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Winemakers Must Come Clean: Clark Smith

Author Clark Smith aims to turn grapes into "liquid music"
© Clark Smith | Author Clark Smith aims to turn grapes into "liquid music"
Clark Smith tells W.Blake Gray that wine producers are being economical with the truth about what goes on behind winery doors.

Clark Smith thinks many winemakers aren't being honest with their customers, because they can't.

"Almost everybody uses [modern] technology, but they want to be seen as on the artisanal side," Smith says. "That's why we all 'do the minimum,' whatever the hell that is. It's an illusion, and we've worked very hard to create it. I'm offering an alternative that we just be straight with people."

Smith's new book, "Postmodern Winemaking," is an occasionally dense text studded with moments of poetry. He can go deeply into the molecular changes in wine and the methods that cause them. And his embrace of wines is inclusive; on the phone, he bristles at the idea that wines with less oak flavor could be considered "better."

But what he most wants is harmony, minerality, and a sense that the flavors combine into something more moving than pure chemistry would suggest.

Smith defines "postmodern winemaking" in the book as "the practical art of touching the human soul by rendering its grapes into liquid music."

Smith has been making wine in California for more than 30 years. He was the founding winemaker for R.H. Phillips in the 1980s. He invented a reverse-osmosis method of alcohol reduction, and participated in early trials of micro-oxygenation. As the founder of consulting firm Vinovation, he's a world-traveling wine troubleshooter.

He makes very different styles of wines under the WineSmith label for his own amusement and slight profit. He makes a wine called Faux Chablis by reducing the alcohol of Napa chardonnay with reverse-osmosis (though personally I've never found it to taste at all like Chablis), and a more primitive wine called Roman Syrah with no added sulfites.

Smith looks at his various tools as a chef using different types of pans.

"What early micro-oxygenation allows us to do is go in and create tiny little beads that integrate the flavors, that create something that's more soulful," Smith says. "It's just a cooking technique. It's like making a souffle. Micro-ox is just like a stove. Winemakers don't like to talk about these things because when they do, they get demonized. You could say Paul Prudhomme's got a stove and he uses it to blacken steaks. I don't like blackened steaks, so I'm going to get rid of my stove."

L-R: Two of WineSmith's labels; Smith pictured with his reverse osmosis machine
© WineSmith/Clark Smith | L-R: Two of WineSmith's labels; Smith pictured with his reverse osmosis machine

Another high-tech solution Smith espouses is flash-détente, a French technique in which grape must is heated and pumped into a vacuum chamber. Some of the water is removed from the grapes as steam, so the technique can be used to concentrate watery grapes in a rainy year.

Flash-détente allows wineries to remove aromas from the grapes that they absorbed from the environment around them. This sounds less than romantic; consumers are often told of the aromas that wines absorb from being near eucalyptus trees. But Smith writes that the reality is more prosaic.

"In one Pinot Noir vineyard located along Highway 12 in Carneros, the diesel exhaust was overwhelming, leading me to speculate about the boutique Cabernet vineyards lining Highway 29 (in Napa Valley) that drink up the fumes from millions of vehicles every year," he explains. "The renowned austerity of Napa terroir may be nothing more than tourist smog."

Consumer misunderstandings of winemaking also lead wineries to overstate the importance of new oak barrels, Smith believes.

"The magical changes that occur in the maturation process in the barrel are not easily replicated," he writes. "Barrels breathe. They inhale a small, steady dose of oxygen. More uniquely, they exhale, cleaning the wine of funky off odors ... Old barrels do all these things quite as well. So we buy new barrels, why? New barrels as a source of barrel extractives are fiscally foolish and environmentally reprehensible."

Wineries like to show off their new oak barrels to visitors, but Smith is unimpressed: "I find it silly that we regularly purchase pieces of fine oak furniture for $1,200 each to use as flavoring agents." Instead, he recommends that wineries use only old barrels, and employ high-quality wood chips for adding oak flavors.

"Never buy another new barrel," says Smith. "But don't tell anybody, because barrel producers throw really great parties, invitation only. I hope you appreciate how many convention perks this advice is costing me."

L-R: The cover of "Postmodern Winemaking"; Smith loves old barrels
© University of California Press/Ravines | L-R: The cover of "Postmodern Winemaking"; Smith loves old barrels

In Smith's view, yield per acre is another area where image trumps winemaking needs. "Far more Napa vineyards are undercropped than overcropped."

"From the simple logic of how a vine works, it makes no sense," Smith says. "But it makes great marketing sense. If I have the courage to throw most of it away, it must be really good. You get into this competition of the low yield of the millionaires who don't really care about whether the wine is any good or not. I'm a ton per acre. Well, I'm 3/4 of a ton. It's all a part of the lack of trust between winemaker and consumer."

Smith tries to address a couple of key buzzwords in the book. One is "manipulation."

"Why, for example, is electricity okay?" he writes. "What about stainless steel, inert gas, plastic hose? Are harvesting, crushing and pressing manipulations? Together with natural wine advocate Isabelle Legeron, MW, I have proposed a definition for manipulation. Manipulation is any winemaking practice that you as a winemaker, or your marketing department, are not willing to confess to your customers or the press."

As for "natural wine," Smith obtained from Alice Feiring a list of proscriptions for natural winemaking – as close to a definition of "natural wine" as anyone has come after years of using the term. And he suggests that the natural wine movement should come up with a certification mark, much as organic and biodynamic producers have done.

The communication with Feiring shows Smith's ability to talk with his opponents on issues, which is his main point.

"It is really complex to make wine," he says. "People who know nothing about it make these pronouncements. You want to drive the bus. You don't want the winemaker to drive the bus. But you don't say that at a restaurant. You say, the guy who cooks my dinner, I want him to have every tool he's got in the kitchen.

"There's a Catch-22. It's reasonable to be suspicious of winemakers who aren't being straight with you. But it's like a bad marriage. As long as that suspicion is there, they're not going to be straight with you. Somebody's got to start a conversation."

* "Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft," by Clark Smith, is published by University of California Press at $34.95 (24.95 pounds).

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  • Comments

    Jason Smith wrote:
    29-Aug-2013 at 22:13:08 (GMT)

    I can understand why they use more new oak in Napa. From my experience those Bordeaux varieties tend to integrate better with oak. Better than say a double oaked foothills Zinfandel with 17 percent alcohol.

  • Jason Smith wrote:
    29-Aug-2013 at 21:22:18 (GMT)

    Rich, you can find used barrels through there are several companies that only deal in used barrels. Wine barrels are usually made from white oak,,,and from what I've heard, even though it is renewable there is a shortage of white oak from France. There's even way less in my home state of Missouri than there were 10 years ago. Also I'm not sure about the accuracy, but I've heard that a 100 year old tree only makes about two 59 gallon barrels, depending on the type of cut the cooperage uses.

  • Ron Leasingham wrote:
    29-Aug-2013 at 21:09:33 (GMT)

    The wineries using the technologies listed above are doing so because it's efficient, has very predictable results and most importantly, is much better for the bottom line. The vast majority are using these methods for mass produced, low cost wines where it makes financial sense to do so. But does it make significantly better wine? One sees the occasional great review or recommendation of some wine under $10 a bottle and I'm sure they employed a lot of these techniques with great results. However, what explains the disproportionate number of excellent reviews for wineries that still use, french oak barrels instead of chips, still allow the wine to age in barrel instead of speeding it up with micro-ox, still try to pick fruit at the right time instead of having to correct over/under ripe fruit using flash-detente or reverse osmosis, and keep vineyard owners from cropping heavy? These wines routinely score higher when tasted blind against these mass market produced products. If Mr. Clark's methods ensured the best possible wine is produced, the world would be beating a path to his door.

  • Rich Davis wrote:
    29-Aug-2013 at 18:56:10 (GMT)

    Anyone know where I can find those used barrels, Smith refers to? When all the used barrels are utilized, what then? How can a renewable resource be environmentally reprehensible? Most winemakers I know are of good character with high integrity. The insinuation here is a disconnect for me.

  • Don Baker wrote:
    29-Aug-2013 at 18:41:54 (GMT)

    Does this mean that all winemakers, including Mr. Smith, are liars?

  • Joe Verbeets wrote:
    29-Aug-2013 at 17:16:43 (GMT)

    That a babe Joe, dismiss Smiths views as a scientist with yours as a what? Did you read the part about oak adjuncts in oak barrels? By the way, I'm sure there low vigor soils in the Napa Valley, but they are very hard to find. Under cropping is everywhere. It doesn't have to be Clark's, but crack a book Joe.

  • joe wrote:
    29-Aug-2013 at 16:49:29 (GMT)

    Hog-wash, or no talent ass clown? Either way you're right. Nio new barrels means no old barrels. Napa low crop for low vigor soils and vine health seems a sound practice for the long-term farming health of a vineyard, as well as leaving vineyards fallow for a period of time between plantings. This is just a man with opinions, and we all know opinions are like a**holes. Reverse osmosis okay, but pasteurization bad? Advocating oak adjuncts that do nothing with oxygen transfer and elicit worse oak flavors than new barrels? There is only one thing I learned from this article... I won't be buying a book.

  • gabe wrote:
    29-Aug-2013 at 03:59:42 (GMT)

    All old barrels were once new barrels...

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