High-Tech Wine: The Quest for the Perfect Wine

By November 16, 2007

With Beaujolais nouveau just around the corner, L’Atelier pays a visit to Vinovation, a place where wine meets science. Not without controversy….   Based in the California wine country town of Sebastopol, just 50 miles north of S

an Francisco, cleverly named Vinovation is not a fancy winery. It’s a huge warehouse filled with reverse osmosis machines—designed to adjust alcohol content in wine—and unlabeled barrels waiting to be picked up by their anonymous owners. Wine quality enhancement has become a philosophy here, but most of Vinovation’s 800 clients, which include big names in the California wine industry, want to remain incognito. This has a lot to do with famed wine columnist Matt Kramer’s reference to Vinovation’s affable cofounder, Clark Smith, as “the anti-Christ” in the fight for the soul of wine. His sin? Daring to alter the percentage of alcohol in wine, in the quest for the perfect blend. His hero and inspiration? A French wine consultant named Patrick Ducourneau, known as the father of micro-oxygenation, a process that introduces oxygen into wine to soften its tannins.   An MIT dropout and son of a rocket scientist, the 56-year-old Smith, originally from New Jersey, made a name for himself in California as the founding winemaker at the R.H. Phillips Vineyard. In 1992 he and his partner Rick Jones created Vinovation, a wine consultancy shop, and began to advocate alcohol reduction and micro-oxygenation in the name of art and science. He calls what he does “alcohol fine tuning” or “grapecraft”—“the practical art of touching the human soul with the soul of a place, by rendering its grapes into liquid music”—and likes to compare winemaking to cooking.   To pundits who accuse him of altering the soul of wine by manipulating its alcohol content he replies that electricity, stainless steel, inert gas, packaged microbes and enzymes, all in common use, dispensed with the romantic notion of totally “pure” wine long ago. Smith is as outspoken about what he does as his clients are shy about being associated with him. (He claims to have signed about 5,000 confidentiality agreements.) The first thing you see on entering his office is what he calls the “Wall of Shame,” with framed articles by naturalists and terroir advocates criticizing his winemaking techniques. He also edits winecrimes.com, a webzine that provides an open forum on the good, the bad and the evil of manipulating wine.   While Smith is a big proponent of alcohol-reducing techniques in his search for the perfect sweet spots—the proper balance points for alcohol in wines—he compares nonalcoholic wines to “orgasm-free sex.” He makes his own high-quality wines under the label WineSmith (“skillfully crafted wines which explore traditions outside the mainstream”) as well as more affordable versions labeled CheapSkate and PennyFarthing.   In California, due to the scarcity of autumn rain, “we often have excessive alcohol at true ripeness, which means that the wines are often too sweet,” Smith argues. He also likes to call reverse osmosis (RO) “reverse chaptalization,” a technique named after Napoleon’s agriculture minister Jean-Antoine Chaptal that corrected alcohol balance by adding beet sugar during fermentation. To Smith, the backlash against so-called wine manipulation can be explained in large part by a shift in the popular attitude toward science and technology. “In 1900 science was all about progress. But then we had Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, the Challenger disaster. Our environment is full of pollutants, and on top of that we are inundated with [technology-enabled innovations] that make our life a living hell, from junk mail to calls from telemarketers. In the midst of all this, wine is supposed to be the one pure thing. But the truth is that winemaking changed, unalterably and forever, as soon as we started using electricity and all the 20th-century [devices].”   His next project? To prove to wine lovers, with the help of his wife Susan—a French-trained clinical psychologist who happens to hold two music degrees and was first chair flautist for the Chicago Symphony—the strong synergy between wine and music. The Smiths hope to show how music influences the way wine tastes, using scientific evidence based on recent advances in cognitive musicology.   For more info: www.vinovation.com, www.grapecraft.com   By Anne Sengès, for Atelier   FEEDBACK For comments on this article, email us at editorial@atelier-us.com

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