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Clark Smith, Cheapskate and WineSmith: the application of technology in winemaking

Clark Smith is a winemaker whose company, Vinovation, offers hi-tech manipulations to wine growers in California. Thatís a pretty prejudicial way of putting it, isnít it? Itís makes him sound like an evil dude who fakes wine. Indeed, it would be easy for journalists who might see themselves as guardians of tradition authenticity to line up Smith in their firing line and blast away: to those who think that naturalness is important in wine, heís the enemy. [See also my Clark Smith interview: the surprising juxtaposition of technology and natural wines.]

The truth, however, is more complex. Letís look at the manipulation which Vinovation is best known for: reverse osmosis. In Bordeaux this has attracted notoriety as a technique by which must is concentrated before fermentation (the cross-flow membrane takes water out). Originally, the idea was that if it rained at harvest time, you could simply remove the excess water that otherwise would have diluted your wine. Inevitably, some producers went a bit further, recognizing that if concentration was a quality valued by influential critics, here was a means for achieving it in the winery. The result? Soupy, intense wines you could stand a spoon in (or so those opposed to the technology said).

However, in California, reverse osmosis is put to quite a different use. There, thereís little worrying about harvest rain. Instead, the vintage-time sunshine and warm temperatures means that sugar levels rise rapidly as picking approaches, leading to wines that are overly alcoholic, to the extent that quality suffers. Smithís Vinovation have made good business whacking some of the finished wine through reverse osmosis, taking out alcohol and water. The alcohol is then distilled off this separated portion, with the water being blended back into the wine, resulting in a low alcohol batch of wine that can be selectively blended back to the remaining original wine to produce a final product with the desired alcohol level. This level is determined by Ďsweet spotí tasting where a range of wines at small increments in alcohol level are tasted blind. Apparently, even small differences can make quite a big difference.

It sounds terribly manipulative, but is it any more manipulative than chaptalization, the adding of sugar to must to raise the alcohol level in the final wine? Chaptalís trick is widely practiced in northern European wine regions, sometimes routinely, and as an additive technique is perhaps even more naughty than one that takes stuff out. Reverse osmosis is legal, too, unlike that other classic alcohol-lowering technique of leaving a hosepipe running into the must before fermentation. The big question is, how is the treated portion of the wine altered by being whacked through a cross-flow filtration device at high pressure? In an ideal world winemakers would have terroirs which yield the right sort of flavour maturity at sensible alcohol levels. But if you arenít blessed with such a vineyard site, do you simply have to lump the fact that your wines are being spoiled by being excessively alcoholic?

Another of Vinovationís techniques is microoxygenation. Itís not uniquely theirs, but they do provide this widely as a service. This involves the careful addition of very small quantities of oxygen to wines at critical times in their development. Thereís some controversy surrounding it, merely because it is a bit of a suck it and see technique, relying on experience and regular tasting of the treated wine to decide how much is enough. Advocates suggest itís a brilliant way of mastering elevage (the bringing up of a wine), helping to fix colour and build structure. If itís done carelessly it hardens the wines and dries them out; done well, it can make them more complex and harmonious.

Of late, Clark Smith has been making small quantities of his own wines under the Cheapskate (budget) and WineSmith (boutique) labels. The Cheapskate 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, an $8 bottle of wine, caused a bit of a stir by winning Gold medal in the over $50 category of an international wine competition (Jerry D. Mead's New World International Wine Competition). [As an aside, Smith is a very funny guy - look at the back labels, and the wonderful logo on the front of a skateboarding animal, which takes the p*** out of the way that so many Californian wines take themselves very seriously indeed.] I tried this wine along with some of his other offerings, and I was hugely impressed. Smith knows what he is doing. The world needs affordable wine, and if he can put out wines like his Cheapskate range for under US$10, thatís good news indeed.

Cheapskate Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 California
Very dark coloured. A lovely enticing nose of ripe, full black fruits with a subtle herby edge and some chocolatey richness: itís perfectly in balance, fresh as well as ripe. The palate shows a lovely, lush, silky mouthfeel with lots of concentration and substance, but no hard edges. The sweetness of the fruit is well complemented by the smooth but grippy tannins. Balance is the key here: rich and full but not at all overblown. Utterly delicious. Very good/excellent 90/100

Cheapskate Miser 2003 California
A blend of Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, this is an attractive deep red colour. Thereís a minty, earthy edge to the predominantly red fruits nose: quite delicate like a very ripe claret. The palate is supple with smooth tannic structure underlying the ripe yet restrained red fruits. A well balanced wine thatís a bit European in style. Very good+ 88/100

Winesmith ĎFaux Chablisí 2002 Napa Valley
From the student vineyard at the Napa Valley College, this is 12.9% alcohol. Thereís a ripe, nutty, butterscotchy warmth to the nose which is fresh and shows some floral notes. Itís quite minerally. The palate shows good concentration with nutty flavours and searing high acidity. Itís extremely dry with a sharp finish. With its lean character, itís not at all what youíd expect from Napa. But while itís nice to drink, itís not totally convincing as a Chablis impersonator. Very good+ 89/100 (this retails for around $30)

Winesmith Crucible 1999
Complex, spicy and slightly evolved with tarry notes and some fruit sweetness. The palate is smooth and spicy, with some structure and a bit of evolution. Thereís a hint of earthiness. It is quite drying; more savoury than opulent. Red fruits dominate, but there is some dark fruit too. Some elegance: everything is pulling together, and itís drinking very well, and more supple than the conventional Crucible (see below). The next day, itís a better wine than the conventionally vinified version, showing very well. Very good/excellent 91/100 (this is a bit more pricey, at about $65)

Winesmith Crucible 1999 (Conventional vinification)
Slightly darker coloured. Tight, slightly meaty, liquoricey red and black fruits nose. Thereís a meaty, chocolatey edge to the palate which is more primary, and has tight tannins. Both wines are quite different structurally. This version is brawnier and bolder, structured and tannic Ė certainly tasty in its own style, but less refined and not really ready. The next day this is showing signs of oxidation compared with its peer. Very good/excellent 90/100


See also: a more recent interview with Clark, tasting through a selection of his wines

Wines tasted 08/05
Find these wines with wine-searcher.com

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