This 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.