Wine, done well, is a folk art.
Just as Robert Johnson osmosized the best of Son House and Charley Patton in the service of crafting his own transcendent contributions to the country blues; just as Jack Kerouac bubbled, toiled, and troubled up a cauldron of Look Homeward, Angel and Han-Shan; just as Miles Davis took the singular path of deifying Louis Armstrong by learning, deconstructing, and redrawing him, so too do the great producers of great wine look both homeward and forward as they seek their own paths to creation.
Folk art is a thieves’ game in a world where thievery still has its own moral code. Be it Robin Hood or John Dillinger, we love someone who stands for something strangely higher that the base art of a theft. In the world of Wine Noir, sure, you break the law. But only because your heart rides high above the fray, and what you seek is not a victory in the courts, but a peace in the soul.
How does a painter like Picasso or Jackson Pollock become famous for breaking all the rules? By learning them! How did Bob Dylan usurp Woody Guthrie as the voice of a vanishing America? By taking Guthrie for all he was worth!
How does Ridge Vineyards’ Paul Draper make “pre-industrial” wine in a post-industrial world?
Folk art, by art college standards, would seem to be a “process-oriented” endeavor; meaning, the act of creation is as vital as the creation itself. To properly create folk art, then, means coming to the table with your history intact, so as to act in the moment as if you have no history at all. This is jazz, this is haiku, this is abstract expressionism. And if the act is the product, then documentation of the act is the inheritance; meaning, if anyone else is ever to experience the art, there has to be some record of the act. Thus, the canvas, the recording, the page; these become the legacies to learn from. In the case of wine, this is the bottle itself; the donated legacy of all that came before it. To taste it as it slips into the winds of history is to connect the past to the present to the future. This is what Robert Johnson did as he sat at Charley Patton’s knee, and this is what the future’s great winemakers do as they drink the ghosts of vintages past.
There is a simple little piece of equipment you can likely find in just about any winery in the world. If you’ve ever attended any sort of barrel tasting, you’ve probably seen one. It looks sort of like a small glass tube with a squeezable handle, and it’s used for extracting wine from a barrel. More often than not, it is deployed when someone wishes to taste a wine in development —a glimpse into the future — to see where a wine is headed.
Small wonder that it’s called a Thief.