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June 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines

Winemaker Interview

Clark Smith

by Laurie Daniel
Alternative text
Clark Smith has been called "Dr. Frankenwine," a provocateur, even the anti-Christ because of his work in applying high-tech solutions to winemaking. Smith is probably best known as the co-founder of Vinovation in Sonoma County, which has provided services such as alcohol adjustment and volatile-acidity removal to the wine industry. He sold the service end of the business last year to Winesecrets, but he continues to run Vinovation as a consultancy.

Smith also makes his own wines under the WineSmith, CheapSkate and PennyFarthing labels, based in Sonoma County. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology dropout, Smith graduated with a degree in enology from the University of California, Davis, in 1982 and is currently an instructor at Napa Valley College, Florida International University, Fresno State University and Missouri State University. He also directs the Best-of-Appellation Program at Appellation America.

Wines & Vines: You've said that Vinovation has performed alcohol adjustment services for 800 wineries per year, so clearly a lot of producers are reducing the alcohol levels in their wines. Why do you think so few winemakers are willing to talk about the technologies (alcohol adjustment, micro-oxygenation and the like) that they're using in their winemaking?

Clark Smith: In the '70s, there used to be a clear, open channel of communication with the press and with wine buffs in general, but winemakers got insular. There are now fully 50 times as many wines on the market as there were 30 years ago, and the resulting heated competition has shut down the sharing of knowledge. Instead, today you scrape for every advantage. Winemakers thus tap eagerly into technological innovations from, say, the biomedical field or NASA. These have come so fast that it is difficult for even seasoned pros to keep track, let alone school the public and the romantic press corps. Amidst all this change, there is a growing realization that the modern principles we learned in school aren't adequate to the task of making great wine, and this has added confusion to deciding just what the post-modern path should be.

So winemakers are really confused, just when a revolution in social media is demanding clear, honest answers. More than ever, consumers have become inspired to love wine as the "one pure thing" unaltered by 20th century fiddling. The lack of straight talk from winemakers has spawned a whole generation of Internet piranhas who make a living devouring ill-prepared winemakers, the poor saps. These predators have learned they can trade on the public's growing fears of technology in winemaking's sacred ground. While wine lovers may not agree at all with these sensationalists, they can't help being drawn to their rhetoric.

The public needs to create an entrée for honesty before most winemakers will come clean. That's beginning to happen with real journalists like Jamie Goode and Eric Asimov writing without an ax to grind. So heroes like Randy Dunn and Michael Havens are now willing to speak openly.

W&V: Do you usually de-alc your own wines?

Smith: I de-alc my own wines if they need it. There is no quality-based reason not to fine-tune alcohol. It works. Filtering out alcohol is certainly a more precise and non-invasive practice than the French practice of adding beet sugar.

The point of the wines I personally make under the WineSmith, CheapSkate and PennyFarthing labels is to explore alternatives to the oppressive, impact-driven style of current vogue, and in particular to demonstrate that we can out-perform France for balance, depth, length and longevity.

As in France, alcohol adjustment is one of the tools I need to achieve this, because ripeness is completely unrelated to Brix. Any California winemaker who makes dry rosé as a saignée is crazy not to de-alc, because rosé is terribly bitter at the 14-plus percent alcohol endemic to ripe California Cabernet musts. My Faux Chablis has needed de-alc five years out of six, because we seldom have the rain they get in France to dilute sugar to a good balance. In addition, wines only hit their "sweet spot" around one time in six, so sometimes they need more alcohol, sometimes less, depending on the style you want, but seldom are they balanced as is.

De-alc is very cheap for large lots, but for small ones, cost is a problem, and I agonize like everybody else about spending $1,500 extra on 200 cases.

W&V: Are you filtering your own wines?

Smith: I divide wine into structured and unstructured, and I try to avoid filtering structured wines. I find cross-flow filtration often destructive to the aromatic integration I'm looking for in my structured wines, so veg, oak and microbial aromas stick out more.

Many folks disagree, and this may be a matter of technique, so I'm open-minded that this can evolve into an acceptable technique. But right now most winemakers don't even talk in terms of structure. They think red wine is a solution. It's not.

Alternative text
This reverse osmosis filter separates water and alcohol from wine.
In structured wines, which include most red wines, tannin and color, plus other materials such as yeast peptides, are suspended in tiny beads called colloids, and their specific properties, particularly their size, control much of wine quality, including texture, aromatic integration and longevity. There are different kinds of colloids--for example, the co-pigmentation colloids, which are critical to extraction during fermentation, but also themselves unstable, needing to be converted into polymeric colloids.

Of course, to sidestep filtration, your wines need to be microbially stable, which for me means three things: complete, healthy fermentation to a nutrient desert; a warm cellar in which microbial dramas can play out and reach equilibrium; and a good, dense, fine s tructure to incorporate and integrate resulting flavors. This is the opposite of what most California winemakers are doing.

W&V: That seems to relate to your philosophy about Brettanomyces. Why do you think that so many winemakers are taking the wrong approach to combating Brett in their wines?

Smith: I don't think their approach is wrong--this ain't church. But I do think it's often unenlightened as to the alternatives present. Post-modern winemaking philosophy is new, and questions many of the things we were and are taught in school concerning oxygen, microbiology, reduction and so forth.

I advocate the opposite direction from what most winemakers are doing. It's really the application of Integrated Pest Management principles to the cellar. Instead of trying to control everything, you let nature achieve microbial equilibrium. Brett is really a hospital disease, an opportunistic pathogen caused by excessive sanitation.

The difference between noise and music is structure. Since ultra-filtration demonstrates that red wine's colloids are about the same size as a bacterial cell, for those who believe protecting structure is the prime directive, the disruption of sterile filtration is of grave concern. Dairies don't sterile-filter milk for this reason. Once you accept the need to avoid sterile filtration, three strategies emerge for stabilizing wine to eliminate that need.

First, a complete fermentation that consumes micronutrients to create a nutrient desert and thus minimize microbial activity. This works best in the absence of fertilizers like DAP. If you feed the yeast Twinkies, they won't eat their oatmeal.

Second, a good structure, which integrates aromas, is very valuable to achieving aromatic integration so Brett is perceived as a plus. Good color and tannin followed by high-level micro-ox prior to malolactic can accomplish this, but there are other techniques.

Finally, it is essential to allow microbes to play out their drama in a warm cellar for at least one summer, preferably two, in order to achieve microbial equilibrium.

W&V: Are there technologies that you're wary of?

Smith: All of them. That's what technology means. I don't consider MOx and RO to be technologies, because I've worked with them long enough to understand their power and limitations for what I'm trying to do. So for me, they're just tools now.

But I'm leery of anything with a power cord. Electricity gives us the power to do very foolish things. So we need training in how wine behaves before we attack it with technology. There's nothing wrong with a microwave per se, but you need to be a pretty good chef to avoid destroying food with one.

For more of Smith's views on Brettanomyces, visit

Chips can best barrels

For Clark Smith, the decision to use oak chips when he makes his wines is a no-brainer. For one thing, he says, he has more control with chips than he would with a new barrel. "The best chips work a lot better than the best barrels."

But he's also concerned about the environmental impact of cutting down oak trees planted hundreds of years ago in France so that a wine can be aged in what he calls "a piece of fine oak furniture." He adds, "We're cutting down those trees about four times as fast as we need to."

Alternative text
But don't forgo barrels entirely. Smith uses oak chips in used barrels. You can't use chips and oxygen in a tank to replicate the oxygen exchange that happens in barrels, he says. Barrels not only allow oxygen in; they also allow out-gassing, which is important for avoiding "tankiness," he says. Complex reactions take place within barrels, he adds, where there's a reductive chemistry at the bottom around the lees, and an oxidative one at the top.

Oak powder, he says, is too small and actually acts as an absorbent. Staves, on the other hand, are too big, with too much variation in quality. He acknowledges that there are bad chips and they could ruin a wine. But barrels, which Smith describes as "the Tupperware of the 19th century," are best used as containers. "The idea of using them as a flavorant is really quite new."


A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. Although she grew up in wine-deprived surroundings in the Midwest, she quickly developed an interest in wine after moving to California. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006. To contact her or comment on this article, e-mail
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Posted on 06.19.2009 - 19:14:02 PST
The caption below the picture of the reverse osmosis unit is incorrect. A better caption would read: "This reverse osmosis filter separates water and alcohol from wine. This RO permeate is then distilled to remove the alcohol and the de-alc'ed water is returned to the original wine". Replacing RO permeate with purified water is illegal for wine in the US.
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