I mentioned in my summary of the 2013 DWCC that controversial winemaking consultant Clark Smith was one of the keynote speakers, pitted against Finnish wine personality Arto Koskelo, known to take a much more humanistic, and less scientific (here comes that same old dichotomy again…) view of wine.
Clark Smith had intrigued me for a few reasons, one being the frequency with which he cites the fact that he got into wine after dropping out of MIT (“declining program completion” according to Wikipedia) in 1971. This made me wonder if he was one of those wannabe Einstein types who after 40 years still feels the need to emphasize that he was once accepted into MIT, but that his thinking style was too [fill-in-the-blank : alternative, evocative, innovative…] and thus was impelled or obliged to take his grey matter elsewhere. In Clark’s case elsewhere was a wine shop in Oakland, and he’s been in the wine biz ever since. He is best known for the founding of Vinovation, a consulting and “high tech services” company famous and contentious (at least in certain circles) for its reverse osmosis technologies.
This intrigue was compounded after an initial encounter at Thursday evening’s BYOB dinner where he, unprovoked, except, perhaps, by a bit of alcohol coursing through his veins (**I can’t confirm this, but given the quantity of open bottles at the event I think it is relatively safe to assume that there was at least a few molecules of good ol’ EtOH in his system), apologized “for all the shitty things I’ve done.” The explanation of what, exactly, he was referring to seems to be elaborated in this letter on his website, winecrimes.com, but it also makes me doubt the sincerity of the apology. Or perhaps he was simply apologizing for his Cabernet, which tasted as though he had reverse-osmosed an entire packet of El Paso taco seasoning into the bottle (appropriate, then, that they put a link to this Rachel Ray recipe directly on the GrapeCraft website).
By Friday afternoon I was very much looking forward to hearing what Clark had to say, as I now had hands-on experience with his controversial nature. After our brief meeting I was pretty sure I would disagree with a lot of what he had to say, but I thought at least he’d provide me with some juicy morsels to chew on.
There were a few curve balls thrown in, but I got my food for thought.
His talk bounced around haphazardly from biting comments directed toward the wine-blogger audience (telling them explicitly not to express their opinions, which, it seems, defeats the purpose of the blogger entirely – not the first time he has expressed contempt toward wine writers, see again his letter on www.winecrimes.com ) to the purported multiplicity of the natural wine movement and a lot of incomprehensible musings about ‘The Bad Marriage’ between winemakers and #winelovers, ie wine bloggers (perhaps this argument is better developed in his book – I have yet to read it but it is at the top of my Christmas list… or Clark, if you want to change my mind, I’d be happy to give you my address. In the meantime here’s some insight from Richard Siddle at Harpers.co.uk ).
All of this followed up with a tirade against the use of the word ‘manipulation‘ to describe winemaking (a word I have not, personally, noticed in excessive usage), that evoked the French disgust for even the word winemaking – preferring the much more passive élevage. Clark’s argumentation, however, included what to many was a highly offensive metaphor (“calling a winemaker manipulative is like calling your wife a whore because she is sleeping with you”). His point being that we can’t expect a winemaker to be up front about their methods and additives if we chastise them every time they do.
Personally, however, I think he has missed the point, focusing too much energy on this particular battle of semantics when maybe the effort should be focused on convincing writers and consumers that there is a place in this world for both ‘natural’ and ‘technical’ wines.
But what the writers are aware of is that all consumers are not created equal. Some are far more interested in the STORY of the wine, and thus typically interested in a wine with less ‘technology’ added. What Clark doesn’t seem to realize here is that these wine bloggers that he so happily chastises for their critique of “manipulation” are not writing for the people that will be buying the more ‘technical’ wines, searching simply for something that checks in above a certain quality-control threshold. No, the bloggers are writing for the only people that are interested in reading about the story behind their wine. And those story-searching people are, by nature, the ones that want a wine that approaches those made in a traditional, that is to say, non-technological, fashion. Thus it is normal that wine writers be a bit critical of highly-interventionist winemaking techniques, as this is not what their readers want. However, he is absolutely right that for large-scale companies wanting to make a clean, technically-correct wine for the average consumer, the technology is great and sure, go ahead and put that QR code linking to a list of processes and additives on the bottle. Clark, you tell me how many of those consumers, who will be contentedly sipping that bottle at their next barbecue, scan the code.
Finally, he claimed that his list of ‘intensity ratings’ are a more holistic method of rating wines (than what, I’m not exactly sure). Personally I don’t see how a point on a line of variance between two extremes is any more holistic that a point on a number line between 1-100, but he seems to think that his baroque vocabulary, employing personified wine-analysis scales such as ‘obviousness: generous……austere’, ‘allure: pretty…….sexy’ and ‘mood: cheerful……..dour’ constitute holism. To me it just seems like dressed-up versions of any other one-dimensional rating system, with the added issue of being entirely abstract and thus inaccessible to consumers.
To quantify this approach, he talks about the “flavor space”, which then would be an appropriate subject to blog about, in his opinion. But don’t worry – it is a ‘flavor space’ that covers a whopping 2-dimensions, thus computationally assured to not confound the problem of ‘sameness’ in the wine market. And then he would like to implement a “personal sommelier app”, employing a Netflix-like approach to help match a person’s preferred flavor space to personalized wine suggestions. Interesting idea, and certainly something sellable, but I’d like to see how it can combat ‘sameness’ when only the largest and most well-distributed wine companies would be able to have their wines in the database. Again, an interesting tool but probably not one that will attract the most devout wine aficionados, who are, again, the primary audience of most specialized wine blogs.
And then Arto took the stage. The whole room took a deep breath and the tension flying around in the tweetisphere and tangling up the #DWCC web calmed momentarily. Arto focused his talk on the issue of modernity versus post-modernity, and claimed that the problem with the wine industry is that it is stuck in modernity, a dated paradigm tied up in the Scientific Revolution. This is linked to algorithmic-based analyses and a blind faith in the rationality of science (replacing an earlier blind faith in religion), except that this blind faith in reason locks us into a paradox (he didn’t directly broach the question of whether Clark’s “Postmodern Winemaking” is in fact appropriately titled, but the insinuation of doubt quickly became clear). And to Arto, it creates an opposition between reason and emotion, a disconnect particularly concerning in the wine world, where we attempt to analyze an object of pleasure by numerically breaking it into chemical components.* For him, the disconnect takes the form of the ‘culture of experts’ who have ‘lost their flavor’ – critics operating without passion and pretending to do science with their [subjective] tasting notes.
I particularly appreciated this image, in which Arto makes the comparison between anthropometrics, the pseudo-science of measuring physical characteristics in search of correlations to racial and psychological generalizations. It is a branch of the history of science that I have studied with particular depth as an example of science’s unwillingness to take responsibility for its subjectivities and thus I found it a striking analogy to the numerical system of wine notes and criticism, so heavily critiqued for their ‘dehumanization’ of wine.
But with Google at our fingertips, the Modern Era is being forced to a close. The wine world will be forced to follow suit, and for Arto, this represents a great opportunity for wine bloggers to reinject that “flavor” into communication. This means striking an emotional chord in readers (something that is much more difficult to do when talking about reverse osmosis than native yeast and battonage, for instance).
So vive the Pathos, and lets try it. Personally I think that communication is just a starting point. Let’s work to combine the reason and the emotion there, and then maybe we can find a way to see the two as slightly more compatible.
*In a side note, in a class last week taught by Josep Lluis Pérez, owner of Mas Martinet in Spain’s Priorat region, he drew a stark distinction between reason and emotion, telling us not to let emotion get in the way of our reasoning. I was surprised to hear such a comment from a winemaker, as I personally believe that the wine world is one where we can best see how emotion can be a ‘plug-in’ that enhances and rounds out the tastelessness of pure reasoning.