Wine and wine art are a match made in antiquity.
Found in Egyptian tombs, Flemish engravings, Renaissance paintings and 20th century French posters, images of wine have figured in works of art since Bacchus got the party started.
In contemporary America, the commercial art industry has cultivated wine art into a multimillion-dollar business. Even in the midst of an economic slump, wine art sales are thriving, in large part because of recession-proof devotees.
Many clients willing to spend hundreds of dollars for a Chateau d'Yquem will also pay $6,000 for an original painting or $1,200 for a signed and numbered print of their favorite bottle.
Scores of painters, including Thomas Stiltz of Ruxton, have parlayed the wine art vogue into a career. Since he first turned to the art form about two years ago, Stiltz, 57, has become one of the best-selling painters of wine-centric still lifes. His work has earned somewhere between $1 million and $2 million in annual retail sales for the company that reproduces and sells his art, Stiltz says.
In his paintings, such as Distinctively Cakebread and Private Reserve, light filters through bottles of choice vintages, luring well-heeled oenophiles into epicurean reveries and pricey purchases.
"I love to paint elegant things," says Stiltz as he stands in his living room, which doubles as a photography studio. On a table, bottles of wine worth a small fortune await arrangement, as do packages of green and red grapes. "There's nothing more elegant than a beautiful bottle filled with wine," he says.
In a well-lit studio attached to his home, Stiltz completes about two oils a week. Painted from projections of digital photographs, Stiltz's compositions of wine bottles, glasses and the occasional cheese and fruit grouping, are saturated with color and glow with affluent well-being. His labels, exactingly traced through an elaborate process from the originals, are meant to be read, and the world beyond Stiltz's studio is crisply reflected in renderings of bottles and glasses.
While some wine artists take a more impressionistic approach, Stiltz's work is valued for its realism. "I know people who really enjoy wine love my painting," he says. "They feel like it's an accurate depiction of what they love."
For Stiltz, wine and paintings have much in common. As someone "who has always loved wine," he speaks of the "complexity and richness in big cabernets and wonderful chardonnays." Stiltz compares their "layers and layers of flavors" to the layers of paint he lays on a canvas to achieve a depth of color.
His cropped images reflect Stiltz's experience in advertising photography. And Dutch painter Vermeer's "beautiful, delicate realism" is an inspiration, as is the aesthetic of simplicity. "A few beautiful things make a statement," Stiltz says.
Through a process called "giclee," Stiltz's paintings are reproduced on canvas in limited editions that, with the originals, are sold in more than 50 galleries across the country.
Stiltz's proofs are corrected to match the color of the originals, but his paintings are never touched up by others. "My work is so realistic and so tight, it can't be enhanced," he says. The artist does use a palette knife to dab acrylic gel on a number of prints from each limited edition run -- adding a personal touch and $300 to the tab.
If he's doing a commission, Stiltz gets his client's approval on the photograph he plans to copy. "That's the beauty of it. No surprises," he says. Occasionally, a client will send an item such as a pitcher for inclusion in the painting, or instruct Stiltz to add a gourmet touch, perhaps a Roquefort wedge, to the piece.
Catering to a client or selling reproductions doesn't make his work any less legitimate, although "art snobs and people who have little fine art galleries that only sell original work" may see it differently. "Of course it's art," Stiltz says.
Perks come with the job. A Los Angeles client once shipped Stiltz a costly bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. "Make a painting and enjoy the wine," the client wrote.
Stiltz, a former photographer and graphic artist, was a successful still-life painter when he stumbled into his red, white and blush period. The director of a California gallery that carried his work urged Stiltz to focus on fewer elements -- a single bottle of wine with two glasses, for instance. "I did an Opus One, and she sold it in 20 minutes," Stiltz says.
Since last April, the Hanson Gallery in Carmel has sold nearly $100,000 worth of Stiltz's work, director Jennifer Walker says. Wine art sells well "particularly in California," she says. "It's definitely a genre that's been building momentum for about three years."
Raj Parikh, an emergency room doctor who lives in Redwood City, Calif., commissioned a Stiltz painting through the Hanson Gallery. The 50- by 36-inch piece features two wine glasses, a cork and bottles of Parikh's top five "California cabs from year to year." A collector of wine and art, "two expensive hobbies," Parikh says his Stiltz original is "my prize possession at the moment."
For Parikh, 35, choosing Stiltz to paint his favorite cabernets was easy. "I'd seen his work before -- this gorgeous stuff, and he has an appreciation for wine and he treats the subject matter with a lot of respect. And his reputation around the country is actually pretty high," he says.
Wine appreciation as status symbol is hardly new. For example, Dutch paintings featuring wine goblets depicted "the trappings of the good life," says the Napa Valley Museum's Randolph Murphy, who curated a traveling exhibition of wine art spanning 500 years from the Sterling Vineyards collection.
"Even back then, it was only the more wealthy people who were the connoisseurs of wine," Murphy says. "That's come right down into the present, that kind of wine snobbery."
If "you appreciate fine wine, you're going to appreciate a beautiful still life and vice versa," says Elliot Burns, CEO of Soho Editions, the New York art publishing company that reproduces and sells Stiltz's work.
Burns has seen "three or four recessions in the art business and there's always some genre or artist that seems to transcend the economy." This time around, "It's been the wine art." Burns estimates that wine art sales, industrywide, will "be in the many millions of dollars" this year.
Across the price point spectrum, wine-related commercial art amounts to about 5 percent of sales, says Robert Sher, president of the Bentley Publishing Group in California. In addition to the high rollers, there are those who drink $10 bottles of wine in dining rooms adorned with $30 framed prints from Target, Sher says.
But wine art's appeal is limited. Sher says he can envision an entire house decorated with a tropical theme, the current decor rage. But "nobody does their house in a wine theme," says Sher, who is also chairman of the Art and Framing Council, which promotes interest in framed art. All commercial art trends have limited life spans, as well, Sher says. Recently, he has seen wine art give way to martini art and other mixed-drink images.
Finding a niche
For Stiltz, the wine art craze's fleeting nature intensifies the pressure to produce. "You can't do three paintings and one sells ... you don't have time to make losers," he says.
Stiltz, billed on the Soho Editions Web site as a "modern master," also has stiff competition, including Thomas Arvid, another realist promoted as the "pre-eminent painter of wine." To establish his turf and remain within the law, Stiltz, aided by a publicity agent, has received permission to paint the trademarked logos and labels of about 25 California vintners.
With his quick ascent, Stiltz has gained "entrance into the world of wine." He has visited the Napa and Sonoma valleys often and has enjoyed private tours of prestigious wineries.
Some day, Stiltz hopes to settle in the Napa Valley, a region of "sophisticated farmland," where, he says dreamily, "everything goes the pace of the grape."
Lives: In Ruxton
Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in art from the University of Delaware.
Family: Spouse, Sheri; daughters, Jennifer and Julie