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Regarding “Dr. Frankenwine…”

by David on April 18, 2010

This highly-entertaining interview reinforces two of the biggest reasons that I have stayed in the wine industry all of these years.

1. The best winemakers in the world are exceptionally intelligent, opinionated, singular and perhaps a little off their nut (in a very good way). Therefore, never boring.

2. Wine is an endlessly complicated, subjective, idiosyncratic subject and beverage. Consensus is impossible, no matter the topic, so the delightful debate rages on. What a blast! Why talk about who’s being voted off the island on American Idol when you can go point and counterpoint on how to define terroir? Or the role of wine writers in the whole scheme of things? Or where “manipulation” begins and ends?

Regarding point 1, just read the interview to remove any doubt that Clark Smith, this extremely intelligent and accomplished winemaker, is full of contradictions. In one breath he abhors 50-year-old technological advances and embraces his own more recent ones as the road to salvation.

I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Randall Graham’s impassioned explanation for why he does what he does. And sat and wondered at Jim Clendenen’s eccentric pontifications. These guys are brilliant, articulate (well, maybe Smith isn’t so articulate, but who cares?) and would probably be the first to suggest that the personal drummer, to which they march, has gone down the road a piece. They not only educate and offer diverting commentary – they make us think.

Surely, most of us have misgivings when it comes to big-time manipulation similar to the ones I expressed in the post about my visit to ConeTech, a competitor to Smith’s Vinovation. I’d like to hear what Smith has to say about the piece by John Williams ,of Frog’s Leap, referenced in that entry. Smith says “It all went out the window 50 years ago. It’s way too late and my company is doing everything it can to get us back to where we were…” – contradicting himself yet again. ;-) Williams says it’s not too late: “Pick nearly any problem in winemaking today and you will find with a minimum of research a deep connection to farming practice…” My heart wants to believe Williams.

When it comes to how we should feel about all this, realistically, doesn’t it boil down to which sort of consumer you are? If you view wine as simply a pleasant beverage to wash down your bruschetta, innovation and “manipulation”, however you define it, has been a very positive force in the industry. Isn’t it great that cheap wine tastes a whole lot better now than ever before? I’m that consumer a lot of the time and feel very grateful that the every-day wine I drink usually tastes pretty darned good. This consumer says “I like sausage, but I don’t want to know how it got to my table.”

Then there are those who think of wine as that “soulful product of the earth…” who crave something authentic. I’m that consumer, too, when I stock my cellar with the good stuff and, in that case, I tend to care about how it all came together. If the producer makes references to terroir and the wine having a “sense of place” then my hope is that they define “manipulation” as something as minor as deciding to add yeast or to age the wine in an oak barrel.

So, I guess I’m a little schizo too. I suppose most of us are.

Anyway, since wine is still a business, last time I checked, we have to figure that most winemakers manipulate a little or a lot in order to survive. The market only becomes more competitive. You can blame the current state of affairs on the CEOs, as Smith does, or on powerful wine writers, as I and many others often do. Or the “flying winemakers”. It doesn’t matter. Pandora has escaped from her technology box and is perhaps enjoying a nice glass of very trendy, heavily-manipulated Malbec right now. Crazy.

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