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Vinovation is a prime winery outsource for wine quality enhancement.

Clark Smith's Vinovation is a prime winery outsource which performs what it calls wine quality enhancement which involves adjusting alcohol levels and flavors in wine.

California (State Appellation)

Clark Smith is vilified
for changing the way wine is made.

For that he admits, ‘I’m partly to blame’

Part 2 of a two-part interview with a man who has put a controversial technology into the wine bottle.

by Alan Goldfarb
April 19, 2007

To read Part One of the Clark Smith interview, click here.


Clark Smith doesn’t exactly sit in his nothing-fancy office on a cul-de-sac in an industrial area of Sebastopol, Calif. In the space of a few moments, he turns to the laptop, to prove a point; he’s up opening bottles of his wine, to prove a point; he reaches for a couple of posters, Clark Smith pours to prove a point; and he leads an inquisitor into a faux wood-paneled hallway where, just to prove a point, he gestures to framed articles by myriad writers who have taken shots at him for making “Frankenwine.”

Dressed in a black print Hawaiian-style shirt at a dingy behemoth of a warehouse that houses Vinovation – his company, which some say is changing the way wine is being made – Smith is clearly in his element. He goes on and on, and on some more, comparing wine to music, in learned, philosophical soliloquies. It’s also clear that he is very smart, very astute, perhaps even cunning. Above all, he’s good-natured, ebullient, and extremely likeable.

But not all feel positive about the 56-year-old Smith, who uses fiendish-looking Clark Smith at laptoptechnologies that reduce alcohol in wine and adds oxygen while eschewing old-fashioned oak barrels. Some call him and his colleagues “bullying sycophants” and accuse him of “browbeating real lovers of wine.” One wine enthusiast on Eric Asimov’s New York Times wine blog (The Pour, March 6, 2007) recently wrote of Smith, “He is indeed making a product which resembles great wine in his laboratory the way Dr. Frankenstein created a resemblance of life in his.”

Nonetheless, Clark Smith, one of the great progenitors of de-alcoholization and micro-oxygenation (MOX), faces down the detractors without hesitation, seemingly with glee.

Having the Last Word, a New Jersey Tradition

In a recent interview in his Sonoma lair, APPELLATION AMERICA put it to him straight-away: I think you enjoy being in the center of this conflagration.

“It’s an interesting challenge. Am I a drama queen? I guess I probably am,” he responds unequivocally. “I’m from Jersey and we don’t take this kind of shit lying down. I’ve been thinking about these issues for 35 years and I’ve taken it on as a challenge to try to alter the conversation in such a way that winemakers can get up in the morning knowing they can tell the truth about what they do.

You include yourself as one who is being vilified?

“Well, yeah but I asked for it. I asked for it,” he says with a chuckle.

Why?

“I guess I have a Jesus complex … I’m very interested in my life making a difference.

So, you don’t mind being called a blowhard and a technocrat?

“I do. I think it’s unfair but that’s what I signed up for,” he continues. “I’m visible, so that’s what I’m going to get. And I am a kind of blowhard … I try and boil it down, but they’re complex issues.”

He begins explaining those issues, by putting it into historical perspective: “Winemaking is a place – not science itself. It’s a lot of the stuff that got laid down in the time of Galileo and Newton. … (It) was an early indicator of certain bankruptcies that come up around linear thinking.”

As an attempt to set the record straight – according to Clark Smith – he’s writing a book, “The Myth of Science: The Failure of Scientific Enology in the Vineyards of Southern California.”

“… (With) the 1970 vintage, the French figured out that ‘something went wrong here’ and they’d better press sweeter and gentler and be very careful to avoid getting tannin into the wine in the first place,” he begins. “(As a result) they began making wines that were much more shallow.

“But we still had this problem with reductive strength … Then the flying winemakers came from Australia in ’86 and said, ‘Hell, we can solve this whole thing – just let ‘em (grapes) hang longer. The tannins will be resolved and you can drink ‘em right away.’ The Italians picked it up in the ‘90s, and then we picked it up.

Is Manipulating Wine Not Part of the Process?

“I’m partly to blame, offering the ability to adjust the alcohol,” he acknowledges. He’s pushed to explain further: Some people think you’re more than partly to blame. There are people who think that you’re manipulating wine, that you’re changing wine. That what you’re doing is not natural. You use another word, “conventional.”

He’s quick to respond: “You think people want wine to be conventional? People think that an off-dry German Spätlese is a traditional German wine. That wine
Pumping wine in the de-alc process
didn’t exist before WW II. It’s not traditional. It’s conventional. It’s a good word for the latter half of the 20th century where we broke with every tradition there is in the wine industry, took everybody that had any skill out in the woods and shot them in the head.”

Metaphorically speaking, some people may want to do the same with you.

“Look at what’s happening to me. I’m getting nasty e-mails now,” he says. “Most people are quite ignorant about all the details and why shouldn’t they be? Who on earth would want to know all this shit? It’s not an insult. It’s a very obscure area. It’s very complex.

“I don’t have to call it micro-oxygenation. I don’t think we should be calling it ‘reverse osmosis.’ What we’re really talking about is the same filters that we use for sterile (sterile filtration at bottling), except they’re much tighter, so it’s just a flavor-proof membrane. That would be a more reasonable way to talk about it. But the press refuses to do so because R.O. sounds weirder. So, they’re amping up the weirdness.”

When he’s reminded that he continues to use the acronym “R.O.” on his website, he responds: “I gave up. I gave up,” a confession that he gave in to a writer, after days of discussion, who he accuses of “picking up incendiary quotes to support her hypothesis. But it’s not her job to report the facts because she’s not a journalist. She’s a paparazzi.”

You say you’re sticking your neck out by talking about these issues, but you don’t have much to lose. Look at all the attention you’re garnering.

“Yeah, I guess so, but it’s not really resulting in much in the way of wine sales. But that’s OK,” he says, while laughing.

If De-alc and Mox are So Bad, Why Are Wineries Lining Up to Do It?

Are his de-alc and MOX customers staying away?

“Oh no!” he’s quick to respond. “The people we would like to understand all this are their bosses – owners, CFOs, CEOs, marketers – and I think we’re getting through to them.”

Why shouldn’t we be afraid of technology?

“I didn’t say we shouldn’t be afraid of it,” he snaps. “Convenience technology is much of the enemy. Of my two main enemies I think we should all be beatin’ the shit out of convenience technology.”

He cites a procedure such as pum

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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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