Postmodern Wine: Keeping Traditions Alive in the Age of Tech
Winemaker Clark Smith, author of the fascinating new book Postmodern Winemaking, held a seminar at the Ace Hotel in New York City on Dec. 15. Attendees included winemakers and other industry professionals — several Long Island winemakers were in attendance, including Ron Goerler of Jamesport Vineyards and Mark Tobin of Mattebella Vineyards. In his new book, Smith tackles complicated and sometimes controversial topics; the title alone is a potential philosophical rabbit hole waiting to happen. Essentially, Smith is urging the wine industry to embrace available technology, while considering what traditions may have been lost with the advancement of these relatively new technologies. He calls for a focus on terroir — the special characteristics that factors like climate, geography, and the grape’s particular genetics express in the final product — and the creation of "soulful" wine, a term that is highly subjective.
His book is a tool for winemakers and a sinewy bone on which to gnaw for wine geeks. On the page and in life, Smith is outspoken, funny, frenetic, and sometimes contradictory (often contradicting himself); I get the feeling he likes it that way. In the book, Smith notes, "I am often told, 'I like your writing, but I don’t agree with everything you say.' I should hope not. If you are constantly in accord with my assertions, I have wasted my time." Ultimately, Smith is creating a conversation about the art and craft of wine, and what qualifies as quality.
Smith is highly transparent when it comes to his own winemaking practices, which include, for instance, alcohol adjustment and use of oak chips rather than new oak barrels. He urges all winemakers to be transparent in their winemaking methods. When I asked Smith why he thinks his open discussion of technology is sometimes the source of controversy, he replied, "The truth is extremely expensive." The implication, I believe, is that the suggestion of "manipulated" wine has often caused critics to bristle. In fact, Smith reviles the use of the word manipulation, explaining that "All wines are highly manipulated," suggesting that all of the work done in winemaking is manipulation. At the seminar, he passed around a brief handout, which included two definitions of the word for our consideration:
1. Treatment or operation with or as if with the hands or by mechanical means, especially in a skillful manner.
2. Shrewd or devious management by artful, unfair, or insidious means, especially to one’s own advantage.
The two definitions, he notes, "conjoin artisan and scoundrel."
Winemakers, sommeliers, and critics can argue Smith’s points ad nauseam, but how might any of this affect the consumers who are actually purchasing the wine? Although the conversation at the seminar was sometimes spirited, the winemakers in attendance were clearly driven by the desire to make wines they could stand behind, and that consumers would be interested in buying.
So what is a postmodern wine drinker to do? Postmodernism may be characterized in part by a deep-seated skepticism of anything that claims to be the truth, and that may apply to the wine industry as well as any other facet of contemporary culture — an industry which is broader and deeper than ever before. Choice is the name of the game, and there is something for everyone, at every price point, style, and production technique, for consumers who want to take that information into consideration. Of the consumer takeaway, Master of Wine Lisa Granik, a speaker at the symposium, noted that "Consumers should first trust their own palates as to what they like and don't like — they shouldn't feel the need to slavishly follow the views of any critic or number. At the same time, they should always remain open to experimentation, even to revisiting wines they might have not liked in the past, because their palates change and wines change."
What some consider manipulation, others consider craftsmanship. Ultimately, winemakers aim to make a product consumers will enjoy. Progress in any field is often the result of renegade thinking, and irreverent personalities unafraid to march to the beat of their own drum. In Postmodern Winemaking, Smith discusses his favorite wine style, or wines that are intended to intrigue. He notes that these wines "don’t run with the traffic, and that is their appeal." Clark Smith doesn’t run with the traffic either, and that, in turn, is his appeal.