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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.

  1. Well said and true as I am taking writing classes currently which is helping me to find my voice. The theory always helps to understand the practical and it takes many small things to create greatness or tragedy.

  2. Knowing the science makes it easier to create the art.

  3. I have said before and I will say again: winemaking is a craft, not an art or a science. To make great wine, you can’t just wing it on instinct any more than you can learn it from a book.

    Find someone who is really good at it to work under, get dirty, do as you are instructed, pay your dues; learn. Maybe do this a couple of times. Once you have mastered the basics you can start to get creative. When you get fired for doing your own thing, but still get a great recommendation, you are ready to move on.

    Sort of sounds like writing, or cooking, or tattoo artistry.

  4. An interesting way to tweak this discussion, Steve. The other reason a tattoo artist works well for analogy here is that they don’t just learn how to draw or put on a tattoo when they apprentice–they learn the whole business, emphasis on business. I don’t think it’s a choice of one or other but some combination of both unless you have very, very deep pockets to deal with tasks that need to be done or fixing mess-ups, which are inevitable even for experienced winemakers, who have learned how to anticipate problems by having survived them. And those problems aren’t always with a wine. There’s much more to running a business than the job of product creation. John’s thought is totally on point: apprenticeship to a trained, business-savvy winemaker will lead to a point where you must go your separate ways as a natural evolution of the relationship, not out of malice or ill will. A master used to be measured by the number of apprentices turned into masters themselves. It would be great if more people saw it that way–it would induce changes in ideas of stewardship all kinds of ways in the wine business, for sure, and it would end the Davis or cellar rat debate in a positive way for the industry, acknowledging the possibility of contributions from all involved.

  5. Not that I’m accusing you of taking this stance, because obviously you don’t, but I’ve always found the idea incredibly odd that UC Davis teaches people to make wine in any particular way or style. From my time there in the V&E department, I can tell you there really aren’t any classes there that tell you how to make wine at all. The curriculum is focused on teaching you the science behind making wine, with no bias towards any specific methodology. The idea is that you word at wineries during and after the program and learn hands on there. If I had to to list one specific goal of the UCD program, its to teach you what the potential consequences and outcomes are of any decision you might have to make in a winery. Sure, every professor has their own opinions, just like any student, or wine lover does, but its up to us to decide what we like and how we want to wrap that up into our careers. Throughout all the tastings I participated in at UCD (most of which are actually put together by students based on their own interests) I’ve had the opportunity to talk with and learn from just as many Sean Thackreys and Randall Grahms as I have head winemakers from Gallo and Mondavi. I think most people who proliferate the “UCD only teaches clean winemaking” concept are just repeating anecdotal judgements they’ve heard someone else say and have probably never actually talked about the idea with a former student.

    ok, end rant. Keep up the good writing Steve!

  6. Great topic. The debate will always continue to be of interest in the wine-making world. Constantly craftsman of the trade, ie winemakers, are bombarded by academics who view science as the one and only truth. As Jeff S put it, you can not teach winemaking, as there is no methodology for making wine. It is one of the most dynamic processes that requires more than simple chemistry understanding, but rather aptitude, personality, and commitment. The students now ( I am a recent graduate) are taught to regard science above all, but wine cannot be broken down so simply into pH, TA, Alcohol. It is by those parameters that we get mediocrity and simpleness in today’s wines! And lets not forget what the University system is turning into, post-childcare for the rich!

    Thanks for the writing Steve!

  7. Great points, Steve.

    The key, as you said, is that one should first learn the rules in order to successfully break them – particularly in a repeatable, sustainable way. A universal truth.

  8. As a UCD V&E alumni, the idea that all the mediocre wines are the fault of clean winemaking taught there is mostly just shifting the blame onto them. I think that there are only 20 – 40 VEN undergrads each year, and I’m guessing 10 VEN Grad students. Even if you assume double that number, and forget that some of the undergrads turn into grad students, and not all pass, then there are at probably only 1200 UCD winemakers from the last 20 years. That is probably a high number, because I know quite a few recent VEN grads that are out of the industry.

    So, the question is assuming that all 1200 are making

    uninteresting wines that follow the numbers, are there only 1200 wineries that do this, or how do you account for all of the bad wines above this 1200 number?

    Thanks Steve, I really liked the tattoo analogy.

    I think that the mediocrity is from something else, I would suggest looking at the State fair 90+ point wines in each class (Sauv blanc, Cab sauv, etc). There is a fairly narrow range of
    pH, TA, RS, etc for the “great” wines. Personally a few of the best of class wines are bland and otherwise uninteresting to me.

    Secondly, since the VEN program at UCD is so selective, why would non mediocre students, want to produce mediocre wine?

    Well, I just used up all my rant power for the week.


    P.S. The 1200 figure also needs to be spread out over the whole world, because there a quite a few exchange students, and many local students choose to work elsewhere also (Washington, Oregon, Australia, South America). So the CA contingent is probably 800 or less. Just my guess.

  9. “Romantic hooey”, I LOVE IT. Its so true Steve, I can’t tell you how many “natural” or organic wines I’ve tasted in the past 2 years they simply weren’t good. I can’t imagine what its like for you. I refer readers to the recent Decanter blog:

    I think the real reasons we see so many good wines coming out of small wineries is that they are not forced to homogenize their product they way larger producers have to. This is not a criticism. Most of the wine drinking public, few of who ever pick up a wine magazine, and fewer still don’t know blogs about wine even exist, simply want something that tastes good, and the same every time they pick up a bottle. It’s an enormous part of the business we’re in.

    Innovation in nearly every industry comes from the little unknown guy striving to discover something new, or just following a passing to do what they love. That’s who I’m drinking to tonight!

  10. It’s the same thing with music theory: some musicians resist learning it because they feel it will reduce creativity by forcing them into a set of arbitrary rules that everyone follows. In reality, knowing the rules gives a framework for breaking them creatively, while (most) musicians who don’t know theory end up following the rules by ear anyway.

  11. Interesting thoughts Steve. I’ve heard Josh Jensen make the same comment while I learned from him at Calera. I went through the certificate coursework at UCD, learning the science. I knew it was important to study the chemistry but it seemed odd to me that, at the same time that I worked at Calera, learning natural winemaking, I studied in UCD classes that did not teach or encourage study of natural winemaking at all. In fact, native yeast fermentations were deemed too risky, unpredictable…etc etc. The other students in my classes were too intimidated by the UCD approach to natural winemaking, they thought my belief in it unnerving. But I was witnessing the beauty of natural wines at Calera everyday. Science is good and sometimes we, natural winemakers, need the science too. Perhaps artisan winemakers, native or not, are learning winemaking, just not only out of a book from UCD.

  12. I’m not sure if it’s at all useful to compare small wineries (family-run or not) with volume producing corporations. I think they are producing different products for different markets: the latter are producing a staple, a homogenized product, a brand, for a mass-market; the former are producing a unique, luxury goods, for a small market of wine-lovers.

  13. The benefit of getting a formal degree from a school of Enology is the ability to problem solve when an issue arises. I worked many years in the industry before getting my Enology degree (Fresno St.) and could make wine very easily. It wasn’t until I learned the chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, etc. of fermentation and the aging process that I could make informed decisions to prevent future issues.
    I am a firm believer in native fermentations (much to my wine micro teacher’s shigrin) as long as the fruit is healthy enough to accommodate it. I have seen the magic and complexity it brings but sometimes inoculating a wine due to fruit health issues is a must and should not be looked down upon.
    Sometimes I think winemakers get lumped into either camp; Scientific or Artisan. Perhaps there should be a third category: Versatile. My hallmark of a good winemaker is one who can take mediocre fruit and make a great wine but can also take great fruit and make an extraordinary wine. Keep up the good work Steve.

  14. Patricia says:

    Great points, Steve and thank you for helping me finally discover a Tattoo artist to do my next piece!

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