Postmodern Winemaking


Wine's Lunatic Heroes

November 2011
by Clark Smith
Much of the charm in a career making wine in America is the imperative for pioneering. European oenologues enter an industry hidebound in tradition, with winemaking procedures, styles and markets thoroughly entrenched for centuries. Their science, though certainly scholarly, possesses a self-congratulatory tone, as if to answer the question: “How can it be that our wines are so damn good?”

Not so in the New World. Here we grasp at straws, hopeful for any handhold, some vineyard/varietal/style combination that will find buyers, often toiling in obscure and uncelebrated hinterlands where consumer recognition resides entirely in our imaginations. New acquaintances in a restaurant will readily discuss the selection of European wines—whether a Muscadet or a Chablis would be better with the fish course—but an Iowa La Crescent or a Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay is unlikely to receive the same consideration.

European winemakers both envy our freedom and pity our floundering. Winemaking in the New World today is a process of continual discovery. It’s a team sport. The American winemaking scene is a fluid social organism in which diverse enterprises interrelate to advance our understanding.

Wine’s ongoing saga illustrates the interplay between science and human values in a mythos that holds profound lessons for how cultures learn and develop. We all were taught the scientific method in school, but too little is said about the origins of the hypotheses it tests. Where do theories come from? I want to argue here for honor and affection for the screwballs who are getting the ball rolling in critical new R&D areas in our industry today.

Science is no longer the engine of progress it was in American winemaking 40 years ago. The easily solvable problems that emerged in the late 1960s are yesterday’s news. Clean and simple won’t cut it anymore. The chief docket item in today’s highly competent and competitive marketplace is the pursuit of greatness. Knockin’ ‘em dead. To delve into elusive goals like terroir, soulfulness and somewhere-ness calls for out-of-the-box exploration work that sometimes benefits more from originality than solid grounding.

What we do is divide the workload. Winemakers of every stripe work the discovery process together. Team America. Breaking and remaking the mold falls to men and women of iron constitution who lack better sense. On the flip side, the pick-and-shovel work of scientific verification goes to the careful, impeccable and credentialed.

Wine industry factions are more broadly schooled than workers in most other fields. Every enologist is called upon to speak poetically, and even the most Luddite dream-weaver had better know how to titrate and run Brix levels. Enology’s foundation is solid fundamentals, but at its core it is a creative element that’s a little bit crazy—just as baseball is mostly solid fielding but depends on a pitcher who can’t bat worth a darn but can dream up the most unexpected pitch.

My fair lady
California didn’t start out as the pre-eminent producer of big, bold table wines you’re looking at today.

The Golden State came to dominate American wine production just after Prohibition, when cheap land, cheap Dust Bowl labor and WPA water projects perfectly aligned to enable our Central Valley to produce Port and Sherry for much lower prices than the established wine-producing areas in Missouri and Ohio.

Constituting nearly all California wine production in 1960, these high-alcohol products were naturally sterile and required no microbiological expertise. These were wines that actually benefited from oxidation and even steam heating. Back then, enologically speaking, we didn’t know anything.

The introduction of Blue Nun and other light, sweet table wines in the 1960s changed everything. The innovation of sterile filtration, a product of atomic energy,1 caused a tsunami swing from fortified wine to table wine in one short decade. By 1970, the vast majority of California wine was less than 14% alcohol. This meant big trouble for winemakers, and perhaps half the wine being bottled had some kind of classic defect: VA, aldehyde, geranium tone, heat or cold instability—you name it.

Brilliant work at the University of California, Davis, saved the day. Advances in our understanding of pH, SO2 management, sanitation, oxidation prevention, temperature management, control of malolactic and other microbiological sophistication swept in an era of clean, competent table wine production that grew in scale a thousand-fold by 1990. California’s 1976 success in Paris shifted the focus from light European knock-offs to big Chardonnays and Cabernets that France couldn’t match.

As competent winemaking became commonplace, the goal of aesthetic excellence—steadfastly ignored by Davis as a matter of policy2—became the new Holy Grail for commercial wineries. This is the way of things. Science conquers problems within its grasp, leaving behind the less tractable, hardcore problems to be naturally selected, Darwin-style.

Enter the dragons
This void has always drawn explorers who perceive the need for deeper work. It seems absurd that the classifications of Bordeaux should have been established in 1855 without the slightest inkling of how wine itself actually comes to be; yet it is true. Not until 1857 did Louis Pasteur, a 35-year-old chemist, elucidate the mechanism of fermentation.

Not only was this information unnecessary to winemaking in its first 6,000 years, it was also steadfastly resisted by the established rank and file. Fifteen years after Pasteur’s gooseneck flask experiments disproved spontaneous generation, Pierre Pachet, a professor of physiology at the University of Toulouse, still labeled his theory of germs “a ridiculous fiction.”

“My strength lies solely in my tenacity,” reported Pasteur.

Martin Ray’s name appears early on anybody’s list of American winemaking lunatics. Besides his odd penchant for varietal labeling and his madcap attachment to Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir, Ray was crazy enough to advocate sur-lies aging as well as bottling unfined and unfiltered. One might label him an early postmodernist, except that he was pre-modern.

In 1965, another screwball named Robert Mondavi had the temerity to install the southernm ost winery on the Napa Valley’s Highway 29 in the frozen tundra of Oakville, despite the conventional wisdom that grapes might not grow there. Still crazier was Richard Somer, who in 1961 built the first post-Prohibition winery in Oregon, planting Hillcrest Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley.

Sean Thackery, a steadfast wine rebel since the early 1980s, is perhaps the New World’s most enthusiastic student of ancient techniques, and his real contribution is to render what he reads into practice as if his winery were a test kitchen for alchemy. Another militant Luddite, Christian Mouiex, famously dumped an entire tank of Dominus Estate Cabernet after learning that it had been acidulated with tartaric acid.

Paul Frey, an unlikely visionary from Redwood Valley who presided over decades of wretched sulfite-free wines while he patiently dialed in his now-successful methodology, approached me in 1997 with the peculiar notion that red wine phenolics had the capability to consume oxygen and incorporate aldehyde. I blew him off. Only much later did I realize that the 1987 Singleton paper he had been quoting actually embodied the essence of red wine evolution, structure and aromatic integration.3

The Benziger Family’s transformation from proprietors of the world’s largest Chardonnay mega-boutique into a diminutive brand based on Biodynamics seemed almost suicidal. The list of big-time, established, savvy players also drinking Rudolf Steiner’s Kool-Aid includes Jim Fetzer and Paul Dolan, who managed, well before it was trendy, to cajole for a decade even that corporate beast Brown-Forman into green practices, proving that it could be done.

Some winemakers become heroes just by telling the truth. I take my hat off to Michael Havens, who in 2001 let The New York Times crucify him for micro-oxygenating his Merlots, and Randy Dunn, who had the courage to admit in a 2004 Wine Spectator article that he used reverse osmosis for alcohol adjustment.

Always so far out there as to stay barely in view, Randall Grahm could make this list several times. Freakishly experimental in all things, he revolutionized California’s varietal focus to include Rhone and Italian varietals, led us out of the marketing stone age “urine sample” labels of the 1970s with innovative, playful and even intellectually challenging concepts that dared his customers to smarten up. He was the first California winemaker to experiment with micro-oxygenation and the first to move beyond it. Now he’s growing grapes from seed, an obviously foolish notion…

The fool on the hill
I’ve named some celebrated successes, but the numerous lunatics who miss the mark are just as important. We benefit just as much from failed concepts as successes. These sacrifices, driven by passion, strengthen the community intelligence.

It’s hard to estimate the fraction of zany ideas that succeed. Clearly, it’s pretty small. Proctor and Gamble’s R&D Department budgets a 3% survival rate for new ideas. Even big success stories like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison ran far more failed ventures than successes.

With that kind of failure rate, progress requires a gigantic pool of courageous, visionary, obstinate, lunk-headed spendthrift wackos to keep up the momentum. Oh, and vast sums of money—most of it completely wasted. How do you screen out the bad ideas beforehand? Beats me. Who would predict that a 47-pound chicken could resonate as a major national brand? Time seems the only dependable test.

Training in the scientific method leads to an orderly, logical approach to inquiry that is better suited to confirmation than to the creative leaps new discoveries often require. The current debate about Biodynamics illustrates why the scientific process is constrained from much discovery. “Biodynamics is a make-believe world with no earthly connection to our functioning, real, material world,” writes Stu Smith of “I don’t want to live in a society that can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality.”

The bottom line is that generating useful good ideas requires a very large number of independent, creative players driven by inspiration and unconstrained by common sense. Sounds like the wine industry to me.

The missing link
I am, of course, leaving out a step.

The heroes of the exploratory phase do not speak the same English as the professional scientists who might later confirm their discoveries. Attempts to communicate holistic concepts may engender ridicule and frustration to a reductionist ear trained in science-speak. “Energy,” for instance, is not a good word to bandy about between these groups, because it has very different meanings and applications both groups think they own.

In “The Copernican Revolution,” Thomas Kuhn explains that in a world view based on earth, water, air and fire, these elements obviously arrange themselves in that order (e.g. air rises through water and earth falls). The idea that the earth is not at the center of the universe is not just blasphemy—the statement just doesn’t make sense.

Similarly, the postmodern view that wine composition does not determine its sensory properties seems obvious nonsense. But consider that the sensory properties of a lump of coal, a graphite tennis racket and a diamond is not compositional (all are pure carbon) but lie entirely in their structures. Now we can talk. The first step in new thinking is to translate the new paradigm into old language that, however unlikely, is at least understood.

What is needed is a translator. Someone who speaks both languages and is slave to neither. Harvard ethno-botanist Mark Plotkin spends his time following tribal medicine men into the Amazon’s deep forests to learn about the herbs and vines they use.4 He takes their lore and presents it to the guys in the AMA, packaged a little differently than he heard it in the bush.

This is the role to which I aspire, and why I write this column. Although I have done some pioneering, I lack the resources to explore a serious holistic winemaking system. Nor do I possess the credentials to perform a significant body of publishable research. It interests me to take on something nobody else is doing. My columns are in part love letters from the edge, written to enologists who may choose to play with them by applying scientific rigor to the hypotheses I’ve dragged back from the jungle.

In a nutshell
Discovery thus divides naturally into three sequential realms that require very different skills and temperaments.

Phase I—Exploration, Observation and Characterization of New Phenomena: The Explorer mentality is creative, non-judgmental and even unhinged. Substantial resources are put at risk. Players are often not trained scientists, but detailed records of observations are highly valuable.

Phase II—Construction of Hypothetical Predictive Models: Dogmas, old wives’ tales, apparent patterns and beliefs are translated into testable hypotheses that saner minds might examine. Requires fluency in the languages of the explorer and the experimental scientist, while slave to neither.

Phase III—The Scientific Method: Employs conventions of verification to test hypotheses, often by comparing double-blind randomized models against observed data. Exclusively the domain of the skeptical, meticulous, professionally trained scientist.

Now the bad news: Hypothesis testing is not a dependable tool.

Most scientific work is oriented toward preventing confirmation of incorrect hypotheses (Type One errors), and “significant” findings must meet the standard of avoiding false confirmation 95% of the time. The tighter this standard, the more probable that real effects are missed.5

It is not uncommon that the chances of missing a real effect (Type Two error) run 90%. This means that today’s science misses all but the most obvious effects.

Fahgettaboudit. Faced with these uncertainties, most of the time winemakers just go with what feels right. Then, long before academia can provide useful answers, the market decides the winners. This is the same method through which genetic designs are naturally selected and species are improved. Nature just goes with what works. Science plays no important active role and mostly just attempts to report what happened.

I’m doing what I can to stimulate interaction between our precious lunatics and our intrepid scientists. But by and large, it’s likely that the postmodern winemaking revolution will not be televised.6

Clark Smith is winemaker for WineSmith and founder of the wine technology firm Vinovation. He lectures widely on an ancient yet innovative view of American winemaking.

1. Bottling of table wines containing fermentable sugars requires sterile filters that can be tested for integrity through a procedure called “bubble-pointing.” Nuclepore produced the first bubble-pointable filters in the 1950s by etching plastic sheets that had been exposed to alpha emissions in nuclear reactors. Prior to World War II, off-dry table wines did not exist except for those stabilized by funny-tasting chemicals or cooked by hot-bottling, neither of which hit the big time.
3. “Phenolic Chemistry and Winemaking,” Wines & Vines, April 2011.
4. “Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice,” Penguin Books (1993).
5. Siegfried, Tom, “Odds Are It’s Wrong,” Science News, March 27, 2010.
6. Gil Scott-Heron

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