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Clark Smith interview
the surprising juxaposition of wine technology and natural wines


Clark Smith is a bit of a paradox. You’d expect someone whose business is applying hi-technology solutions to improving or correcting wine to be someone easy to categorize as a modernist tecchie with no understanding of the heart of wine. But Clark isn’t just a science guy who treats wine like milk or soft drinks, as a commodity to be tamed by technology. While he may dispute that there is such a thing as the ‘soul’ of wine, his primary interested in the concept of deliciousness in wine, rejecting sterile correct wines with no real personality—and he’s even made his own ‘natural’ wine, without the use of added sulfur dioxide. Read his grapecrafter blog: it’s thoughtful and tackles some of the most interesting issues in wine.

I spent some time with him recently when he and his wife Suzie were in town. We met at his hotel in South Kensington for a tasting, and then went out for dinner at Tendido Cero, round the corner on the Old Brompton Road.

Clark spent two years at MIT, beginning as a maths major, but he says that he couldn’t handle it. He then switched to chemistry, but it looked pretty well worked out. He says that he was looking for a place where enquiry into science merged with inquiry into what it is to be a living thing. He left and got a job in a liquor store. He realized that wine was a fun playground and a place to make an impact. Two years later he started getting patents. ‘There are only 150 patents in the history of the wine industry’, says Clark. ‘No one in the industry was trying to do anything new. I got interested in that.’ He adds that. ‘we are trying to do something old, but we need new tools to do it.’ He is somewhat dismissive of a reliance on wine science. ‘Around wine, organized enquiry is not our goal’, says Clark. ‘Wine is liquid music!’

‘Why is a major chord happy and a minor chord melancholy?’ he asks. Clark talks of the illusory nature of harmony. When an orchestra tunes up, there’s lots of noise but not much harmony between the instruments. ‘But then there’s music’, he says, ‘which is perceived as sad or joyful. It carries emotion.’ This sounds more like a biodynamic winegrower talking than it does a peddler of hi-tech wine solutions.

Smith refers to the work of concert pianist Dr Manfred Clynes (see http://www.microsoundmusic.com/clynes.htm), who has written a book on the subject of alpha rhythms. Clynes studied emotions and showed the shapes of them in paintings. ‘The idea that emotions have shapes is shared strongly among many people’, says Clark. ‘The emotionality that wine carries is strongly shared.’ He starts with the idea of harmony and dissonance. ‘You don’t need to be a musician to tell that something is out of tune.’ His idea in working with wines is to get them into a state where they are in tune; where they show harmony. To do this, two of the tools he uses are microoxygenation, to build structure, and reverse osmosis, to dial the alcohol down to find a point of harmony, called a ‘sweet spot’. A portion of a particular wine is treated by reverse osmosis to produce a reduced alcohol component, which is then blended back in to the original wine to create a series of wines at closely spaced intervals of alcoholic strength. When groups of tasters go through these wines, some of them tend to stick out as working better than others: these are the sweet spots. To illustrate the concept, he’d brought along three wines, which were treated versions of an Amador County Syrah that was originally 18% alcohol, which represented the three sweet spots for this wine. These wines were not tasted blind.

Jammy and chocolatey. Sweet dark fruits nose is quite ripe and smooth with liqueur-like fruit. The palate is ripe, full and spicy with a bit of alcohol on the finish. It’s pure and dark but quite alcoholic.

Clark describes this as the ‘jammy in your face Californian sweetspot’. A little bit fresher on the nose with ripe, smooth dark fruits. The palate is bright and fresh with some nice smooth spicy tannins. Sweet, still, but with the acid and tannins more apparent.

Fresh nose is more peppery. The palate is full with some tannic structure and fresh acidity, which sticks out a little. Focused, fresher and pepperier.

Three very different wines, with the only difference the alcoholic strength. ‘We do sweet spot tastings with 2500 wines a year’, says Clark, ‘and we never get a bell curve distribution of preference. It’s Gaussian, like tuning into radio stations’. He reckons that just one in five of these alcohol-adjusted wines seems to work. For example, the wine half way between 2 and 3 didn’t taste very good: he says it comes across as pretty tannic. ‘Wine is not linear’, maintains Clark. ‘We can’t describe the pleasure we get from it because of its constituents.’

Clark estimates that 45% of premium Californian wines are alcohol adjusted, either by reverse osmosis, the technique he developed, or the spinning cone. Alcohol reduction is becoming a widely adopted tool throughout the winegrowing world, but it is not without controversy, simply because it’s seen as a rather artificial technique that subjects a portion of the wine to rather dramatic physical forces.

We then tasted some of Clark’s wines. He makes them under three different labels. The high end wines are Winesmith, then there are two affordable labels, Cheapskate and Penny Farthing.  

see http://www.cheapskatewines.com/ and http://www.winesmithwines.com/ 

Cheapskate Surly Chenin Blanc 2005 Clarksburg
Lovely nose: appley, bright with a hint of cheesiness. The palate is full, fresh and fruity with lovely broad fruit and good weight. Even a hint of structure. Lovely stuff. Very good+ 86/100

Winesmith Faux Chablis 2002 Napa
From the student vineyard at the Napa Valley College, this mischievously labelled wine began life with 14.8% alcohol. Now it’s at 12.9. Clark says you can’t make this style of wine by just picking early. No malolactic was used and the wine was fermented in untoasted Allier oak. It has a fresh, pure, lemony nose that’s delicate and mineralic. The palate is crisp with a fresh lemony character. Quite a precise wine with some structure. Very good+ 89/100 (250 cases made and sells for US$30)

Winesmith Faux Chablis 2004 Napa
Quite focused and full with a crisp, bright palate and nice lemony fruit. It’s tight and quite mineralic with good acid and nice focus. Tasty stuff. Very good/excellent 90/100

Cheapskate Skinflint Rosé 2005
This rosé started life at 14.8% alcohol and it has been taken down to 12.5%. Clark says that the extra alcohol was awful on the nose, because the sweetness and roundness that this wine has is gone. This is a nice orange/pink colour. Sweet, open nose leading to a fresh but sweet palate that’s quite broad and fruity. A really lovely wine that’s great value. Very good+ 88/100

Cheapskate Miser 2004
A meritage. Lovely sweet, pure ripe fruits nose with a bit of graphite-like gravelly minerality. This leads to a palate that shows lovely ripe, pure, smooth fruit with a nice minerally edge to the palate. Delicious stuff. Very good/excellent 90/100

Penny Farthing Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
Smooth, dark nose with a soya sauce edge and some minerals. The palate shows a spicy, minerally edge to the ripe fruit. Very spicy.

Winesmith Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
This was the cheapskate wine but it was elevated to the $18 level by blending in 9% of the high-end Crucible. Lovely pure sweet aromatic nose: broad, fine and sweet with some minerality and focus. The palate is sweet and pure; rich and focused with a graphite-like minerality. Very good/excellent 92/100

Winesmith Cabernet Franc 2004
This is made from two vineyards next to each other. The first has deep alluvial soils and makes Cab Franc that is plummy, sweet and round. The second has serpentine soils which are a bit toxic to vines, which limits canopy vigour, resulting in a mean spirited Cab Franc with tannins. The two wines blended together work well. Lovely aromatic nose of sweet fruit with a leafy, spicy edge to it. The palate is sweet and rich with a lovely intensity and some nice fresh leafy notes, too, together with a hint of vanilla sweetness. Nice spicy structure. Lovely stuff. Very good/excellent 91/100

We now turn to what is Clark’s most interesting wine project, the Roman Syrah. He makes it without any added sulfur dioxide (SO2) at all, and claims that wines made with no SO2 show much greater aroma expression. To do this, he needs to use a reductive variety, Syrah, grown in an organic vineyard which produces wines with a very high phenolic content: it’s this that protects the wine from the big scourge of natural wines—oxidation. He’s now made four successful vintages of this wine without SO2. How does he control brett, which is the other key threat to natural wines? ‘Brett is a hospital disease’, maintains Clark, ‘caused by sanitation and German winemaking practices’. He likens his work to doing IPM (integrated pest management) in the winery: ‘beneficial organisms fight brett’.

Clark sees winemaking as the work of a chef rather than that of a scientist. When a chef makes a sauce, she or he will know when they’ve got it right by feel. Clark builds structure in his reds by appropriate use of oxygen, which, when delivered at the right stage and in the right levels, assists the development of the tannins in appropriate ways. How much and when will differ from wine to wine: this is where the winemaker behaves like a chef. He notes that wines can usefully take much more oxygen before sulfur dioxide additions than they can afterwards.

Winesmith Roman Syrah 2003
Sweet, pure, open nose with a bit of chocolatey character. Very pure. The palate is savoury and tannic with nice spicy fruit and a hint of funkiness. A very bold, intense sort of style. Quite rustic on the finish, but also long and rich. It’s an unusual wine. Very good/excellent 90/100

The Crucible is his top wine. It’s a premium Napa Cabernet that’s been made with the assistance of the usual Clark Smith technology, and which retails at US$100.

Winesmith Crucible 2004 Napa
Smooth dark nose is sweet but quite complex and focused. There’s lovely richness to the palate with good structure. Complex and refined this is a serious wine of real appeal.

Winesmith Crucible 2005 Napa
Dark and intense with lovely perfumed fruit and firm, mouth-coating tannins. Beautifully dark with firm structure: brilliant stuff. Clark reckons this is the best Cabernet he’s made yet.

Winesmith Crucible 2006 Napa
This is a pre-malo sample, and so there’s lots of work yet to be done on it. Lots of sharp green structure to the fruit. 

Wines tasted 11/06
Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

see also: an earlier report on Clark and his wines, which focuses more on the techniques he uses

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