective strokes, vastly improved them. He said, “If you want to draw like that after you know how to draw well, it looks cool. Otherwise, it just looks amateurish.”
I knew what he meant, because it’s the same thing with writing. You have to know how to write really well before you can abandon traditional classical English grammar and syntax and write in your own voice. In other words, you have to learn the rules before you can break them. Same with painting. When some people see Picasso, they say, “Why, my kid could paint like that,” but what they don’t know was that the young Picasso could draw exquisitely in the realist style. In the merest Picasso doodle is the essence of everything he learned from Raphael, Goya and Cezanne.
In wine, there is the eternal debate between classic university training versus developing a more intuitive or natural style. In California, this debate often takes the form of “To Davis, or not to Davis?” There are some who feel that formal training at a school of enology like U.C. Davis or Fresno State robs winemaking students of their originality and forces them to mainstream their talents in predictable, conventional ways. I remember when I met Josh Jensen, at Calera. He told me that when he hired his first assistant winemaker, his one job qualification was: “Must not be a U.C. Davis graduate,” because he wanted his A.W. to possess the skills of creativity and innovation he felt Davis stifled.
There is mounting talk in California about “natural” winemaking–hands off stuff, involving a minimum of manipulations, organic grapegrowing, use of native yeasts, and so on. Often, it is assumed that a smaller winery can make wine more “naturally” than a big one. There’s something attractive in this notion of the rugged individualist who goes up against the big guys by doing something they institutionally cannot–make wines of personal artistic interpretation.
There’s some truth in this, but there’s also a lot of romantic hooey. Just because the wine comes from some little winery, presided over lovingly by the winemaker and his kin, doesn’t make the wine good, interesting or even drinkable. Believe me, there’s a lot of bad wine out there, and a lot of it comes from artisanal wineries.
So I’m not one to be impressed by a press release that tells me how small the production is, or how personally involved so-and-so is in every step of the wine production process. Many a bad smell has come out of the artisanal vat. Having said that, most of the wines I think most highly of do come from small wineries. How to account for this paradox? I think the difference is because the best winemakers learned how to make good, clean, well-made wines first. (Of course, they also need good grapes.) After they knew what to do and what not to do, they could move to the next level: crafting wines of personal distinction and artistic merit. They know the difference between safely running risks, and foolish abandonment of long-held rules. When I taste something truly dreadful, I always wish the person who made it would take a year off and do some remedial V&E at one of our teaching schools, the way Ciara is learning the basics from Philip. She won’t be doing simple angels and skulls when she turns pro, but she has to learn to do those basic forms correctly before she can explore her own inner promptings and create the kind of splendor Philip does.