Postmodern Polemic : Clark Smith and Arto Koskelo at the DWCC13

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.

2013-10-25 16.42.13 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.

DWCC 2013 Highlights

After my incredible opportunity to attend the 2013 Digital Wine Communications Conference (DWCC) in Logroño, Rioja, Spain, I had too many great exchanges and experiences to capture them all. I’m still catching my breath a bit from a whirlwind October filled with DWCC, visits to wineries all over the west of Spain, a trip to Dijon to settle up my internship plans, a half-marathon,and some personal excitement of family and loved ones visiting, but in the meantime, here are some photo highlights of the DWCC, for a glimpse into the life of a wine blogger :

The first event was hosted by Dinastia Vivanco, who invited us to the winery for a tour, lunch, and visit to their incredible museum, which houses artifacts collected by Pedro Vivanco Paracuello.  I was impressed by the variety of artifacts and the quality of the displays and curation- would have loved to have a bit more time to explore, but this was the beginning of a rapid-fire weekend! And I can’t complain too much, as although the visit was quick, it also included tastings of their wines in each of the 5 sections of the museum (each devoted to a distinct aspect of wine and culture – from its origins to artifacts related to opening, serving and drinking the final product).

View of the village of Briones from Dinastia Vivanco vineyardsView of the village of Briones from the vineyards of Dinastia Vivanco

Densitometers_Dinastia_Vivanco_MuseumDensitometers in Dinastia Vivanco Museum

ancient_amphore_dinastia_vivancoOne of the oldest pieces in the Dinastia Vivanco Museum

Back at the Rioja Forum in Logroño, the fabulous venue for the conference, we rarely saw a moment with our glasses half empty.  The tastings that were organized were impressive and varied, and a great opportunity to quickly get a taste of the wines from Rioja, Iberia, and beyond.

aged_riojas_DWCC13Aged Riojas tasting, including Riojas of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ styles dating from 1970-2001.

1959_Vina_Soledad_DWCC13The surprise finish to the Riojas tasting – a 1959 Viña Soledad Rioja white – a spectacular discovery (that was apparently served to President Eisenhower on a visit to Rioja)! Maintains great mouthfeel – round but wide awake, with slight nuttiness of aged wine on finish.


IMG_0623 Ancient Colheitas tasting – my favorite tasting of the conference – Colehita Ports from Kopke from 1983, 1974, 1966, 1957 and the 1940 special edition. 

2013-10-25 13.49.30-1More port. Couldn’t get enough.

Kopke_1940_colheita_special_editionPackaging of the 1940 special edition. Amazing. The others were also great but this was perfectly balanced, with a bit of peaty spiciness, caramel-drizzled pineapple. I wrote in my tasting notes “When I drink these wines I feel like I am drinking history.”


vermouth_mixingA mix-your-own Vermouth tasting.  Very interesting insight into a beverage I knew almost nothing about. And we got to keep the ingredients (base wine – sweet fortified Muscat, and aromas – bitter orange, sweet orange, chinchona bark, gentian, and cinnamon) 

IMG_0629Grand tasting of native Iberian varieties led by two of the three authors of Wine Grapes (winegrapes.org) Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz (Jancis Robinson was not present in person, though did make a video appearance to announce the location of next year’s conference – in Montreux, Switzerland!)

Not all of the sessions involved tastings however.  Some were even a bit tense, such as the keynote session that paired up scientifically-minded entrepreneur Clark Smith (most recently talked about for his book Postmodern Winemaking – postmodernwinemaking.com but also for his wine-score prediction company Enologix – enologix.com ) and  Finnish wine personality Arto Koskelo ( koskeloonwine.com ) in what was meant to be a bit of a head-to-head.  I am saving my commentary on the matter for a separate post.  Expect it soon.

Sunday was filled with visits to various wineries.  My tour went to Bodegas Bilbainas (bodegasbilbainas.com) and Bodegas Palacio (bodegaspalacio.com).

bodegas_bilbainasBodegas Bilbainas Winery

cobwebs_bilbainas ancient_vat_bilbainasImages from the ancient cellar at Bodegas Bilbainas

Bodegas_Palacio_murals Palacio_mural_tank_doorOld Cement tanks painted with murals at Bodegas Palacio

ancient_cellar_palacioAncient cellar at Bodegas Palacio

Cosme_Palacio_verticalVertical tasting of signature wine Cosme Palacio (one of first to be produced in “New Rioja” style with the 1986 vintage – with council from Michel Rolland at the beginning – using new French oak barrels, long macerations to assure full extraction of color) with winemaker and marketing manager. We tasted the 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2010 vintages.

Glorioso_Gran_Reserva_1978_Bodegas_PalacioLunch was served with Palacio’s other wines, including their entry-level Milleflores (carbonic maceration), a wonderful white called Cosme Palacio 1894 made from barrel-fermented Viura (the Rioja name for what is called Macabeo elsewhere in Spain) and Malvasia, the Glorioso Reserva 2008, and this, the Glorioso Reserva 1978, still potent with alcohol, spices, and red fruits. 1978 was one of the exceptional vintages of the 1970s, and happens to be the current winemaker’s birth year as well. 

To finish, some glorious views from the town of Laguardia :

LaguardiaRioja1

Laguardia_Rioja2

Laguardia_Rioja3

Laguardia_Rioja4

Rioja, Here I Come!!

Newsflash!!! Just found out that I’ve been awarded the EWBC Scholarship to attend the European Wine Bloggers Convention/Digital Wine Communications Conference on **flavour**in Rioja, Spain at the end of October!!!! So honored to have this opportunity to meet some of the greatest minds in wine communication, exchange ideas, and of course soak in the views and wines of this amazing region!  Thanks to everyone involved and HELLO! to all the new friends and colleagues that I’ll be meeting very soon!

http://ewbcscholarship.com/girls-girls-girls/

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