Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft

Clark Smith is a well-known figure in California winemaking circles. In the early 1990s he patented the use of reverse osmosis coupled with distillation for reducing alcohol levels in wine. This is one of the services his consulting company, Vinovation, offered winemakers, with microoxygenation being another. Smith le Vinovation shortly after it was acquired by Wine Secrets in 2008, and now consults independently, as well as writes on winemaking issues. This book is based largely on a series of his articles, brought together into a coherent whole under the banner of “postmodern winemaking.”

So what, exactly, is postmodern winemaking? According to Smith, it’s the rejection of the modernist belief that rational, organized inquiry and reductionist science is the only legitimate—or the best—way to understand the science of wine. The reductionist approach has been tremendously useful, but has proved ill equipped to provide answers to more holistic questions. “Postmoderns seek instead to move beyond rationalism as the sole determiner of what is true, beautiful, sustainable, and good,” says Smith. “More room is allowed for intuitive leaps, the power of myth, and the working of natural forces that we neither control nor fully grasp.” Smith states this position eloquently in the following quote:

“The experience fine wine affords, for which we shell out the big bucks, does not arise through scientifically delineated natural processes controlled by technical best practices; rather, it is a dance between specific, unknowable ecological particulars (climate, soil, microbiology) and the peculiarities of human perception that are brought to bear when the cork is drawn, all orchestrated through the invisible guiding hand of the winemaker.”

One of the experiences that led Smith to this position occurred while he was doing some work with Benziger, attempting to make a nonalcoholic wine. He began with a simple base wine, stripped it of alcohol and then added flavor additives to create something more like wine. But it didn’t work. “We ended up with what tasted like a bland base with a bunch of flavor notes sticking out as bizarrely as spiked hair.” He continues, “I now know that what was missing was the aromatic integration that good wine structure applies. There was nothing wrong with the technology; rather, because the base wines weren’t made artfully, they could never accept the flavors and meld them together into a soulful singularity.”

This idea concurs with recent research by Vicente Ferreira and colleagues at the University of Zaragoza in Spain on the non-volatile wine matrix. In Ferreira’s experiments he stripped a white wine and a red wine of their aromatics, creating an odor-free wine matrix. If you add white wine aromas to a red wine base, it smells like red wine, and vice versa, illustrating the importance of the wine matrix.

One of Smith’s key messages is that the structure of red wines, built by the skilled use of oxygen at the right time during winemaking, creates a wine matrix that then carries and supports all the different wine aromas. Even the sensory impact of rogue yeast Brettanomyces, which is normally undesirable, can work in the context of a wine with appropriate structure. Winemakers shouldn’t be so scared of Brett, says Smith, but rather should create a nutrient desert for it by encouraging good microbial populations to grow, not leaving much room for Brett. If there’s then a little bit of Brett, given the right wine structure, this shouldn’t be a problem. This then allows winemakers to work at higher pH with less fear, with concurrent beneficial effects on mouthfeel and flavor.

So Smith’s view of wine is a holistic one. “We do not seek to pump up the positive Aroma Wheel™ attributes and suppress the negatives. Instead, we try to merge all the wine’s flavors into a coherent whole, like a well conducted orchestra producing a unified, soulful voice,” he writes. This sort of figurative language is very Clark Smith; he’s a skilled communicator, easy to read, with a nice light touch. Some might find his style too informal and ‘cute.’ but he does bring to life some potentially dull topics.

This is a brave book, fusing data, experience and intuition in a way that scientists rarely attempt. This sort of extrapolation beyond the data is something that most trained scientists will find uncomfortable, but the key issue is whether it is done well.

With chapters covering a broad range of topics, including oak, presses, tannins, filtration, fl ash détente, alcohol levels, reduction and minerality, there’s lots for wine geeks to sink their teeth into, and it’s pretty digestible. Whether or not this book is for you will largely depend on how you get on with Clark Smith himself: He’s present right in the center of the text. Overall, I think it’s a significant and much-needed contribution to the literature of winemaking.

“The modernization of winemaking in its every aspect has left us with clean, solid wines of greater consistency than ever,” writes Smith in the introduction. “But they are missing something.”

Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft by Clark Smith (UC Press, Berkeley; 2013; $34.95)

Reviewed in W&S August 2014.