Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft

Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft

by Clark Smith

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In Postmodern Winemaking, Clark Smith shares the extensive knowledge he has accumulated in engaging, humorous, and erudite essays that convey a new vision of the winemaker's craft—one that credits the crucial roles played by both science and art in the winemaking process. Smith, a leading innovator in red wine production techniques, explains how


In Postmodern Winemaking, Clark Smith shares the extensive knowledge he has accumulated in engaging, humorous, and erudite essays that convey a new vision of the winemaker's craft—one that credits the crucial roles played by both science and art in the winemaking process. Smith, a leading innovator in red wine production techniques, explains how traditional enological education has led many winemakers astray—enabling them to create competent, consistent wines while putting exceptional wines of structure and mystery beyond their grasp. Great wines, he claims, demand a personal and creative engagement with many elements of the process. His lively exploration of the facets of postmodern winemaking, together with profiles of some of its practitioners, is both entertaining and enlightening.

Editorial Reviews

Wine & Spirits Magazine
"This is a brave book, fusing data, experience and intuition in a way that scientists rarely attempt. . . . It's a significant and much-needed contribution to the literature of winemaking." 2013 BOOK OF THE YEAR
San Francisco Chronicle
"Smith is nothing if not genuine in his curiosity about the appropriate uses of science in the cellar."
The Daily Meal
"Fascinating. . . . His book is a tool for winemakers and a sinewy bone on which to gnaw for wine geeks."
Tom Wark's Fermentation
"Top 10 Wine Books of 2013: Clark Smith has written the most interesting and eclectic wine book in years. Smith has a rich and swirling mind that is on display in this both technical and philosophical treaties on modern winemaking the issues that have been pushed to the fore through innovation."
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Wine savvy comes easy for Clark Smith, who’s the smartest guy in most of the rooms he inhabits. . . . His 'Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft' is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at the 'bones' of wine — structure, acidity, tannins, minerality — and how postmodern winemaking can help the industry build upon these attributes. Thus, it’s a great gift for a wine geek or a science geek or a business geek."
"A detailed, accessible portrait of what it takes to be a professional, successful winemaker."
Publishers Weekly
Winemaker Smith releases a heady bouquet of earthy tones and varietal flavors as he guides us carefully through the art of making, drinking, and enjoying the fruits of the vine. Wine, for him, is “like liquid music, for it has the capacity to embody a spectrum of emotional modalities, to exhibit harmony or dissonance, and it has the power to transport us from care and circumstance.” Smith delineates the principles of postmodern winemaking: “Vine balance is the economic meeting place for winemakers and growers”; “The rebirth of a simple, inexpensive method shows promise for categorizing a wine’s fragility or robustness. Sensory methods remain our best piloting tools.” Along the way, Smith profiles “winemaking’s lunatic heroes,” including Gideon Beinstock, Randall Grahm, and Bob Wample. Enjoying wine, the author points out, is a sensory experience, and he suggests that “music pairing can greatly improve your chances of enjoying a wine.” (Aug.)
Dan Berger's Vintage Experiences

"Author Clark Smith, a bright, skilled vinous philosopher, takes the entire issue of wine decision-making to brilliant heights with a dramatic statement on why today's wines are, for the most part, often made in ways that defy understanding."

"Studded with moments of poetry. [Clark Smith] can go deeply into the molecular changes in wine and the methods that cause them."
The Wine Economist - Mike Veseth

"Interesting. Challenging! Definitely worth your time, whether you are postmodern (or a winemaker) or not." - Joe Roberts

“While many wine lovers prefer not to think too much about how wine is made (the better to retain an air of mystery about it), those who seek a deeper understanding of the chemistry behind it will find a nearly endless font of details and explanations in 'Postmodern Winemaking.' With each of the book's essays, Smith strikes a nice balance between the perspectives of the scientist, the winemaker, and the wine lover.”
WineWisdom - Sally Easton

“This is fun, thoughtful, and thought-provoking, all at an imminently accessible level and written in an appealingly pacy, energetic style, with innumerable quirky, everyday analogies.”
Library Journal
According to winemaker, columnist, and instructor Smith, modern winemaking reliably delivers a consistent product, but the resulting wines fall short of reaching their potential. Through a series of chapters based on his past columns, Smith outlines a philosophy and deconstructs the science needed to return what might be called soul to wines. His approach has not been without detractors, especially those who believe that as little human intervention as possible should go into wine production. Although the author has revised earlier writings to make them more accessible to the layperson, it is difficult to imagine a broad audience for anything beyond the handful of chapters that profile winemakers. Also, while Smith peppers the book with asides and flashes of humor, championing wine produced in parts of the country less noted than California, the book's level of detail and its vocabulary (despite a helpful glossary) will overwhelm those outside the industry. VERDICT A thoughtful, dense, and intricate work, though with some personality shining through. Recommended for collections that support studies in oenology.—Peter Hepburn, Coll. of the Canyons Lib., Santa Clarita, CA

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University of California Press
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Read an Excerpt

Postmodern Winemaking

Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft

By Clark Smith


Copyright © 2014 Clark Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95854-8


The Solution Problem

Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter and says, "Madam, you can have a telephone, but you'll lose privacy, and the charm of distance. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline."

—Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee, Inherit the Wind

Louis Pasteur's 1857 discovery of yeast as the mechanism of fermentation ushered in a century of discovery in the new science of enology, replacing the trial-and-error approach of traditional winemaking. In 1880, research stations in Bordeaux and Davis, California, were established to apply the fruits of scientific advancement to modern winemaking.

The advent of electricity altered traditional winemaking forever. So welcome were the advantages in lighting, labor savings, and refrigeration that one would be hard pressed today to name a winery without electricity anywhere in the world. As time-honored methods and equipment were rapidly discarded, a holistic system painstakingly developed over millennia was abandoned in the wink of an eye.

As easy as it is to praise the advantages of these sweeping changes, there was a downside.

Replacing empirical systems with theoretical methods devalues hundreds of years of specific knowledge and practice, tending to bring a squeaky-clean sameness to all wine. Before electricity, much greater care and attention was devoted to every step of the winemaking process.

When twentieth-century tools such as stainless steel, inert gas, refrigeration, and sterile filtration became widely available for the first time just after World War II, a modern winemaking revolution exploded out of Germany. A completely new way of making Riesling—fresh, sterile-filtered, completely without oxidative characters—rapidly became the standard for white wine making throughout the world.

It is hard today to appreciate the impact of this new type of wine. Sterile filtration came about as a product of nuclear energy, for the first integrity-testable filters were etched in atomic piles. The idea of a light, sweet, fresh, fruity wine like Blue Nun was as world-changing as color television.

Not to be outdone, Bordeaux installed its own stainless steel, refrigeration, inert gas, and sterile filtration, creating new possibilities for fresh white wines and as many problems for reds when oxygen was declared its bogeyman. In The Taste of Wine, University of Bordeaux Oenology Faculty Director Emile Peynaud wrote in 1955 that "oxygen is the enemy of wine," a "blunt definition" unfortunately often quoted out of context. Technical progress banished the old guard from the caves, replaced by followers of Peynaud's solution chemistry–based scientific enology.

The modern approach spread from Germany first to Bordeaux and then across the ocean in the late 1950s. It sounded like a good idea at the time. In retrospect, it has become clear that using Riesling techniques on Cabernet led us away from red wine's soulful, integrative properties. The 1961 Bordeaux vintage is still tough drinking even today. Who knew?

It was to take half a century before people once again recognized oxygen's power to elaborate and refine structure. Without this knowledge, wines of normal maturity exhibited excessive reduction, malformed tannins, poor aromatic integration of vegetal, oak, and microbial notes, and unfortunate aging behavior. By the 1970s, the châteaux were coping by pressing fermentations early and stripping tannins with aggressive egg white fining, which resulted in drinkable styles that lacked depth. In the 1980s, Australia's flying winemakers introduced extended hang time techniques to the South of France; this overcame reduction problems through field oxidation, leading to fruit-forward quaffs that enjoyed a fad in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The poor longevity of ultra-ripe experiments in the 1990s at prestigious properties in Bordeaux and Barolo, coupled with a sea change in enology from solution-model thinking to an appreciation of tannin structure through research undertaken at Montpellier, Bordeaux, and AWRI (Australian Wine Research Institute), led producers to consider a return to prewar practices.

In the late 1980s, the idea that good tannin structure was capable of integrating aromas began to be explored two hours south of Bordeaux in the tiny hamlet of Madiran, where modern vinification techniques had wrought disaster. If the postmodern movement has a father, it is a peasant vigneron named Patrick Ducournau, who toiled to discover what had gone so terribly wrong with the region's traditional tannat variety. These huge, tannic wines had become incredibly dry, harsh, and prone to overt expression of microbial defects. His neighbors were busily tearing their tannat vines out and globalizing to merlot.

It was Ducournau's genius to recognize the real problem: without the use of controlled oxidative polymerization, the art of building structure had been lost. Protecting tannat from oxygen was killing the wines. His development of micro-oxygenation was the first step toward reviving a methodology of élevage, a suite of practices devoted to the "raising up" of refined structure capable of supporting integration and soulfulness. The complete package eventually included an advanced understanding of the use of lees and a complete rethinking of the role of barrels.


Scientific enology starts with the idea that wine is a chemical solution. This simple, seemingly obvious statement guides all phases of modern winemaking. It also happens to be false.

Solution-based thinking has shaped our view of wine and how we work with it by bringing to bear the powerful tools of analytical chemistry, chemical engineering, and sensory science. If wine is a solution, its sensory properties derive from the concentrations of substances dissolved in solution. The greater its concentration in the liquid, the more intense that substance's odor and taste. If this relationship is exactly linear, the solution is said to behave "ideally."

If wine is a solution, the goal of grape growing must be to maximize good flavors and minimize bad ones. We have only to identify the substances involved and determine which are positive drivers and which are negative. More fruity, less veggie, and so forth.

If red color is dissolved in solution, the way to extract more of it from the skins is to work the cap in a gentle way, which maximizes color but prevents excessive harsh tannin extraction. High alcohol is viewed as increasing the solubility of red pigment.

Tannin is viewed as the price we have to pay for flavor, so we press as gently as possible (or just use free run) to minimize harshness and allow the palate access to fruity flavors. Everything in winemaking becomes about selective extraction.

If excessive harsh tannin is dissolved in wine, the way to decrease its sensory effect is to remove it through selective fining, taking care to minimize concomitant decreases in color and flavor.

If wine is a solution, it can be sterile filtered without changing its sensory properties, removing particulates without affecting the solution.

In general, solution theory leads to an analytical (sometimes called "reductionist") view that wine flavor is the sum of its pieces. Off-aromas are connected directly to root causes: horsey aromas require more microbial control; excessive woody notes lead us to use older barrels or shorter durations; veggie aromas mean pulling more leaves to minimize shade. To manage the whole, you manage the pieces. You break wine into its sensory constituents (using the Aroma Wheel™, for example) and figure out ways to amp up the good stuff and dial down the bad stuff. That's quality improvement.

In the postmodern view, every one of these beliefs is injurious to wine quality.

There have long been hints that the solution model doesn't work. Early anomalies included the sparing solubility of anthocyanins, wine's red color compounds, reported by Pascal Ribéreau-Gayon in 1974. Beyond a light rosé color, it seems, red wine is theoretically impossible. My ultrafiltration work begun in the early 1990s showed that anthocyanins, which have molecular weights of around 300, will not pass through a filter with a porosity of 100,000.

"Ideal" solution behavior predicts that the concentration of a compound in solution corresponds to its aromatic intensity. But when we micro-oxygenate Merlot, its bell pepper aroma decreases without any change in its pyrazine content. Why do pyrazines, Brett characteristics, and oak components, even in very high concentrations, sometimes marry benignly in the aroma, yet in other wines stick out as annoying defects?

The solution model was a powerful starting point, one that led California winemakers out of a wilderness of largely defective wines in the '60s to our present world of nearly defect-free wines. But aesthetically, we have hit the wall.

I may be going out on a speculative limb here, but I am convinced that wine used to be a lot more exciting. I believe that postwar modernization has cost us fifty years of clean and comparatively soulless wines. I believe that what we are drinking today is not the compelling beverage the Romans used to stabilize their empire. Those were free-range wines. Today, we hover over our wines like helicopter parents, shielding them from the essential experiences that develop depth, character, and strength.

Neither boomers nor millennials have experienced wine as Stevenson's "bottled poetry" or Ben Franklin's "proof that God loves us and desires us to be happy." When I first encountered these quotations in the '70s, I thought they were a bit over-the-top. There was no way to know for sure if wines had something more special in Stevenson's and Franklin's day, or if the rhetoric was simply of a different age. We are as ignorant of such wines today as the East Bloc, with no one old enough to remember prewar capitalism, was of free enterprise.

But today, if you look hard enough, there are many examples of postmodern wines that convincingly bear out these extravagant phrases. We will meet in future chapters a host of postmodern winemakers, and when we do, I urge you to seek out and try their wines as you read their views.

From two decades of postmodern retrospection, an aesthetic construct has emerged that not only holds the solution model to be false, but considers the extent to which a wine deviates from "ideal" behavior to be a pretty useful working definition of quality. Solution model behavior is not just incorrect; it is undesirable.

In the movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen's character tells an old joke: "A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, 'Doc, my brother thinks he's a chicken.' 'Well, bring him in and we'll put him on the couch and cure him,' says the shrink. 'I'd like to, Doc, but I need the eggs.'" This is the position of the winemaker with modern training who might consider letting go of the solution model. If manipulating concentrations isn't effective, what will be the new way of working? The answer starts with a new language that interconnects the concepts of a structural model of wine and addresses the very human goals at the core of winemaking. In the rest of this chapter, I present the language distinctions that embody this alternative perspective.

To begin with, it takes some getting used to the idea that it's okay that we don't actually know what we're doing.


The new view begins by accepting that enology has fundamental limitations. As useful as modern winemaking has proven in eliminating gross defects, it has done little to promote excellence. Its central tenet is that a clean wine will show varietal character. This is fine for Muscato, but when it comes to great reds—pardon me while I yawn.

Winemaking is really just a branch of cuisine—the ultimate slow food. Our job is not to explain but to delight. If music is any indication, the ways of the human psyche are often unpredictable and quite nonlinear (see chapters 11 and 25 for more on these ideas). In chapter 21, I'll explore the hilarious clash of Biodynamics and science to illustrate this theme more thoroughly.


A 2005 review by Roy et al. in Materials Research Innovations hammers home the point that the properties of systems depend less on their composition than on their structure. In Japanese samurai swords, hard and soft steel are folded like puff pastry until there are millions of layers in the blade, resulting in steel that is flexible yet holds an edge. A lump of coal, a graphite tennis racket, and a diamond are all 100% carbon, but their sensory properties are entirely different because of how the atoms are structurally arranged. Consider the house you live in. The agreeability of your home's architecture depends less on how many bricks it contains than on the way they are put together.

Structured foods like bisques, reduction sauces, and emulsions are at the core of great cuisine. Aromatic integration is how sauces work, and why the saucier is the most important chef in a French kitchen. A great béarnaise doesn't smell of tarragon, mint, fresh onion, and vinegar; it just smells like béarnaise. The finer the emulsion, the more surface area between the fatty beads of butter and the aqueous phase that surrounds them, so in a great sauce there can be square miles of interactive surface in a tablespoon. The result is aromatic integration, because the intimate contact of fatty and aqueous regions provides close contact for the diverse flavor components.

I like to think of wine structure as similar to that of a samurai sword. Swords need two conflicting properties: the ability to hold an edge (conferred by the hardness of high-carbon steel) and the flexibility not to chip and break (conferred by soft, low-carbon steel). Around seven centuries ago, Japanese swordsmiths hit on the idea to weld together both kinds of steel, which resulted in a bar that could be sharpened on one side and had a flexible back. Then they found that a better blade, one that had both properties, could be made if they flattened and folded the blade several times. A blade with four folds, for example, would have sixteen (24 layers. The finest blades had as many as four million layers, held an edge forever without sharpening, and were also unbreakable.

In structured wines, similarly, tannins, anthocyanins, and other aromatic ring compounds, which are almost insoluble in solution, aggregate into colloids—tiny beads of various sizes and compositions. It is this fine colloidal structure that allows interaction between the aqueous and phenolic regions in a wine, blending the aromatic properties as if the wine were home to all things.

Winegrowing choices at every stage have profound consequences for the textural and integrative properties of these colloids, as well as their stability. The way the wine feels on the palate, the soulfulness of the aroma, and its longevity in the cellar are all determined by the wine's colloidal structure. (The brilliant work of Patrick Ducournau and his colleagues at Oenodev in developing tools and methodologies to enhance structure is described in chapters 3 and 4.)

The fineness of a great sauce is the source of our word finesse. Wines with finesse feel good. Their unified flavors are able to touch us deeply by soothing the thalamus in the midbrain, creating a sense of harmony, peace, viscerality, and profundity. (The phenomenon of harmony and its strongly shared nature is explored more fully in chapter 11.)


Excerpted from Postmodern Winemaking by Clark Smith. Copyright © 2014 Clark Smith. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Clark Smith is winemaker for Diamond Ridge Vineyards and his own WineSmith Cellars. He consults with hundreds of winemakers, is an Adjunct Professor at Fresno State University and Florida
International University, and lectures widely on wine chemistry fundamentals. His Best-of-Appellation evaluations panel at explores the emerging wine regions of the United States and Canada, and his column “The Postmodern Winemaker” has appeared since 2009 in Wines & Vines magazine. He was awarded the 2016
Innovator of the Year at the Innovation + Quality (IQ) Forum, presented by Wine Business Monthly.

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