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An interview with Clark Smith of Vinovation

IT'S ALIVE. ALIVE!: He's been called 'Dr. Frankenwine' and a lot worse but what Clark Smith does with his machinery is basically make wine taste good. So what's so wrong with that?

California (State Appellation)

The Man They Call a Blowhard, a Technocrat, and the Anti-Christ of Wine Speaks Out

Part I of a revealing interview with Vinovation's Clark Smith who is changing the wine industry whether you like it or not.

Whether you like him or not.

by Alan Goldfarb
April 13, 2007



The vitriol keeps up at an interminable pace, relentlessly streaming in from distant keyboards whose letters no doubt are being smudged from angst-ridden pounding.

Rat-a-tat-tat. “God, can there be a more rambling, blowhard, digressive, cornpone submission? Rat-tat-tat, “A little dose of Composition 1, Philosophy 1 and a permanent disbarment from wineries may be the solution.”

Just as unrelentingly, the report from Clark Smith’s machine gun of a brain rips across the computer screen. The screeds serve only to prove the point of rebuke. “I’m saddened to see the extent to which responders to your article by alarmists pointing at the wrong enemy,” one of his posts retorts.

But if you paid attention to Eric Asimov’s New York Times wine blog (The Pour: March 6, 2007) and really read the verbose diatribes carefully, the discerning couldn’t help but realize that perhaps Clark Smith could be right. He could be the one who truly comprehends how wine in the New World and in a potentially volatile new century, might have to be made. He could be the one to take us there. Or not.

As a figure caught up in the vortex of a roiling debate that is pitting naturally made and traditional wine versus manipulated or technological wine, Clark Smith has thrust himself onto the bow of the ship like some kind of masthead. All of it seems by design.

Speaking recently while ensconced in his small office in a corner of a vast warehouse in an industrial area of rural Sebastopol in Sonoma County, Smith readily acknowledges that, indeed, he may be all of those things he’s been called. A blowhard? Yes. A digressive? Sure. A technocrat? You bet. The anti-Christ of wine? Maybe not.

In a wide-ranging interview, he frequently rambles and veers off-course, as he compares wine to music and references the French notion of élevage (a series of Vinovation cellar operations), and of being a “skilled hand in the cellar.” Smith -- the founder of Vinovation , an increasingly integral and collateral wine industry company -- is a progenitor of technical innovation. As a winemaker and a self-styled aesthetic philosopher, Smith is dichotomous.

For example, he defends vociferously what he believes to be the absolute need to apply technologies such as de-alcoholization and induced oxygenation of wine. “Elements of the press, elements of the most passionate of wine buffs are partly drawn to wine because they imagine it to be the one unfucked-up thing. And it’s not,” he rants provocatively. “It all went out the window 50 years ago. It’s way too late and my company is doing everything it can to get us back to where we were.”

On the other hand, the MIT dropout says such things as, “Wine is non-linear. The success you’re trying to have is to touch someone else’s soul and linear science doesn’t do that very well.”

Come on Down to Clark Smith’s Wine Fix-it Factory

Apparently, winemakers in California think Smith’s Vinovation applies the right science in his fix-it shop that employs reverse osmosis to bring their 15- and even 16-percent alcohol wines down to a more appealing 14.5 percent or so. Or, if they have a need to rid their wine of volatile acidity or tame vegetal or Brettanomyces (brett) aromas, Vinovation can do that too. By employing micro-oxygenation -- in which wine is put into stainless steel tanks, eliminating the need for expensive oak barrels while “wood products” such as staves, oak chips or oak powder are employed instead –
Clark Smith brings down the alcohol.
Clark Smith brings down the alcohol in wine and brings up the flavor with his elaborate machinery.
calibrated doses of oxygen, Smith insists, can make a wine better. And even make it “soulful,” as he’s fond of saying.

He likes to refer to Vinovation, housed in a plant that once dried apples, as a “kitchen,” rather than a repair shop. He often alludes to cooking as a parallel, “except here we’re working with grapes. (It’s) the practical art of connecting the human soul to the soul of a place by rendering its grapes into liquid music. I mean that very seriously. It’s the nonlinearity and the difference between harmony and noise in music being very much akin to being the difference between harmony and flavor dissonance in wine.”

When asked if what he’s doing is a corollary between electrified music and acoustic music, he hesitates a long while. “Let’s chew on that. (But) one of the things about music is that it proves that we’re so much alike … But if you believe that everybody’s different, you can’t be a cook or a musician or a winemaker. You have to believe – and I do quite strongly – that we have a very strong shared aesthetic experience.”

When pressed about a growing feeling that so many California Cabernets taste alike – not different -- and that so many winemakers are creating formulaic, market-driven wines, Smith’s engine revs to full throttle. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons particularly gets the 56-year-old, with a wine-barrel belly, into the fast lane, even though many of his customers bring their wines from Napa to be adjusted.

“I do think that Napa Cabernets are a good example of a group of wines that are alarmingly similar,” he says. “… There certainly are distinctive wines in Napa but the ones (wineries) that are hungry and entering fairs, it’s pretty appalling to sit down and taste 75 Cabs and say, ‘You know, I don’t really think I can tell these apart on my best day' and that’s on purpose … they don’t want to take any chances.”

Who Took The Soul Out of Wine?

He blames who he calls “the bosses” -- the winery owners, their CEOs, and the marketers – for the state of wine today. “I’m telling you, the wine industry went right down the toilet when electricity and stainless steel and all of this
"The Germans won World War II
you know, in the wine industry,
because they came up with a wonderful way of making beautiful, soulless Rieslings."

~ Clark Smith
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.

“The Germans won World War II you know, in the wine industry, because they came up with a wonderful way of making beautiful, soulless Rieslings. They divided it into two kinds of wine – the beautiful and the sexy. With stainless steel, sterile filtration, inert gas, packaged microbes and the application of electricity, they came up with a whole new way to make wine which basically freezes its development.

“…They convinced the French to adopt far more reductive winemaking practices than is appropriate for Cabernet,” he goes on. “And Riesling and Cabernet are not the same thing. … And now we’re making wine like this (un-soulful) instead. That’s fucked up. Everybody thinks stainle

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Reader Comments... [21]

[1]
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


[2]
Anthony B Valenzano
Valenzano Winery, Shamong, NJ
The interview with Clark Smith is what Bertrand Russell would call 'a meaningless utterance'.


[3]
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.


[4]
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.


[5]
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.


[6]
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.


[7]
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!


[8]
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.


[9]
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.


[10]
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?

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