Is Wine Is Or Is Wine Ain’t Art: Charlie Parker, Tom Wark, and the Question of Intentionality

Is Wine Is Or Is Wine Ain’t Art: Charlie Parker, Tom Wark, and the Question of Intentionality

Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Roy Haynes

Today is the birthday of Charlie Parker, one of the greatest figures in the history of jazz, and in thinking on his legacy, influence, and impact, I am reminded of a fascinating blog post by Tom Wark entitled “Charlie Parker and the Notion of Wine as Art” that went up in December of 2011 on Tom’s Fermentation blog.

In his post, Tom essentially wrestles with a definition of art; first in the abstract, then specifically as represented by the achievement of Charlie Parker. He does so ostensibly in pursuit of effective assessment mechanisms for determining what is and isn’t art. Those mechanisms ostensibly established, he then applies his criteria to wine and winemaking, and concludes by determining that wine is not art (Actually, courtesy of a rather singular inversion of essay form, he STARTS by saying that wine is not art!).

Wine is not art.

It’s a provocative statement, and not one I’m sure I agree with, so I’m going to take it on.

But, I’m going to take a very different approach, one that resolves around the question of intentionality. I’ll begin by positing the following: the existence of art begins with the intention to create art.

Meaning; no intention to create art, no art.

Meaning; there is no such thing as unintentional art. There is unintentional beauty, there is even unintentional artistry, but there is no such thing as unintentional art.

To which one might say (as someone did —an artist— when I presented the statement above), “but it can be experienced as art.”

To which I ask, can a previously existing entity, a “work” of some kind, be retroactively re-defined — re-branded — as something other than what it was intended to be by its creator?

For example, when Mance Lipscomb played dance music for rural black farmers on Sundays in Texas, he clearly did so with no thought of it being art. It was entertainment; dance music. He didn’t even think of it as blues; blues was just one of many types of song that he played. So, can that same music become art later because, say, some record collector forty years down the road decides that it is?

Even if I give the benefit of the doubt to the artist quoted above, I still answer that, no, it is still not art.

Just because you experience it as art does not make it art. Why? Because for it to become art in this way would necessitate you creating something that is not actually there; it requires you for it to become art. It requires your participation. And, if it only becomes art via your participation, then it is not in fact a work of art in and of itself. (Unless of course you also claim that the work is in fact a collaboration between yourself and the creator. Which it isn’t.)

Meaning; because you didn’t create it with the creator, you can’t recreate it as art.

Now, all that said, what I will concede is that, via a version of what is essentially wishful thinking on the part of the recipient, there can be a sense of having experienced artistry in some fashion. You can feel yourself to be in the presence of art and/or artistry, and accordingly, have an art experience. But that still does not make that which you are experiencing — the work itself — art, if it was not intended to be art. It is a projection of art onto that which was not created as art.

Meaning; Mance’s music is still not art. Because it was not intended to be.

So what is art?

No point in even asking the question. A definition doesn’t actually matter. Because, in the end, what art is, is always going to be subjective.

Vermeer, The Glass of Wine, 1658-1660

Bacher, Pipe Organ, 2009-2011

That said, that doesn’t mean we can’t take the question on; we can, we just have to approach it from a different angle; in this case, by assessing intentionality.

To reiterate; if it wasn’t intended to be art (by whatever subjective definition might apply), then it isn’t art. And if it was intended to be art (by whatever subjective definition might apply), then it just might be art.

Aha! It just might be art?


I say “just might be” because intention does not actually guarantee success. It might be intended as art, but is it art?

This is where we, the recipients, do come in. We may not be able to retroactively re-brand that which was not created as art, as art. But we can judge the relative success or failure of that which was intended to be art, because of the intentionality involved.

Look at it this way, if a car is intended to be a race car, you can judge whether it succeeds or not as regards its intention. Is it fast enough, does it handle well enough, does it have enough power, etc. What you cannot do, is you cannot retroactively decide that in fact it’s a family sedan, and then judge it accordingly.

Same goes for art. If a work is intended to be art, you can judge whether it succeeds or not as regards its intention. But if it’s not intended to be art, you can’t retroactively decide it is, and then judge it accordingly.

So, intentionality. The creator intended to create art. Did they succeed? Presuming intention, I suggest the following very simple criteria for determining how to answer that question:

1) Is there a viewpoint, a philosophy, a worldview, a stance of some kind that drives the work? Meaning; is there a point, a purpose, a reason? Does the creator have something to say?

2) Does the work evidence the deployment of craft in the service of the creation; is there some display of skill and/or craftspersonship on offer with the work?

3) Is the work aesthetically pleasing?

Give me intentionality, and a “yes” answer to all three questions above, and I’ll give you art!

So, Charlie Parker. Was he trying to create art?

Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art. –Charlie Parker

Ok, we’ve got intentionality. Next, was there a viewpoint, a philosophy, a worldview, a stance of some kind?

I realized by using the high notes of the chords as a melodic line, and by the right harmonic progression, I could play what I heard inside me. That’s when I was born. —Charlie Parker

Check. Next, was there craft involved? Obviously! Parker was legendary for his chops.

And, was his music aesthetically pleasing? Well, surely millions of record buyers, critics, and fellow musicians can’t be wrong!

So, the music of Charlie Parker was art, and accordingly he was an artist. Which then makes plausible the claim that jazz is an art form, and its best practitioners artists. Which means Tom and I agree! At least so far.

Now, Paul Draper. Has he been trying to create art?

It’s hard with Paul, actually, because he tends to avoid the word “create.” He likes to say the wines are grown, not made, and he doesn’t like the term wine-maker, preferring instead wine-grower.

My aim is to take these pieces of ground, and allow them to express themselves. What I demand of a great wine is that it reflects nature, not the hand of the winemaker; it has to have that connection to the earth. –Paul Draper

Which makes it hard to assess intentionality. But, if you read the interview with Andrew Jefford that was included in Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine (“The Art and Craft of Wine, Andrew Jefford and Paul Draper, Ridge Vineyards”), you’ll find Paul saying the following: “I’m not against commerce, by the way, but I am opposed to the abusive commercialization of wine. Unless you make a profit, you’re not improving your vineyard or your winery, or looking after your staff. However, beyond that level of being able to pay your people well, give them proper benefits, improve your vineyards and your winery and make as reasonable profit yourself, if you consider what you are doing an artistic endeavor, there’s no justification for charging exorbitant prices.”

All of which might seem somewhat off-topic, expect that, in my estimation, Paul is clearly being self-referential here, and accordingly subtly indicating that he does indeed consider his endeavors to be “artistic.” Thus, intentionality.

Which brings us to the three questions:

1) Is there a viewpoint, a philosophy, a worldview, a stance of some kind?

In summary, Ridge bases grape-growing in each vineyard on long experience with the site, while simultaneously making use of the most recent advances in vineyard management. Pre-industrial winemaking begins with respect for the natural process that transforms fresh grapes into wine, and the 19th-Century model of minimum intervention. When you have great vineyards that produce high quality grapes of distinctive individual character, this is not only an environmentally and socially responsible approach, it’s also the best way to consistently make fine wine. –Paul Draper


And is there craft involved?

At Ridge, we felt from the beginning that these modern, increasingly industrial, wines lacked the complexity,  the sense of place, and the ability to age and develop that the pre-industrial wines demonstrated. So we looked back to the 19th Century – to techniques used in  the finest California wineries such as La Cuesta, and in the Bordeaux chateaux of that era. In a synthesis of past and present, we have taken the pre-industrial  techniques and applied them in conjunction with the best, least intrusive modern equipment. We’ve been told that we have the most sophisticated analytical  laboratory of any winery our size. Given our minimal use of SO2, we depend on lab analyses to alert us to any problem long before it could be perceived by tasting. –Paul Draper


And is the work aesthetically pleasing? (Put another way, do you like to drink Ridge wines?)

Check. (At least for me! And a few others too, I suspect …)

Thus, Paul Draper and Ridge Vineyards have the intention of being engaged in an artistic endeavor, which thus then opens the doors to our judging whether said endeavors are successful. Based on answers to the questions above, I believe we can say, yes, they are largely successful.

Thus, wine can in fact be art, and winemakers artists.


And with that, I send my thanks to Tom for writing such a provocative and engaging post, and I send a Happy Birthday to Charlie Parker, wherever The Bird may be flying.

Categories: Business of Wine, History, Monte Bello, Oeno Econ, Paul Draper, Press Reviews, Vineyards, Viticultural Salmagundi, Wine & Art, Wine & Music, Wine & Philosophy, Wine and Jazz, Wine Blogs, Wine Quotes, Wine Tales, Winemaking

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6 replies

  1. Christopher, You’re a man after my own heart. Good music, good wine. Good conversation. Thank You.

    A few thoughts on intentionality. I heard the great English playwright, Tom Stoppard, speak a number of decades ago at UCSB, and he spoke of people finding meanings in his plays he hadn’t intended. He spoke of the experience as going through customs, says he has nothing to declare, and, upon being asked to open his suitcase finds inside a large sum of undeclared cash and a number of bottles of undeclared alcohol. His answer, both to the customs agent and to a meaning-finder in his plays was, “I see that they are there, but I didn’t put them in.”

    What he’s getting at is that a true work of art, no matter how intentionally crafted, has opinions of its own. The artist may intend to make “art”, but if it only conforms exactly to the artist’s intention, it may more accurately be called “craft”. Craft is wonderful, and there’s too little of it around these days, but Art requires that moment where the artist and the viewer, listener, reader are both surprised.

    The Hermeneuticist David Tracy speaks of Classics, by which he means works of art, historical events, people, which have what he calls a “surplus of meaning,” which means they can mean more than one thing to different people at the same time, or even to the same person at different times. The plays of Shakespeare certainly work this way, as does the music of Charlie Parker.

    But I think wine also fits into this category. No matter how careful the winemaker is in their intention, the season and, thus, the grapes, certainly have an opinion in what wine they will make. And (here’s the Classic part), that wine will have a surplus of meaning, tasting differently at different points in its life.

    I suppose Life might be the key word. True art is a living thing, and it is in conversation with the receiver. The artist brings their intention, the work brings its intention, and we receive their collaboration and add our own intention.

    Thanks again. John

    • Thanks so much for your comment John, and for your kind words!

      As to your Stoppard story, I’ll have to ponder it further, but at first read, it’s not really happening for me. If he himself didn’t put the cash and booze in the suitcase, then his intentionality has nothing to do with the final result, does it? And then, to extend the analogy to wine, you can’t add cash and booze to wine that’s already in the bottle! You can add your experience to the story of the wine, certainly, but that’s a different thing, no?

      As regards your final point, it’s beautifully made, and I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment, except for the last part. I don’t agree that we “add” our intention to the work itself; we add it to the “experience” of the work!

      Now, that all said, I’ll reiterate that I need to ponder your comments much further, but that’s my initial reply. Mainly, agreed! Good music, good wine, good conversation! Thank you!!!

  2. Art, and perhaps wine also, as noumenon. More in Kant’s “thing in itself” concept of the term, rather than the way the ancient Greek philosophers defined noumenon as an object (or event) that could only be known (or experienced) without the use of one’s physical senses, though.

  3. You wrote:
    “Same goes for art. If a work is intended to be art, you can judge whether it succeeds or not as regards its intention. But if it’s not intended to be art, you can’t retroactively decide it is, and then judge it accordingly.”

    Aren’t we judging not whether the intended art IS art, but whether or not we think it GOOD art?

    You wrote:
    “Give me intentionality, and a “yes” answer to all three questions above, and I’ll give you art!”

    One of those “yes” answers was to the question, “is it aesthetically pleasing”? I don’t think art is required to be aesthetically pleasing in order to be art.

    Finally, Mr. Draper’s seeming concession that winemaking can be an art is only slightly convincing to me given the quote. I’d prefer to have a direct answer to the question: “When you make Montebello, are you creating a piece of art in the same way that when Bird created “Blues For Alice” or “Ko Ko” he was creating art?”

    OUTSTANDING post. And thanks.

    • Tom, thank you so much for your comment, and my sincere apology for the delay in responding! Regarding the specific points you raise:

      –I may have misunderstood the thread of your post, but as the first line was “Wine is not art,” I took that to be the question at hand. Had you have led with “Wine is not good art” I would have taken a different direction!

      –Apologies, I should have cleaned up my semantics; I did indeed write “aesthetically pleasing,” but I didn’t in fact mean to imply a value judgement as regards the “pleasantness” of the art; what I should have written was something along the lines of “aesthetically significant” or “aesthetically arresting” or “aesthetically provocative,” meaning, there ought to be something about the work that excites/ignites the senses; personally, I define pleasing as being engaged, but I don’t think I wrote this section as well as I could have!

      –I will attempt to ask Paul that exact question! But lord knows I don’t expect a straight answer!

      Thanks again Tom, you’re a wonderful, wonderful writer, and it’s quite aesthetically signicant to read your work!


  1. Brittany, Bird and the Use of Simple Wine

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