Douglas Blyde asks whether wine affects art
Ruinart, the oldest house creating Champagne (1729), chose to promote its ties with art via a tour of works at Masterpiece. The annual London fair coincided with the launch of “upcycling fan”, Piet Hein Eek’s bespoke bottle case at the Ruinart Salon. The tactile, chimney-like casket is re-imagined from humble packing crates.
Alongside TerraVina sommelier and Master of Wine, Gerard Basset OBE, the representative for Sotheby’s, Katharine Field, introduced guests to six pieces. These were matched with Champagnes dispensed in black ISO glasses from an ivory-coloured, Ruinart-branded trolley.
The first piece, a writhe between Laocoön and His Sons, exhibited for sale in a blood-red mock-up of a Pompeian salon, represented “fear”. The original, in the Vatican, is known for its realism, and hands and feet of this late 18th-century copy felt particularly lifelike and, despite being wrought in marble, fragile. However, when most welcome wine was introduced, the tortured image of the Trojan priest and sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus being throttled by sea serpents, lost impact.
Next, “optimism” found form in Jonas Lie’s Manhattan, “painted in the grip of impressionism” and chosen by Field “for the current Gatsby craze”. Captured the US as the “Promised Land” of the 1920s, skies shimmered gold despite many belching funnels of steam ships which would cross the Atlantic in seven days (as opposed to today’s seven-hour flights). A piped soundtrack of Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade emphasised the mood of possibility. However, the Champagne served seemed notably light compared with the vigorous brushwork and flamboyant jazz.
“Frisson” was represented by “the most gothic portrait” Field had ever seen. Definitely “not fluffy”, Federico Beltrán-Masses cobalt-coloured portrait showed eccentric Italian heiress and patron of arts, Marquesa Luisa Casati. On account of hard partying and wild spending, the heiress, who uttered “I want to be a living work of art” ended up £25 million in debt, escaping Italy for the UK, where she is buried (in Brompton cemetery). Her tombstone reads: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” “The female Byron,” said Field, in black velvet with a large silver dog and crystal ball given to her by a lover, matched well with the dense flavours of the wine.
Three works and three glasses in, guests were beginning to feel sensorily challenged. “Now for something completely different,” said Field as she addressed her choice for “happiness”, an obscure “portrait of a landscape” – Chicagoan, Joan Mitchell’s lazily titled “Untitled.” “Take in form, take in texture – see how it makes you feel,” was all she said (she later admitted to disliking the work). Magic-Eye-like, I thought I made out a figure. Despite the banal and much mimicked composition of tears of paint, perhaps some flung from afar within a simple, thick, deep-white frame; the wine clearly upstaged – feeling the most complex and complete. In this instance, failure to engage with the portrait allowed a more profound engagement with the wine.
Field chose the large (2.87m wide) Allegory: Reflection on the Transience of Human Happiness by Francesco Caucig for “melancholy”. A cherub offered a glass of red to a prince wearing the insignia of the Bavarian order of St. Hubert. “We all die is the message,” said Field, looking towards the gloomy but apparently enlightened protagonist. “So don’t indulge too much,” she cautioned. The soundtrack (Lady Rich’s Galliard, Hopkinson Smith) of lute music added to the subtly depressing feeling which the wine failed to allay.
Finally, “amusement” was synonymous with Lady Hillingdon (Sir Franck Dicksee). A “show-off” portrait said Field, the socialite wore virtuous white, adorned with diamonds and surrounded by the rose which is named after her. Hillingdon’s marriage to a banker, which afforded one of Lutyens’s finest houses as the family residence, proved more akin to a business contract than romance, said Field, leading the subject to coin the phrase of her husband: “When I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, open my legs and think of England.” Alongside, slightly jumpy and in my opinion, deeply unfashionable music (Ascot Gavotte) echoed Hillingdon’s stoic demeanour, while gaseous wine added to my dislike of this finale. However, when what turned out to be a faulty bottle was replaced for one with tighter, more abundant fruit, both music and art became more acceptable.
Tour over, it was time for Monsieur Basset to reveal the cuvées. To everyone’s surprise, all bar one were the same blend and vintage – Ruinart Blanc de Blancs. The not insignificant differences were all down to maturation in different bottle formats therefore
“Fear” and “amusement” had been matched with satisfactory 75cl bottles, “optimism” a light-seeming magnum (Basset’s favourite of the selection), while “frisson” saw clearly red fruit-tinged (in taste) wine from a 75cl of rosé. “Happiness”, the most impressive, rich and evolved wine came from a half, and “melancholy” a jeroboam – delivering bitter orange blossom and showing the least evolution (although Basset expected this to be “more fresh”).
Although Basset knew what wines were served, even he admitted to finding differences between expectations and reality. “Your mind is looking for differences.”
Despite my point that finding such marked nuances of taste could be interpreted as unwelcome inconsistency by the public, Basset was pleased that the apparently much-maligned half-bottle tasted so good. He thought it the perfect format for hotel minibars: “Sometimes a bottle in the bedroom is too much…”
Although the afternoon proved an undeniably pleasant and thoughtful indulgence which showed some effects between a largely celebratory and also alcoholic drink, I left with reservations. Firstly, tracks of music chosen felt overly genteel, eschewing, unlike with the art, the modern or provocative. Secondly, the question posed, “Does Wine Affect Art?” itself posed in the wording that wine is itself not art. Thirdly, feeling slightly deceived, I wondered why the wines were served blind when the identity of everything else was explicit.