I “Must” Do WHAT?

Rubs Me The Wrong WayThis past Thursday, W. Blake Gray put up an interview with Clark Smith he titled “Winemakers Must Come Clean”. Maybe it’s because I’m running on little sleep and a lot of stress, but this just rubbed me the wrong way. There’s are many things I HAVE to do over the next couple of months (and into the future) but “come clean” is not one of them.

Clark is plumping his new book, “Postmodern Winemaking”. In his interview with Blake, Clark asserts:

“Almost everybody uses technology, but they want to be seen as on the artisanal side. 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.”

Clark Smith is an interesting guy. I’ve known him nearly 30 years—I taught him biochemistry lab when he was studying at UC Davis, and he hired me for my first winery job at R.H. Phillips in 1987. Clark has always been a strong advocate of technology in winemaking (he’s built a couple business on it) and he’s never lacked for an opinion.

Clark has long been a proponent of interventionist methods for improving mediocre wines made from average grapes—which means the target market for his approach represents most of the wine made in the world. Technology IS good, and we can thank numerous technological improvements—some with Clark’s fingerprints all over them—for the fact that industrial wines have never been better.

But I take issue with the disconnect in his statement:

I’m offering an alternative that we just be straight with people.”

This statement supposes a “we” that doesn’t exist. A lot of wines really ARE made with very little input of recently developed technology—Clark’s all inclusive “we” is false. In fact, most wines are made without these technological interventions.

But beyond that, I object to the implication that “we” are not being straight with our customers if we don’t trumpet how “we” are using technology in our winemaking. And Blake Gray’s “must come clean” headline not only plays into the implication, it further implies that by not touting the technological solutions sometimes used in some winemaking, all winemakers are engaging in sordidly deceiving our customers.

If a winemaker is careful and lucky, most modern winemaking technology is unnecessary. Flash détente, centrifugation or filtration, micro-oxygenation, reverse osmosis, spinning cone, velcorin—every one of these processes is like a medical procedure, and using them is an explicit admission that something went wrong and needs to be fixed. In the barely-controlled chaos of industrial wine production, things go wrong all the time and these tools and procedures are absolutely necessary.

But just because these tools and procedures can rescue a bad situation does not mean they make better wine when things are going well. I have tasted the results over the years, and I have concluded—as a scientist who has done the duo-trio/triangle tastings and run the stats, as well as a winemaker—that wines made with these methods do not taste as good as wines made without them. The same goes for Clark’s absurd contention that oak alternative/extract flavor is as good as new barrel.

One of the commenters on Blake’s piece noted:

“If Mr. Clark’s methods ensured the best possible wine is produced, the world would be beating a path to his door.”

In other words—we aren’t stupid—if these technological procedures really did make the best wine, every one of us would be using them all the time. Clark is a smart guy, but his insistence that “we” are deluding ourselves about the inherent superiority of traditional methods and the actual utility of these new technologies would be insulting if it weren’t so laughable.

And the same goes for the assertion that “we” must “come clean” about using these technologies. If our customers cared, we would. Our marketing people would insist on it. When I have a customer who wants the nitty-gritty details of how I made the wine in their glass, I give it to them honestly. But every one of us in this industry knows that the VAST majority of people who buy and hopefully enjoy our product have zero interest in knowing how it is made. What they care about is that it tastes good, and that the taste validates their decision to have spent the amount of money they did.

It serves Clark Smith’s agenda to legitimize these technological tools. But it is overly self-serving to imply that “we” are all using these tools all the time, and lying about it to our customers. That is a “fake-troversy.” Blake Gray is hardly the first journalist to sell an article based on a fake-troversy, and I’m not critical of that. It just rubbed me the wrong way.

In a couple of months, when I can get some time, I won’t be so grumpy. I can chill out, and get someone to rub me the right way. Rubbing Me The Right Way

10 thoughts on “I “Must” Do WHAT?

  1. Blake Gray

    John, I told you on Twitter that I didn’t write the headline. Do you not believe me? Do you think I would lie about such a thing?

    That said, I support the headline. It represents the story.

    What I want to know is, where would you like the censorship to start? Should Wine Searcher have not published the story? Should I not have interviewed Clark?

    Should he not have published a book? Do you even realize that this article is an interview ABOUT his book?

    Should we not write about his book?

    Are his thoughts, as expressed in the book, immoral or illegal?

    At one point would you want me to say, “Clark, you are not entitled to that opinion?”

    Frankly I’m surprised at you. You’re usually a realist.

    1. John Kelly Post author

      Blake – back in July, freelance journalist Allen Clifton posted a piece with the headline “President Obama: George W. Bush Not As Bad A President As People Make Him Out To Be“. It was a Rorschach test—not a thing in the first five paragraphs was true. Below the fold, Clifton states:

      “[P]eople will read the headline, make an assumption which they then seem to believe to be fact, then perpetuate that belief without ever once reading the article. At that moment they take away “facts” base on nothing more than a handful of words…It seems millions of people are having their … ideologies built based on only headlines. They’re rarely reading many of these articles to find out if the information is credible.”

      Headlines matter, and whether you wrote this one or not, your defense that headlines must “be punchy and bring in readers” is pretty weak. The headline, and the article, present to the casual reader the false impression that all winemakers are relying on heavy manipulation to bring their wines to market—and willfully deceiving our customers that we are not relying on these technologies. That’s not an opinion, that’s a lie. Oops, maybe you find that too strong. How about—it’s a willful exaggeration intended to be punchy and bring in readers.

      It’s interesting—and telling—that you would attempt to tar as “censorship” my criticism of this piece (and of Clark’s opinion, willful exaggeration, lie). That’s a tactic similar to labeling as an “anti-Semite” anyone who disagrees with the policies of the Israeli government. What? Are you trying to censor my expression of my opinion?

      Let’s see, in this post expressing my opinion on Clark’s fabrication, I have not only plumped his book, I have also plumped both you and Wine Searcher to all three of my regular readers—albeit by disagreeing with you. That’s how debate and public relations work. But as an experienced journalist, you know this.

  2. Pingback: Postmodern Winemaking – book review « winenous

  3. Thomas Pellechia

    Sorry I missed this post.

    Thanks, John, for saying what really needed to be said, and thanks for pointing out how “journalists” who happen also to be “critics” can’t seem to see when lines are drawn, when lines are crossed, and when all they have to offer are lines–at the expense of reason.

    1. John Kelly Post author

      Thomas – I don’t know Blake personally, but it seems he makes a living selling it by the pound. He needs “punchy headlines to draw in readers.” I don’t take issue with that. I do take issue with a headline and lede that imply that an opinion based on a false premise is fact. Blake gets very defensive when criticized for this kind of fake-troversy journalism—I recall at least one epic row with Adam Lee of Siduri. It’s worth just this much of my time to push back a little.

      Regarding Clark Smith’s new book—I deplore the inclusive “we” in his interview with Blake, but not much else. However, I agree with the evaluation of the book put forth by our British colleague Steve Slatcher on his thoughtful Winenous blog: “The style is that of a preacher, or a seller of snake-oil, and make no mistake he is selling – both himself as consultant, and his wines.” ‘Nuff said.

  4. Thomas Pellechia

    Yes, every one of Smith’s essays that I’ve read gave me the snake oil sales feeling.

    A journalist needs to think about the notion that a source might simply be using the journalist; that’s why one should ask serious questions that challenge the claims, provided one knows which questions to ask.

    1. John Kelly Post author

      In our back-and-forth on Twitter, Blake asserted that his purpose in writing the piece he did was to “report” that Clark has written a book—no more. No intent to do journalism in depth. As I said, I don’t have a problem with this.

      But I take a certain wry amusement in Blake attempting to defend Clark’s opinions and fallacious assertions against my disagreement with those opinions and assertions. Blake is complicit in spreading Clark’s agitprop.

  5. Thomas Pellechia


    “Blake is complicit in spreading Clark’s agitprop.”


    Other than endorsing it, I don’t see the purpose of reporting on a book without discussion. Most people have to pay for promotion.

  6. Clark Smith


    Thank you, my old friend and mentor, for articulating with such courageous vulnerability, getting off your chest what so many of our colleagues must be feeling when they read Blake Gray’s somewhat incendiary piece. I would not have put things quite the way he did, but I do support the notion of a frank conversation between winemakers and wine lovers before it goes any further down the path of a bad marriage.

    What I like the best about your note is that you expressed your feelings with both passion and humility, as if to say “Here’s what I’m feeling, but perhaps I’ll feel differently with a bit of rest.” This combination of candor and modesty is exactly the skill we all need in order to invite a fruitful discussion.

    You have attempted to distance “most wines” from what you call “recently developed technology” and “modern winemaking technology,” as if the innovations after 1980 are somehow distinct from those in the 1960s within the context of winemaking’s 8,000-year tradition. I think there is danger in accepting the distinction between the Natural Wine Movement’s blacklisted technologies and the 20th Century’s more sweeping scientific advances such as electricity and its many children.

    Bubblepointable sterile filtration, which began with Nucleopore sheets produced in atomic piles, enabled us for the first time in history to make affordable fresh table wines with residual sugar and without the damage of sorbate or “hot bottling,” with Peter Sichel’s Blue Nun taking the world by storm, and opening the door for the California wine industry to move from 95% port and sherry in 1960 to 95% table wine in 1970, most of it off-dry whites.

    The German formula included stainless steel, plastic hose, inert gas and refrigeration. These are not traditional methods. They led to a global explosion in the production of modern white wines never before seen, including New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, Italian Pinot Grigio and the new Viogniers.

    Because we all have electricity, stainless steel and refrigeration in our kitchens, they do not appear as weird as they would to any traditional artisan a century ago. These are for the moment invisible.

    But they are very new things in winemaking, and have as much as eradicated traditional forms – not necessarily a bad thing. As the ACLU is fond of pointing out, if you do not protect everyone’s freedoms, who is going to go your bail if some day they come gunning for you?

    Many innovations we consider standard tools are now being called into question. Even Alice Feiring’s blacklist tolerates RO for VA removal, but is adamant on the subject of natural fermentations. I have always been alarmed and dismayed that chief among the Movement’s complaints is yeast inoculation. You and I don’t see this as belonging on the list of new technologies at all, and of course most of us do it most of the time. Ditto for tartaric additions. So if you want to protect these freedoms, I recommend you start talking about why you practice them.

    You are quite right that almost nobody cares how wine is made, and I do not suggest that in our marketing campaigns, we “trumpet” technical explanations. But until we make processing information available to concerned consumers and defend our winemaking choices, the conversation will be defined and controlled a tiny group naïve reactionaries. If you don’t start explain their importance, you’ll soon be hiding your yeast and ML cultures, your acids, your enzymes, your fining agents and your sulfites.

    I did not write this book to stump for any technology, but rather to simply explain what they are. I have articulated to the best of my ability how the particular tools I have helped introduce function and why one might employ them. Like any tools in the chef’s kitchen, they are, as you say, largely unnecessary.

    In the case of VA removal, one can argue for your characterization of a medical rescue procedure, but even here, the presence of a safety net allows winemakers to experiment with such previously inconceivable risks as sulfite-free winemaking, and low-and-behold, most of the time it works without the need for technological intervention. Ask Tony Norskog and Paul Frey about their lack of VA and Brett problems when the wine is permitted a complex microbial ecology.

    Alcohol adjustment is certainly a correction, be it chaptalization to add alcohol or RO/Spinning Cone to remove it. Barrels in caves are a low-tech RO system for lowering alcohol. In any case, there are few if any regions in the world where brix comes in at always the precise “sweet spot” that requires no blending or adjustment to harmonize, and I contend that adjustments of brix and acidity are as commonplace and trivial as a chef adjusting the salt in the soup, which is a silly thing to farm for.

    Enological oxygenation in its many forms is not a medical technology. It’s just a skilled and measured exposure to air, as is called “conching,” the essential step in chocolate making.
    Micro-oxygenation’s most effective use is to extend the life and integrative powers of reserve wines. Its use for accelerating aging is a widely practiced but somewhat trivial alternative use. In any case, controlled experimentation with metered oxygen illuminates vast caverns of understanding. I am still astounded that a Cabernet’s oxygen uptake capacity declines three orders of magnitude during its life.

    An understanding of oxygen and reduction is essential to expert winemaking, whatever your duo/trios may have told you. I know you better than to take seriously sweeping all these techniques into a naughty “recent” group quite distinct from standard contemporary practices.

    As I hope I make clear in the book, no winemaker conspires to deceive. We just aren’t paid enough to dissemble, and only put in the hard work and effort because of our passion for our craft. We are the heroes of this drama, not the petty paparazzi who invent charges of manipulation. But we are not as forthcoming as we need to be to get a fair public trial, and in this, Blake is right to suggest we should come clean.

    Let’s talk about this word “Manipulation.” What does it mean? My dictionary has this to say:
    ma•nip•u•la•tion (n):
    1. treatment or operation with or as if with the hands or by mechanical means, especially in a skillful manner.
    2. Shrewd or devious management by artful, unfair, or insidious means, especially to one’s own advantage.
    Nobody’s complaining about wines made according to definition #1. Those are not grapes in that glass. As everyone knows, wine is perhaps the most manipulated of all foods, and that’s just what we want. Pick ‘em, crush ‘em, ferment ‘em, press ‘em, age ‘em, bottle ‘em, and nobody minds. Those aren’t, per se, offending manipulations.

    I don’t think I am going out on a limb to interpret the desire to avoid manipulation as somehow connected to the moralistic accusations embodied in definition #2. The ire and vitriol which characterize this debate have the taste of betrayal and broken agreements. An honest, open debate on this topic would have been well-settled years ago. Proponents of the new techniques would present their wines and skeptics would taste them and discuss their reactions. That’s what Wolfgang Puck does on TV when he shows off sous vide technology or freezes cheese with liquid nitrogen. It’s fun.

    But in winemaking, none of this is happening. Unlike the free and open ‘70s and ‘80s, winemakers are lying low and keeping mum while paparazzi fire live ammo over their heads. Meanwhile, the gap is widening, and consumers can smell the inauthenticity a mile away.
    I think we can meet these passionate and media savvy zealots halfway in a forum of full disclosure. It’s going to require some good writing to articulate the issues, and your articulate voice is very welcome. My business background makes me automatically suspect and subject to misinterpretation, so other voices need to emerge.

    Winemakers comprise a club of passionate, hard-working, inspired artisans who are under-appreciated and under attack. Only by standing together against ignorance and unjust characterization can we hope to restore a tradition of candor and trust. It will not do to paint our colleagues with the technology brush and pretend that we are entirely transparent. We are all in this for the love of it and should bear witness to our dedication, study, struggle and effort. Without real winemakers to stand up for themselves, the myth of benign neglect is evermore held by the vocal press as an ideal.

    1. John Kelly Post author

      Clark – thanks for taking the time to comment on my scribblings. If you have read any of the rest of it you know I have very little patience for the “natural” wine crowd and their implied pejorative.

      You will also see that I do make a distinction between winemaking methods that are suited best for large-scale production—what, for lack of a better term I refer to as “industrial” without intending that to be dismissive (in fact I have huge respect for people who can consistently churn out huge volumes of enjoyable product)—and methods amenable to small-scale production. I also make a distinction on “why-tech”—stuff that ranges from the arguably pretty cool cool (say, micro-ox) to the silly (speakers to play music in the tanks)— that is simply unnecessary. But my distinction in calling a method “modern” is that it was developed specifically to address problems of scale.

      I am a small-scale producer. In fact, I don’t use many of the methods available in the modern winemaking toolkit—because I don’t need to. Until I do, and then I use them. It is a utilitarian philosophy that drives me, not a moral one. But when I do have to use a modern method to fix a problem I have allowed to happen through not-so-benign neglect, or some act of gods or fate, that wine most often makes it into someone else’s production—not mine.

      My complaint here was pure and simple: I will not be told how to make wine, or how to interact with my customers, by you or Blake or anyone else.


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