Feature Article
  Sign In
Subscribe to our newsletter
Bookmark and Share  
print this article    

Feature Article

Technology enhancing wine

Clark Smith challenges the perception that all technology-enhanced wines taste the same and states
"it need not be so."

America (Country Appellation)

Spoofulated or Artisanal?

“Whatever people in general do not understand, they are always prepared to dislike; the incomprehensible is always the obnoxious.”
~Letitia E. Landon, author (1802-1838)

by Clark Smith
November 28, 2007

In this space, it’s my intention to provide wine enthusiasts with a winemaking insider’s point of view on issues which concern them. As much as possible, I intend to skirt my personal endeavors and serve the readers’ interest above my own. But to do so, it seems I need to clear the air, just this once, by delving once again into the tired old issue of wine manipulation.

Here’s the reader feedback from my first column. Kudos for content, dings for not dodging the controversy which surrounds my persona. Apparently, if I’m to be of any use as a window for readers on the winemaker’s perspective, we need to address the fact that a lot of people are not pleased with me.

For those of you who have been off-planet lately, I live at the center of a global maelstrom concerning winemakers’ obligations to consumers. The charge: Aiding and Abetting Wine Manipulation in the First Degree. Defendant’s Plea: Guilty as Charged. And by the way, where’s my Medal of Honor?

In this discussion, I don’t intend to call anybody out. I’ll mention by name only those who have conducted themselves with honor in this debate and deserve mention for it. To aid discussion of this complex and highly charged subject, I’m going to try some analogies to other branches of cooking and presentation: classic cuisine, musicianship, even women’s cosmetics.

Critics and winemakers have hit a stormy little patch in a great marriage, and we need to talk. We’re driving the kids crazy.
The ire and vitriol which characterize this debate have the taste of betrayal and broken agreements. I’m going to try to get to the bottom of what those are. I’m confident we can put enmity behind us once we realize that all the players are good guys who want the same things. Critics and winemakers have hit a stormy little patch in a great marriage, and we need to talk. We’re driving the kids crazy.

An honest, open debate on this topic would have been well-settled years ago. Ideally, proponents of the new techniques would present their wines and skeptics would taste them and discuss their findings. None of this is happening. Unlike the free, open ‘70’s and ‘80’s, winemakers are lying low and keeping mum while paparazzi fire live ammo over their heads.

Before I launch into a discussion of modern winemaking tools, I should articulate my bias for those who do not know me. Actually I have two. The first is as an owner of Vinovation Inc., a wine production consulting firm which sells goods, services, machines and consulting to 1200 wineries worldwide. Having dedicated myself to improving winemaking, I’m inclined to argue in defense of my approach. As I explained in my last piece on alcohol levels, I bear some responsibility for the shift in attitude connected with the general rise in alcohol levels in this country. As Tom Wark rightly observed, I have been at the center of the move toward the Big Wine. I certainly don’t apologize for my contribution,
Linden Vineyards in the Fall
WineSmith’s Napa-grown “Faux Chablis” is a dead ringer for the real thing.
but it’s fair to say that there have been plenty of terrible wines made as we flail around trying to perfect this newly-born sort of New World long suit.

Secondly, I make and sell wine. Since my training is largely French, the niche I’ve chosen is stylistically Old World. I enjoy offering wines which show possibilities for California outside the mainstream: Chablis-style Chardonnays, racy Cab Francs, and Loire-style Chenin Blanc aged sur lies. That’s pretty confusing to the marketplace, so I’m not likely to grow much. I’d be very pleased if readers of this column decided to try my experiments and judge my success for themselves.

UK wine writer Jaime Goode went through my wines in November and came up with an article which I thought articulated my struggle well: The surprising juxtaposition of Technology and Natural Winemaking.

DropCap here are plenty of heroes in this story. One is Randy Dunn, who is quite open in his praise of RO (Reverse Osmosis) and his condemnation of overripe fruit. Another is Michael Havens, who agreed in 2001, in the interest of openness and consumer education, to have his face plastered all over the The New York Times as an “outed” micro-ox practitioner. There are some journalist heroes out there, too. Some have supported the politically incorrect view that good wine is good wine, and those who can enhance distinctive terroir expression are welcome to their tools: Jamie Goode, Patrick Matthews, Derrick Schneider. Others lean to the conservative, but are tireless, rigorous and open: Eric Asimov, Alice Feiring.

wine glass
You decide: Is the wine industry’s glass half full or half empty?
There are villains, too. Some writers are widening the information disconnect between winemakers and wine buffs with all the good-hearted integrity of a Beverly Hills divorce attorney. Many paparazzi who have come to interview me, agenda in hand, tasted through my wines, and responded like any modern journalist when confronted with an inconvenient truth. They ignored it. Despite many compliments delivered in person, their lambastes of wine technology contain scarcely a word about my wines.

I make Eurocentric, balanced, distinctive, somewhat offbeat wines, which share the purpose of presenting alternative styles for California and thus don’t resemble the mainstream. They are not impact wines. They are harmonious, skillfully crafted wines of balance and harmony, each a unique expression of terroir. They age well.

Writers love to coax winemakers to be open. Then sometimes they nail them. When I started posting the particulars of techniques used for specific wines, it proved helpful in convincing Vinovation’s winery clients to explore style options outside the lockstep mainstream, but among the media, it has mostly made me a target. No points for honesty from this bunch. Since I consider inauthenticity the heart of the problem, it’s ironic to watch critics go for the throat when a winemaker tells the truth.

Likewise there are retailers who have joined the bandwagon, dropping wines they really like when they discover they are made by someone willing to be honest about their production methods. More dupes than villains.

I don’t know if that certain writer for the Wine Spectator who started it all in 2001 (and continues to rail against technology) has ever tasted my wines, though I sent him a flight. He won’t return my calls.

Marketing vs. Terroir: Ninety percent of the wine we drink is supplied by ten percent of wineries, mostly big corporate outfits - commodity McWine in a dozen conventional styles - who deliver their product with scientific precision and industrial efficiency.
It is time for all players to start being straight. It feels to me like many journalists are afraid to put their weapons on safety and venture out from their entrenched positions. Ye passionate scribes: I implore you to make a rigorous accounting of your politics, and consider if the wine world might be better off if winemakers could speak freely of their work without attracting fragging from those who claim to revere their craft. It’s the downside of bounty. Unlike in my salad days, a flat-out crappy bottle of wine today is quite rare. The problems which commonly haunted wine lists twenty years ago – oxidized, sour, vinegary, or just incredibly funky – are scarce today. But the science and practical expertise which eradicated these problems have sown their own generation of complaints.

It’s a timeless irony. The problems we complain of today are actually children of the solutions we found to yesterday’s problems. Our malaise du jour? Much of this good clean wine is pretty doggone boring.

The Good, The Bad and the Funky

No doubt about it. Ninety percent of the wine we drink is supplied by ten percent of wineries, mostly big corporate outfits - commodity McWine in a dozen conventional styles - who deliver their product with scientific precision and industrial efficiency. For the most part, marketing departments at large wineries and the winemakers who work for them are astoundingly responsive to market demands. Most wine is a commodity that sells based on very specific parameters that have been honed over the last couple of decades. The simple fact is that unusual wines, wines of distinction, don’t sell very easily, so the mega-boutiques don’t waste time and money making them. For them, producing “interesting” wine equals fiscal suicide.

The remaining tenth is divided among thousands of small niche producers whose main problem is an honest point of distinction. It may be an extrinsic strategy: a cute dog on
The simple fact is that unusual wines, wines of distinction, don’t sell very easily, so the mega-boutiques don’t waste time and money making them.
the label, a memorable tasting room experience, a promising appellation pedigree, or some other oddity unrelated to what’s in the bottle. But often as not, it’s intrinsic, i.e. in the bottle, a distinctive style which builds a following over time.

Anyone who hasn’t tried to do so can’t possibly imagine how much work it is to establish a new brand today. In truth, there is almost no receptivity for a new player outside the norm. You would think that all that web-kvetching about terroir would show up in the marketplace in a way that a guy could use to build a brand.

In your dreams, maybe. It’s really weird to spend all day trying to shoehorn a damned good Euro-centric Cabernet Franc or Chablis-styled Chardonnay onto crowded retail shelves and then to come home to an Internet forever moaning about sameness and “anywhere-ness.” Us small winery guys keep wondering: When are you te

READER FEEDBACK: To post your comments on this story, click here

Print this article  |  Email this article  |  More about America  |  More from Clark Smith

Featured Wines


Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [17]

Arthur , Founder
redwinebuzz.com, California
Again, I enjoyed your essay and found myself having much food for thought. My initial reaction is that I find myself somewhere between Alice Feiring's ideal of Natural Wine and a realization of the realities (which necessitate the use of the tools and methods she lists) faced by winemakers. I think the feasible alternative to creating a new, more wine geek-friendly wine style lies in the, yet uncharted, middle ground.

Larry Brooks , winemaker
L M Brooks Consulting, Napa, CA
In this overly verbose essay Clark has interesting and accurate complaints about the dilemma of the micro producer which I am sympathetic to as a small producer myself. But what is not addressed is that there are techniques and tools that are appropriate to $10 wines that are not ethical when applied to $30 and up wines. Alice Feiring and anyone else who is not a winemaker has no business formulating "rules". This can be done and should be done by the winemakers themselves as has been done in Germany and France, but given the independence and cussedness of American winemakers I don't see it occurring in my lifetime.

Bob Meadows , Retail Manager
Graziano Family of Wines, Hopland, Mendocino Co
While I may not be a winemaker, I'm not exactly the village idiot, either. I read your recent piece in Appellation America with great interest - and a few chuckles - but parts were incomprehensible to me ("paradigm shift" was a 'say wha?'). But most was very illuminating. My boss, Greg Graziano, fits the mold of the small, hands-on winemaker/businessman who strives to make ends meet with a very eclectic portfolio, and my sales pitch here at the tasting room often involves tastings which reflect the importance of subtle differences in vineyard location. I can taste Greg's passion through the terroir.
Bob Meadows

Mike Lynch , Partner
Big Bang Communications, San Anselmo, CA
I loved every word. Even the ones I didn't understand.

Eric Miller , winemaker
Chaddsford Winery, Southeast PA
This is an extraordinary status report on the industry at large. It applies to large and small, Wine-instein and Mother-nature's own... and most of us in between. I agonize when I hear negative comments about my wines, even from the best intended people, relying on standards from one region or another - but not where the grape was grown. I agonize when I realize I have done the same thing to wines unfamiliar to me. In a broad region, like the Atlantic Coast, where one of our signatures is our varied climate (I'd say 25 out of 26 vintages here at Chaddsford have been very different), we throw into the mix varying cultural and cellar practices. Not to mention a huge number of hobby winemakers at the helm of the majority of wineries. Add that to Mr Smith's broad and brilliant observations and I feel like we have at least mapped out the terrain so wineries can begin again to map out a strategy to seriously grow wine and sell it. Thank you for the tools and understanding.

Kenneth O'Farrell
Calistoga, CA
A provocative article -- nice read! To me, the salient point is rather simple: does a winemaker want to create wine or wine drink? Think of orange juice vs. orange drink. Both wine and wine drink can be tasty; however, there is a difference and the difference is how much manipulation the wine endures during the vinification process. For example, most barrel fermented, malo-lactically fermented Chardonnays today are wine drink. They can be tasty but the essence of what they once were shortly after harvest has been processed out of existence. One can make a fortune producing and selling wine drink. I saw it first hand while working in the wine business. If the consumers enjoy wine drink, they will buy it.

Paul Wrabec , Vintner
VinoGrad Winery, Sugar Creek, MO
Great article, and I know it would be even better in a live verbal presentation.

Michael Sarro , grapemaster
St. Martin's Grapeschool, Cleveland, OH
While your goldsmith is hammering out the "hand in the glass" medallion that will be The Medal of Honor, I will raise a glass of imperfect but soulful wine in salute to you. Canon #3 of St. Martin's Grapeschool is: Try to buy wine from countries whose main form of transportation is a donkey cart. Those people merely work on a contract with the vine as chauffeurs, hired to bring the wine from vine to bottle.

I enjoyed your article.

Scott Montgomery , Sales Director
Vincor Canada, Toronto, Canada
Hi Clark:
Generally I applaud your efforts to be open. I'm only half way through the article but will come back to it (off to a meeting). However, I had a question and a comment.

First the question, do you have market share data to back up your 90/10 ratio of who's selling what? Globally, I don't think it would be anywhere close to this. Stats I've seen indicate the world's largest producers only account for just over 10% share globally. Of course, in certain markets your statement might be true -- that's why I ask.

My comment is about "interesting" wines. I don't agree that wines of character are hard to sell. In my experience the contrary is true and these are often the easiest to sell. The problem is that there is a limited market for them, often accompanied by limited supply. The same is true for almost any industry -- most people drive the same sorts of cars, or wear the same sort of clothes. The "unique" is limited to those that are passionate about these items and have a greater than average interest in the product. Personally, though I happily sell wines that are basic everyday fare, I love to seek out the interesting. It’s just some days are for burgers, others for venison and morels.


Conde , Writer and Educator
placeintheglass.com, Southern Oregon
Clark misses one fundamental point: just as a chef can add too much salt to certain kinds of dishes, a winemaker can get carried away with spoofulizing. It all depends on the dish, or the wine. MOX works great with Tannat (the main red and an unbelievably tannic grape grown for centuries in Madiran -- where the patent owner of the MOX machines resides -- Clark is, I think, the licensee in America for use of such Madiran-based patented technology), but not so well with Pinot Noir. Of course, a good Super Slow Food Chef (i.e. winemaker -- I like Clark's use of that analogy) will understand these distinctions, but use of these severe technologies is too easily and too often turned into abuse, which gives us spoofulization. That is why they have strict limits on chaptalization in France (it is even illegal for anyone to carry around more than a couple of kilos of sugar in one's car in France, for this very reason). We should also have limits: on the use of chips, or the use of RO, on the conditions for which MOX can be used (horror! to a licensee like Clark) and on the addition of certain fining agents or acids. In the EU, they are much more strict about these things, and their wines show it. All things good in moderation, please.

To post your comments on this story,
click here

Most Popular