The Contradictory Consultant : A Look at Clark Smith and His Postmodern Winemaking

Clark Smith is a tough act to follow. By this, I don’t mean that it’s hard to step on a stage after he has danced his ideas across it, but rather that it’s often hard to understand what he’s getting at.

In the last few months, I heard Clark Smith speak twice, in very different contexts. The first one was his rambling keynote at the Digital Wine Communications Conference in Logrono, Spain, in October 2013, where he jumped from one topic to the next in rather jarring ways. The second one was an “Enlightening Winemaker Conversation” held in Long Island, New York, in December of the same year, a “technical symposium”, as it was announced, that turned out to be a very loose conversation indeed. I’ve also regularly read his Postmodern Winemaking column in Wines and Vines magazine, and read through his book of the same name published by the University of California Press.

Throughout this hearing and reading, I’ve been struck by the same thing. Clark Smith has a tremendous knowledge of the science of wine – things like oxidation and reduction, microbiology, tannins and phenolics, pH and alcohol levels. He also has a very strong technical and technological capacity, as demonstrated by his patenting of several tools to correct defects in wines, the most well-known being a patented method for alcohol reduction through reverse osmosis.

However, the conclusions he draws from that knowledge and know-how are sometimes very difficult to connect with their premises. His discussions of various technical topics often start drifting off on a tangent, making them at once hard to follow and difficult to discuss and debate. His oscillations between the technical and the artful make him difficult to pin down – something that eventually seems purposeful, the more you read him, hear him and talk to him.

Take, for instance, what he defines as one of the “key notions” of “postmodern winemaking”, in the preface of his book: “Wines depend upon good structure for their soulfulness”. The introduction of the term “soulfulness”, instead of, say, “balance and longevity” makes the notion rather difficult to grasp and define. Or to debate, for that matter.

Theory and Practice

Clark_Smith-222x222Smith’s whole concept of postmodern winemaking actually rests on that mix of technical and spiritual, of scientific and sometimes almost mystical. The results are sometimes hard to follow.

This is a writer who extolls the virtue of biodynamics “because of its impenetrability to conventional scientific investigatory practices”, but then goes on, on the very next page, to denounce “natural wine nonsense” and criticize the proponents of natural wine (notably Alice Feiring) for not providing a clear definition of what natural wine is.

He also insists that “a complex natural ecology” is essential in providing “distinctive and soulful character” to wine (and other foods), yet will advocate that bringing a wine’s alcohol content down by 3% or using cultured yeasts and other additives is a way to create a wine that better expresses terroir.

One example of this is the “Faux Chablis” he makes under his own Winesmith label. To create this Napa Valley chardonnay, Smith takes Napa chardonnay grapes at what he deems to be optimal maturity… and then takes out a significant amount of alcohol to bring out the “lemon oil” character that, he claims, is the true signature of Napa terroir in chardonnay grapes.

To me – and many others – this kind of statement is an obvious contradiction. If chardonnay grown in Napa results in high alcohol at maturity, then high alcohol is a signature of terroir. If that results in an unbalanced wine, then doesn’t that mean that the grape is simply not suited to the place? Wouldn’t it make more sense to plant fiano or roussanne in Napa Valley, grapes that would likely yield a better balance of acid and alcohol and flavour at maturity, in the valley’s climate?

Clark Smith’s argument seems to imply that this adequation between the place and the grape doesn’t really matter, because you can adjust the wine afterward in the cellar. However, if you reverse the argument, then planting grenache noir in Burgundy (or the Finger Lakes) would also make sense, because even though it would never ripen, you could produce a palatable wine through chaptalization, deacidification and the addition of Mega Purple.

While the Faux Chablis, in any case, results in a pleasant wine, there is more difficulty in reconciling Clark Smith’s theories about oxygen management in wine with some of his red, no-sulfur wines. Again, in his book on Postmodern Winemaking, the theory about why certain wines are more resistant to oxygen than others is solid, as he addresses the role of phenolics and pH. It does get a little shakier when he says that some wines’ “intense minerality” imparts them with great anti-oxidative resistance, because his definition of minerality remains a bit more vague and speculative.

In any case, upon tasting, several of the red wines he himself praised for their oxygen resistance (inviting us to leave them in the trunk of one’s car for several days to test their staying power) showed what seemed to me like clear signs of heavy oxidation. The 2010 Diamond Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Franc he showcased at the Long Island symposium showed powerful aromas of bullion cubes, Bovril, dill pickle juice and dirty martini. All of these aromas indicate significant oxidation, and none of these could be defined as varietal typicity. It is possible that they won’t change over several days after opening, but that would likely be because they are already oxidized, more than because they are protected from oxygen.

Everything to everyone

postmodernwine-coverBeyond the issues of theory and practice, what has struck me throughout these interactions with Clark Smith – and some one-on-one discussions as well – is the malleable character of his interventions and a certain looseness with the facts.

One example among many is his repeated claim that he was “supplied” by Alice Feiring, a writer who is arguably the most well-know advocate of natural wines in the United States, with a list of do’s and don’ts for natural winemaking. The list in question is in fact available for all to see in Feiring’s book Naked Wine, and was actually provided to her by Jason Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, in Oregon.

Why claim this affiliation with Alice Feiring when Feiring herself strongly disputes any such connection between them? Why try to present an advocate of natural wine as an ally of some sort, while saying in his book that the natural wine movement is “naïve and misinformed”?

The answer seems to be that Clark Smith wants to present himself as a sort of rallying figure in the debates about technology and winemaking. An article on Wine Searcher, where Clark Smith was shown as claiming collaboration with Feiring, concluded that “The communication with Feiring shows Smith’s ability to talk with his opponents on issues, which is his main point.”

Clark Smith, indeed, sometimes seems to want to be everything to everyone. His stance on postmodern winemaking – use any technology you want, but please be artful and soulful, too – seems an incarnation of that. And in many ways, one can’t help but be reminded, as one goes through these back-and-forth motions in his thinking and writing, that Clark Smith also makes a living as a consultant, a business in which getting your clients to like you and providing them with customized advice are very useful skills.

At the “technical symposium” in Long Island, he started a discussion of technology and winemaking by saying “I have no dog in that fight”. How, pray tell, can someone who created technology that strongly transforms wine and has influenced so much modern winemaking through technology claim that? “He IS the dog in that fight”, laughed a Long Island winemaker, when we discussed that statement after the event.

In the end, the most jarring thing about Clark Smith is the variable geometry of his thoughts on wine, the way he seems at once adamant about something and then ready to toss it off if the discussion or circumstances changes. He constantly oscillates between technicity and a search for “soulfulness”, between berating natural wine for its lack of definition and filling his book with statements like “In the end, winemaking is really just the art of having the right superstitions.”

Smith seems to want his natural yeast and inoculate it too. Or put another way, he seems to be a scion of Marshall McLuhan, who once famously said in a keynote address: “You don’t like these ideas? I got others!”