Muse and Medium

Wine inspires and helps create Christina LoCascio's art

By Matt Kettmann

wine spectator

It's a typical scene in the tasting room of Artiste winery in Santa Ynez, Calif. One visitor swirls his wine. Another holds a glass to her nose and inhales deeply. And one woman, with a half-finished painting of a French vineyard propped beside her, dips a paintbrush into her wine.

Christina LoCascio doesn't just paint wine; she paints with wine. Before becoming the tasting room manager at Artiste, LoCascio, 26, earned an art degree from University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2004, while brainstorming for a painting class she planned to teach at Artiste, she decided to try painting with wine. "I was thinking about how the first thing you do when tasting wine is look at the color and admire how beautiful it is," she says. The class was a success. Since then, LoCascio has painted and sold nearly two dozen works rendered with wine.

While LoCascio uses a small amount of watercolor paint for detailing, she relies mainly on red wine to produce colors ranging from copper to violet. To achieve this range, LoCascio has tinkered with different varietals and methods of extracting color from the juice. A thick, inky paint comes from boiling two bottles of wine down to less than one glass, while white wine is used to lighten dark areas and clean brushes, much like water with pastel paints.

LoCascio's boyfriend, Michael Larner of Larner Vineyard, also helps with the process. A graduate student at UC, Davis' School of Viticulture and Enology, Larner uses a rotary evaporator to separate alcohol and water from the wine's pigment, creating a viscous paint with deep red hues. He's also experimented with the pH levels in wine - adding tartaric acid for more acidity and sodium hydroxide for a more basic paint. The acidic tinctures become a vibrant purple, while the basic fluids appear brown to black.

In an effort to launch a full line of vine-based art products, LoCascio is experimenting with emulsifiers derived from ground grape skins, sketching-charcoal from burnt vine stock and new pigments from grape seeds and vine leaves. "But I'm not so worried about having the entire spectrum of color," LoCascio says. "It's not about that. It's about the wine, about the nature of the grape. I don't need to get bright blue."

LoCascio became interested in wine while working as an intern at Touring & Tasting magazine in Santa Barbara. After graduation from UC, Santa Barbara, she managed the tasting room at Faulkner Winery in Temecula, Calif., before becoming a wholesaler for Sunstone Winery in Santa Ynez. When Bion Rice, son of Sunstone owner Fred Rice, opened Artiste with the goal of combining the worlds of art and wine, LoCascio was asked to be the tasting room manager. "[Artiste] was perfect for me," LoCascio relates, "[because] it's about winemakers as artists themselves."

While she enjoys Rhône Valley wines, LoCascio's budding 100-bottle collection reflects her fascination with the vineyards that surround her home. Some of her local favorites include Beckmen Syrah Santa Ynez Valley Purisima Mountain Vineyard 2002, Bonaccorsi Pinot Noir Santa Rita Hills 2003, and Saarloos and Sons Syrah 2003. "I'm [concentrating on] really getting to know the wines from my neighborhood," she says.

She's also getting acquainted with wine and terroir from farther afield, traveling to wine country in Italy and France. During a recent trip to Bordeaux, as other tourists snapped photographs of the vineyards, LoCascio filled a notebook with wine blots. At each château, next to her notes on flavor and mouthfeel, she spilled a little of each wine onto her pages to record its color. The French wines were much brighter than their California counterparts; indeed, the only other professional wine painter LoCascio has managed to find is a Frenchman who claims that American wines aren't good enough for the medium. But LoCascio disagrees, pointing out that California reds tend to be more concentrated and have richer hues, which are beneficial for the large landscapes, vineyard scenes and portraits that she paints.

LoCascio's paintings sell for about $1,000 each and have been shown at Carina Cellars in Santa Barbara and Artiste, which also features her work on its 2005 releases of Nelle Colline, a blend of Dolcetto, Barbera and Merlot, as well as its Torretta, a blend of Nebbiolo, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Barbera.

For a recent show at Artiste, LoCascio painted images of the French countryside using only French wines, such as Château Latour Pauillac 2002 and M. Chapoutier Côte-Rôtie La Mordorée 2001. But LoCascio isn't about to let her canvas have all the fun - "I drink the wines as I paint," she admits.

Matt Kettmann is the pop culture editor for the Santa Barbara Independent.

Originally printed in Wine Spectator magazine, December 15, 2005 issue