Clark Smith is vilified for changing the way wine is made.
by Alan Goldfarb
Reader Comments... [21]

Richard Grant Peterson, PhD, winemaker
Richard Grant Wines, CA
“I’m telling you, the wine industry went right down the toilet when electricity and stainless steel and all of this hyper-technology came in,” he begins. “Because we took how to make wine like that (without the use of technology) and threw it out the window. We took everybody who knew how to make wine without SO2 (sulphur dioxide used as a preservative), and shot ‘em in the head because great German technology was going to save us."

Well, I'd be glad to comment for you if I understood what the above sentences are saying. I have no idea what the subject is. I speak English as well as the next guy but, for the life of me, I don't know what these sentences refer to. Sorry.

I can comment on the paragraph before that one though, which seemed to say that "Cabernet table wines are too similar to each other nowadays. It makes for a boring tasting or judging." I happen to agree with that evaluation. I find those high alcohol, high pH, fat red wines we see so often these days are pretty difficult to enjoy. They tend to be flabby, almost greasy and all taste more like prunes, raisins or plum jam than Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel or whatever varietal is accused of producing the wine in question. Further, I think the winemakers who've produced these fat wines are in for a shock is a few more years. Those wines will not age well in bottle because the pH is so high the SO2 cannot possibly protect the wine from trace amounts of oxidation as it slowly appears over time. Already I've tasted California Cabernets which had sold at high prices that are now dead in the bottle at age seven or eight. Dan Berger mentions this same experience in his newsletters from time to time and I think Dan is right on the money. The great Andre Tchelistcheff cautioned winemakers many times against bottling wines without enough "backbone." Backbone is what he called the basic natural acidity of table wines.

One of the reasons for the excellent longevity of great Cabernets of past decades was their solid natural acidities. For many decades first growths of Bordeaux have been bottled at pH levels close to 3.5 or 3.6. And many were, still are, classics. The same has been said for the great BV Private Reserves and other comparable Cabernets of Napa and Sonoma counties since the 1950s, and later. They aged beautifully and often were prized for that very ability. Some California Cabernets still age well -- invariably these are the ones with well balanced acidities. Contrast these classic wines with many Cabernets of today which are no longer harvested at the "normal" 23 to 25 degrees Brix of yesteryear. Rather, today's winemakers often think they have to produce wines with 15% alcohol content (sometimes higher) "to please the tastes of today's marketplace." These wines get abused during fermentation and processing because the winemaker asks too much of fine yeast. Many classic and fine yeasts of thirty years ago simply can't do the job they might have done because they are now forced to continue fermenting traces of sugar in the presence of alcohol levels that are toxic to civilized wine yeasts. The fine yeast is sacrificed in favor of tougher, alcohol tolerant yeast cells (not to mention bacteria) which are able to metabolize sugar even floating in 15% alcohol.

The thing that gets lost from the wine besides varietal uniqueness, I believe, is finesse. The coup de grace is performed by the winemaker himself who completes the destruction by bottling the wine at pH levels high enough to guarantee against developing bottle bouquet and the other features of fine wine that are the reason we've built wine cellars. The real problem, it seems to me, is the fact that so many winemakers copy each other to the point that appellations have almost lost whatever meaning they once had. Wine that used to get its personality and uniqueness from the year and place in which the grapes were grown are so thoroughly manufactured by winemaker processing today that there may not be many differences between wines. When judges can taste varietal wines from ten different appellations and not recognize anything unique about any of them -- as can be done today -- the industry ought to recognize we have a problem. I think the complaint you asked me to discuss is directed towards this very "blahness," excessive alcohol and universal jammyness of too many wines. I agree with Clark that it ruins the pleasure of what we used to enjoy as wine. Ah well, I learned to spit at an early age. It's finally paying off.

As one of those winemakers told me the other day, "who wants to drink old wine anyway? Everything gets consumed in the first year or two; nobody ages wine any more. We make wine for today's market, and that wine doesn't have to last."

With best regards, Dr Richard G. Peterson

Anthony B Valenzano
Valenzano Winery, Shamong, NJ
The interview with Clark Smith is what Bertrand Russell would call 'a meaningless utterance'.

John Falcone, winemaker
Rusack & Falcone Family Vineyards, Solvang, CA
This does not surprise me at all. I can agree with Clark on some issues, but more so the media is what has generated this type of winemaking. Many of us are “score chasers”, and we want to know how the last 98 point wine was produced. Therefore we try and find out and then do the same thing, which usually doesn’t work, but yet owners and winemakers are influenced by the scores and want to know where that silver bullet is to achieve this. Plain and simple this has already happened with Chardonnay, so picking on Napa Cab is a likely follow-up to Chardonnay, where winemakers talk terroir, but truly the terroir is in the processing not the site, when utilizing these types of technology.

Deane Foote, winemaker
Foote Print Winery, Temecula, CA
After reading and attempting to understand what Mr. Smith was saying, I concluded that he is saying the wine industry in California is going down hill. His reasons as I understood them were for the most part, over manipulation of the wine through artificial means. His statement that he could not tell one Cabernet from another I found particularly interesting. There are several wineries in Temecula with the same problem, according to my taste buds. Perhaps my views are a bit skewed as our 20 acre farm is 100% organic, citrus and grapes. Many of the wineries use enzymes and the addition of tannin, I do not and I believe it shows in the wine. I receive many comments on the wine I make that it is clean and smooth. Many people who swear they don't like Merlot or Syrah love mine. I add nothing to my wine but a small amount of SO2. I use no stainless, everything goes into oak barrels. By the way I make nothing but reds, but if I were to make white I would still put it in neutral oak for at least 18 months for clarification and aging. In 2003 I made small batches of Chard, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc. We are still drinking them today, although there is little left, and even though they are dry they are loaded with fruit and, I think, delightful. My particular taste does not favor hi alcohol wines so I keep them between 12.5 and (no higher than) 15%, except for my Port and Late Harvest Zins.

In a nutshell I do not believe it is necessary to use additives or filtration. I find that mother nature, the barrel and time will do 99% of the work for me. One thing I did not mention is that I only produce 800 to 1000 cases per year so it makes it easier for me to watch over my children, as I call them, whereas a winery producing many thousands of cases may not have or may not choose to take the time due to market demands. I choose to make a wine that will stand on its own and be enjoyed without food if that is what people want, yet they still go very well with a wide variety of dishes and BBQ.

Perhaps it is my organic background, but I want to taste the grape for what it is. I think every wine is unique and should taste so. The addition of additives, in my mind, takes that uniqueness away.

Ian Ribowsky, Portfolio Manager
Palm Bay Imports, New York
Back to the roots of winemaking with modern technology and correct experience – make a wine that expresses terroir or why bother.

Nick de Luca, Winemaker
Dierberg and Star Lane Vineyards, Santa Ynez, CA
Say what you might about Mr. Smith. Despise his approach to winemaking--or embrace it. Here is that rare individual who has really examined the philosophy that guides his hand. Kudos to that!!! We should all be so passionate.

Dr. Vernon Singleton, Professor Emeritus
V&E Dept. UC Davis, Davis, CA
Since even his student days, I have been confused by many of Clark's comments, but I can agree with some. Removing alcohol from wines too high may help, but I think it would have been better to pick sooner, get less alcohol, retain more acidity and varietal character, and avoid prune-jam flavors. Dr. Peterson's comments [#1 above] were right on. Also, it offends me to have unnecessary four-letter words said to and written by interviewers. Finally, too many wines today are "processed" so that they are no longer dry -- almost all whites and many reds. We diabetics hate it!

Robert Cartwright, Winemaker
Ponte Family Estate Winery, Temecula, CA
I really don't know what all the hoopla is about regarding Clark Smith and his company. He is providing a service to the industry, so if you don't like it, don't use it. Winemakers all over learned in a couple of months when they started in the industry that all of the teary-eyed myths and romance that is associated with the beverage (yeah, that’s right, I said beverage) were thrown right out the window when they fully understood how wine was produced. Not only is it a beverage, it is also a business. So if you are looking to sell more wine and low alcohol wines are in vogue, you're gonna de-alc your wine. If adding oak staves and micro-oxing your wine rather than putting it in barrel to produce a quality product saves you thousands of dollars you’re going to do it. I don't always agree with what Mr. Smith states, some of it requires knee-high gators and a shovel, but then again he is a salesman too as well as an innovator. We need people like him to keep the rest of us thinking.

Joel Tefft, winemaker/owner
Tefft Cellars, Rattlesanake Hills, WA
Great wines can still be made with the help of technology. High pH super oak wines score well but with age do little to please the palate. I have seen many die quickly. We in WA are blessed with good acidity at harvest and I have seen my wines age extremely well at 15 years now, which was surprising and gratifying. Let’s get back to wines that people can enjoy now without all the blather.

Stewart Johnson, Winemaker
Kendric Vineyards, Marin, CA
There is plenty to be said for the structural balance/harmony/sweet-spotting enabled by Clark Smith's bag of tricks. This isn't, however, the area where his case for enhancing terroir is strongest. Reasonable palates will tend to converge upon one or two points along the alcohol reduction continuum as "sweet-spots," and adjusting the wine to these points of convergence can be seen as a move toward homogenization. (I would anticipate that the response would be that, since the sweet-spots are different for every wine, the adjustments made are unique to any given wine.)

Rather than dwelling on structure, I think the stronger case can be made that de-alc can unmask a wine's more subtle and distinctive flavors. In the course of de-alc, a wine can go from being weighty and impactful (but not unlike much of the rest of the wines on the market) to smaller but delivering subtle floral and spice notes that were obscured in the higher alcohol versions. I'm agnostic about whether this means that the lower alc version is better expressing terroir, but in a couple of exposures to the process, I have seen wines become more distinctive from the pack rather than less so.

It should also be noted that when a winemaker chooses to make a more subtle, less voluminous wine, they are most often running against the grain of market demand rather than pandering to it. The question that interests me is whether (leaving aside color, tannin, etc.) the flavors unmasked by de-alc were achievable simply by picking earlier. I'd like to pick half of a lot at 23 and the other half at 26, de-alc (and probably acidify) the higher brix lot to match the lower brix lot and compare the two. It would be great to find that running the brix up had been pointless or worse, but I don't know if that would be the case. Has anyone done this?

Eric Luse, winemaker
Eric Ross Winery, Glen Ellen, CA
I've been in the media as a photographer with the Chronicle since the early 80's. We (John "Ross" Storey and I) started Eric Ross in 1993. Among the major reasons I began making high end home wine from high end fruit was the wonderful group of growers & winemakers I met through covering the industry. Yes I got "hooked" as Patrick Campbell called it and ended up going through the Viticulture program with Rich Thomas at Santa Rosa Junior College and many courses through UC Davis.

When we started Eric Ross both of us loved food and how wine interplayed with it. We weren't driven to make a 100 point wine but one that was awesome as a food wine. If we had been driven to make a huge fruit oak bomb I suspect the scores would have been great and we would have become known as a "cult winery" or at least a winery that just blew out of its products that were an easy sell.

We're now, after 14 years, blessed with a large wine club and tasting room that is filled with all those disjointed wine buyers that have tried buying wine by the numbers and don't get it -- that just doesn't work for their palates. Thank goodness this country still has people that have held on to their independent roots!

Technology is staggering, not only in the wine business but publishing as well. With the Internet the newspapers in this country seem poised to become the next TV channel of the future. I applaud you for being a forum for this amazing subject that needs to be discussed before the entire world's wine business is driven by sales technology and not individual palates. We will wake up wondering why we have a sea of wine from Ocean A that just isn't selling anymore, and when did the masses move to Ocean B?

We have more balance in Washington DC now than we've seen in the last 6 years. That same arena to debate these topics out in the open seems to be affecting us in our little world as well. Keep it up!

Regards, Eric

Deane Foote, Owner / Winemaker
Foote Print Winery, Temecula, CA
I fully agree with Mr. Petersons comments [#1]. Too many winemakers -- and wineries for that matter -- seem to be more interested in the bottom line $$$ than making a good wine. I believe that much of the industry, judges included, have forgotten what a true Cab, Merlot or any other variety should really taste like. I believe that those of us who make a wine for what it is, without all the new found additives, will in the end prevail.

Clark Smith, Co-Owner
Vinovation, Sebastopol, CA
Thanks for telling my story as you see it. For elucidation of the technical points, perhaps some readers will want to visit my own blog at

Gideon Beinstock, winemaker
Clos Saron, Sierra Foothills, CA
One of the key points that comes up in this discussion is the fact that some things are inevitably lost when (a) wine production is driven by market forces, and more specifically by (b) "economy of scale". But can you point a finger at anyone who has to deal with financial realities?

As Clark points out, a true expression of terroir represents a certain risk, as it necessitates explanations... and it therefore may have to be avoided if commercial success is the ultimate goal.

As to his bag of tricks, I have found it useful when having to deal with stuck fermentations and the occasional out of balance alcohol level. However, my approach is to learn from these incidents and improve my work in the vineyard to avoid getting stuck again. I much prefer making wine by traditional low-tech methods without having to resort to these corrective actions. What do I call traditional? True organic farming, no inoculations, open-top wood fermentation, punch-down only, little or no acid corrections, no fining, no filtration (whites excepted), aging on primary lees until bottling, very little sulfur for whites, none for reds after fermentation.

And why? Because of my impression that these methods both maximize and tame the expression of our terroir, which is quite pronounced and dominant.

The one modern convenience I do use and am thoroughly grateful for is the MOX equipment. It's ideally suited to our super-tannic red grapes and helps tame the beast. Before its existence, we were splash-racking our reds on a DAILY BASIS during and even after fermentation, with huge fans directed at the splashing wine to maximize oxygenation. And then frequent rackings to keep the wine from getting overly reduced. If your wines are extremely reductive and vigorous as ours, this technique will not make them all velvet and melted ice-cream in the International Style, but would certainly help evolve, refine, and integrate the tannins. And it does stabilize color at the same time which is an added benefit.

To further borrow from the musical world, I do not believe that a harpsichord is better than an electrical piano simply because it has been around for a longer time; I think it depends on the music you want to play on it, wouldn't it?

Bruce H. Rector, winemaker
Ahh Winery, Glen Ellen, CA
To grow wine, such that a person might recognize it as coming from an area, and then a small piece of land within that area, is having the ability for all involved to keep their eye on the prize.

The prize is the greatest marketing proposition of all time: If you want those qualities, it only comes from this land! Your marketing plan is perfected, your plan is the land. Now you just sit back and see if anyone likes those qualities.

It takes several years and several thousands of dollars to know the true answer. And few people think they have the time and money to get to that answer, so they hedge the bet. This is where a winegrower (a.k.a. winemaker) will stand in front of a mirror just like an adolescent, and try different hair products so people will like them more.

If you are selling those hair products, this is the human being finding their full potential. If you are God, you are baffled or amused by the antics (it depends on what kind of day God is having). In any event, the party of the first part and the party of the second part are both right.

Now, because most journalism shies away from two things being right at the same time... the two issues of vineyard-potential-elevation and vineyard-revelation-through-time have squared off in the human mind.

This is a pity because the real prize we should keep our eyes on is the closure. Yes! The thing that keeps the wine from leaking out of the bottle. Once enough of us have agreed upon a closure that is effective, has no taint, does not need unusually expensive equipment to apply, and it has the appropriate amount of ceremony at opening... then, and only then, can we continue this debate about potential v. revelation.

As a group (generally) we have taken our eye off the prize and have come to tolerate a failure rate due to taint that should make us the laughing stock of industries. I can't think of another industry that tolerates what we tolerate. Except for the unfortunate and sad state of affairs in the prison industry that keeps themselves employed with a 70 to 80% recidivism rate. Sorry to change the subject.

So let's keep our eye on the prize: first the closure, then the land. I can't wait to get to the second discussion, cuz it's a juicy one.

K. Payton, asst. winemaker
Santa Cruz, CA
Mr. Clark says, "Let the market decide..." That is precisely what we cannot do. We are not informed of his additives or manipulations. Bad poetry and libertarian clichés are all we can expect to find on his back labels and those of his clients. No mention of GM yeasts, tannin tablets, Mega Purple, oak staves, etc., let alone any mention of what unhealthy, over-cropped vineyards from which the subsequently corrected grapes were sourced. On the one hand we consumers are labeled 'ignorant' with respect to modern wine fabrication, on the other, we are somehow, simultaneously, in the driver's seat, steering the market. It seems to me that Mr. Smith is enriched by the cultivation of an ignorant palate, by a commercial cynicism directed largely at baby boomers: “If it tastes good, drink it!”

Were he a true visionary, if truth for him was at a premium, his back labels, and those of his clients, would read less like Abbie Hoffman than Philip Dick.

Vinovation, Inc., aka, Blade Runner Industries. Hey, it might work!

Ray Krause, Vinificator
Westbrook Wine Farm, O'Neals, CA
Clark's very existence points to the dearth of wine growers versus grape growers in California. I am reminded of the poignant observation, "Why is there never enough time to do it correctly but always enough time to do it over"? More passion in the vineyard means less work for the repairman.

Jeff Hinchliffe, Winemakrer
Hanna Winery, Santa Rosa, CA
Certainly inelegant, the technologies provided by Vinovation (and Conetech) have improved millions of gallons of wine. They are necessary fixtures in mainstream winemaking. The elegant solution, which requires thoughtful, and sometimes retro, vineyard management and winemaking, is an opportunity for those who eschew the new technologies. They should create artisanal, traditionally crafted wines that are labeled and marketed as such. In my opinion this incipient reaction to the new technologies will ironically improve wines produced by traditional methods. Clark, perhaps inadvertently, has helped spawn a new generation of holistically thinking winemakers.

Barbara Ensrud, wine journalist
Why pay Clark Smith thousands of $$ to take out alcohol when, by picking earlier, retaining structure and character!!, you can make a wine that's healthier to drink WITHOUT additives or manipulation, that either drinks well immediately or has a chance to improve with age, developing complexity and nuances of flavor that NO amount of manipulation can provide? This is a no-brainer for serious, non-greedy producers who are not single-mindedly profit-motivated but proud to make a quality product.

Gideon, Winemaker
Clos Saron, Sierra Foothills, CA
Why pay Clark Smith thousands of $$ to take out alcohol when, by picking earlier, retaining structure and character!!, you can make a wine that's healthier to drink WITHOUT additives or manipulation, that either drinks well immediately or has a chance to improve with age, developing complexity and nuances of flavor that NO amount of manipulation can provide? This is a no-brainer for serious, non-greedy producers who are not single-mindedly profit-motivated but proud to make a quality product. “Why?” because many of your [wine media] colleagues, especially the really famous ones, prefer fat, super-ripe, low acid wines, which are naturally created by harvesting late, later, latest. And they bring in the ratings, which bring in the $$$,$$$, which are the real motivation for many of us, simple human grape-growers.

Stephen Abbanat, Winemaker
Contra Costa Wine Group, Oakland, CA
One of the earlier comments suggested "Clark, perhaps inadvertently, has helped spawn a new generation of holistically thinking winemakers."

My brief amount of interaction with Clark suggests that it is all together intentional. I also have no problem understanding what he has written and suggest that most of you are in "violent agreement."

From what I see, his view of wine making includes a few propositions.

1) Wine making has both commercial and artistic elements. As artists we should have both knowledge/skill and a vision we aim to articulate. As commercial entrepreneurs we need to consider what will sell when we make our product, hence appealing to a customer by being good is smart strategy. Each of us have a choice of how much art or commerce we want to pursue.

2) Generally speaking, we should apply the highest level of skill to our creations, whether it is commercial skill or artistic skill. So I think Clark's comments about "losing knowledge" by being dependent on electricity is really about his sadness that wine makers have become a bit lazy and/or lost skills that could be valuable tools in their toolkit. It is less about the actual end product than about options. For example, I am a certified Pizzaolo and the challenges of using a traditional wood fired oven vs. perfectly controlled modern electric ovens are similar to this debate. Few realize that pizza is extremely complex, and some flour works better in uneven temp wood ovens, based on protein content. Understanding how it works, is power. That said, a pizzaolo who understands perfectly how to manipulate an oven to direct three distinct types of heat to a pizza crust can choose and control their art better than one who just puts it in the oven to bake. So generally I think outside of the sales part, Clark would say his tools are equal to any tool you might use. Micro-ox via wood is not better or worse than micro-ox from sophisticated pumps and copper tubes.

3) Finally, winemaking processes, technology and technique are and have never has been an absolute, static thing. The science and "production innovations" are only a progression of learning about tools to perfect our art. One tool is no better than another, but also it is good not to lose good tools, just because old. An artist who abandons the brush and forgets to train their hands to use it is losing skills of value. Just because graphics programs can now manipulate pictures to the pixel level, doesnt mean we don't improve ourselves by being able to use our hands. Hense we should still taste grapes and know how to understand their ripeness by mouth, even if we have hydrometers and acid tests. Our sensory knowledge is deep, complex and analog. A perfect compliment to the digital tools, allowing us to improve what we produce.

Judging those who use the computer because we are in love with the brush is also a bit silly. We would all be still storing wine in animal skins if we never improved our approach.

Just some rambling thoughts.
Thanks for reading.