A Virtual Tasting With Clark Smith of WineSmith Wines

“My wines are highly manipulated. All wines are highly manipulated. Those are not grapes in the glass.”

With these attention-grabbing opening remarks, Clark Smith began a recent virtual tasting of six of his wines for attendees of the 2020 (Virtual) Wine Media Conference.

Smith has been called a maverick vintner, a wine industry provocateur, a blowhard, a technocrat, Dr. Frankenwine, and the anti-Christ of wine. Since 1976, when he made his first wine in his Oakland, California, basement, Smith has made wine from 58 vintages: 44 in the Northern Hemisphere and 14 in the Southern Hemisphere. The guiding principles of his wines are balance, palate energy, low alcohol, structural integrity, and longevity. Smith’s wines are rarely over 14% alcohol. Of the six wines we tasted, the highest alcohol percentage was in the Cabernet Franc, at 13.5%. Generally, he does not filter his red wines.


Clark Smith

So how, exactly, does Smith manipulate his wines? The technologies he uses, some of which he invented and patented, are detailed in his book Postmodern Winemaking: Rethinking the Modern Science of an Ancient Craft (University of California Press, 2013), which was Wine & Spirits magazine’s 2013 Book of the Year. Two of his tools are:

  • Micro-oxygenation (MOx). Patrick Ducournau, a French winemaker from Madiran (home of the exceedingly tannic grape varietal Tannat) invented this technology in 1991. Smith worked with Ducournau and his colleague Thierry Lemaire in the 1990s. MOx involves adding intentional minute amounts of oxygen into fermenting wine to enhance and stabilize color, refine and soften harsh tannins, and improve mouthfeel, flavor depth and integration, and longevity. MOx also corrects for too much pyrazines (bell pepper), too much Brettanomyces, and too much oak, which Smith considers the three sins in winemaking. Because the oxygen is diffused so slowly, the wine can absorb it without oxidizing.
  • Dealcoholization. New World grapes at ripeness (ie, when the winemaker decides that the grapes [and seeds and tannins] are ready to be picked) can often be high in sugar, leading to wines that are high in alcohol. Smith invented and patented a process using reverse osmosis (RO) that allows him to get any alcohol percentage he wants—what he calls the sweet spot—without harming the wine. Interestingly, Smith said that none of the wines we tasted underwent this RO process. Also covered under this patent is the ability to remove volatile acidity. More than half of California’s wine undergoes dealcoholization, according to Eric Asimov.

In the 1990s, Smith founded a company called Vinovation to commercialize the use of reverse osmosis, MOx, ultrafiltration, processes using high-quality oak chips, and other new tools. Vinovation offered its services to winemakers, and “Vinovation and its global partners quickly became the largest wine consulting company in the world, and we did service for thousands and thousands of wineries all over the world,” Smith said.

Smith has received a lot of flak over the years for his innovations and tools, which some feel do evil to the wine by taking the terroir out of it and erasing all traces of the character of the vintage and the grapes. Unlike many in the wine world, he does not take a dim view of the word manipulation; he does not consider it an act of artful deceit. According to Smith, no one objects to technologies and tools of modern winemaking such as stainless steel, electricity, and refrigeration because we have those things in our kitchens and we’re comfortable with them. In cooking, to which Smith likens winemaking, no one objects when top chefs openly use tools and technologies such as sous vide, liquid nitrogen for freezing, puff technology, and machines to conch chocolate.

Smith feels that using the winemaking technologies at his disposal actually helps him do a better job of allowing his wines to express their terroir. He starts with grapes grown in living soil—“the enhanced mineral uptake gives the wine a healthier immune system.” He then uses MOx and dealcoholization judiciously (sometimes he doesn’t use dealcoholization at all) to achieve the refined structure he seeks. “I work with the tannin until it integrates the aromas which the natural microbes impart into a single ‘voice,’ so they will occur as soulful rather than spoiled.” For him, that aspiration and way of working is very different from a winemaker who uses Mega Purple, stave wood, and excess MOx to speed up the aging process in order to bring the wine to market faster.

“The foundation of my brand is total honesty and transparency,” Smith says. “I’m never going to do anything with my wines that I’m not proud to brag about.”

So Let’s Taste Some of Smith’s Wines . . .


2017 Brut Zero Sparkling Grenache Blanc de Noirs. Santa Cruz Mountains. Disgorged after 13 months on the yeast; no dosage. Alc. 12.5%. This méthode champenoise sparkling wine has aromas of strawberries and melon and is very clean and fresh tasting, with minerality in the finish from the limestone soils. To my palate (and esophagus), it is a brut zero that’s rich and round with no need for additional sugar to tamp down excess acidity.

2015 Saint Laurent. Ricci Vineyard, Carneros. Alc. 11.8%. This aromatic dark-skinned grape grows in very tight clusters and needs the dry air and UV of high altitudes to suppress mold. Widely planted in the Czech Republic and Austria, it claims Pinot Noir as one of its parents. The wine is bright, very soft, and delicious; it has an herbal character with nice acidity and rounded tannins. Smith highly recommends pairing this wine with seafood, sushi, and paella. Give it a bit of a chill. This is the only wine in the six we tasted on which a technology called flash détente was used to denature rot and enzymes and pull off pyrazines.

2018 Norton. Heringer Estate Vineyards, Clarksburg, Yolo County. Alc. 12.9%. 100% Norton. Only 58 cases produced. Clarksburg, on the Sacramento River in California’s Central Valley, has long, warm summers that are perfect for fully ripening Norton grapes. Smith thinks that Heringer is the only Norton vineyard in the state. This juicy, deeply flavorful wine is an intense purple color (complemented by a mauve foil on the bottle), dense and soft and tasting of blueberry pie.

2015 Cabernet Franc. Lake County. Alc. 13.5%. Smith has been making Cabernet Franc in about ten locations all around the state since 1993. This wine is 78% Cabernet Franc and was cofermented with 22% Merlot for roundness. MOx was used right after fermentation. The wine spent 66 months in neutral French oak to reduce the reductive character. I detected cinnamon and tobacco on the nose but no bell pepper; the tannins are soft. The rocky volcanic soils of Diamond Ridge, where the grapes grow, transmit a mineral energy.

2014 Meritage. Ishi Pishi Vineyard, Humboldt County. Alc. 12.8%. This wine is a field blend of organically grown grapes from northern Humboldt County: 61% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Petit Verdot, 5% Malbec, and 3% Cabernet Franc. Vinified without added sulfites. The wine spent 57 months in 20-year-old neutral French oak, yet it is still fresh and purple, dense and rich. You can drink this wine now (consider decanting it and letting it sit; it needs air, as it’s still quite reductive); it will also benefit from a decade of further aging.

In an email exchange about this wine after the tasting, and in an attempt to understand more about how MOx works, I asked Smith whether using more MOx during vinification would have resolved the reduction in the Meritage. He replied, “It is true that I could have ‘quenched’ the wine with a longer regimen of oxygen and sawed many years off its development potential in service to current drinkability, but there are plenty of wines out there that do just that, and I’m exploring what I feel are more noble options.”

2017/2018 Petit Manseng. Novavine Nursery Vineyard, Yolo County. Alc. 12.9%. 100% Petit Manseng. 375 mL bottle. This is a delicate, aromatically delicious, and very refreshing dessert wine. Because it retains its acidity, it is not in the least syrupy or cloying. It would pair well with lighter desserts such as Napoleon, cannoli, and strawberry shortcake. Smith’s tasting sheet includes the information that aromatic Acacia wood chips were added to the fermentation to impart a honeysuckle element to the nose and some tannin structure. In a sort-of solera system, two-thirds of a given year’s wine is bottled and the rest returned to barrel for increased complexity of aging until it is blended into the wine of the following year.

Where Can I Buy the Wines?

WineSmith wines can be purchased direct on the website. Smith is selling the six wines we tasted in a Postmodern Select Six Sampler at a 36% discount. To order, go to WhoIsClarkSmith.com and click on Shop. Mixed cases qualify for discounts too, and Smith offers free cellaring.

What New Projects Is Smith Working On?

  • A Clarksburg Tannat that could be ready as soon as Spring 2021
  • A Lake County Tempranillo that will be in the Slow Wine Guide in 2021, along with the sparkling Grenache and the Meritage that we tasted
  • A Zinfandel made in a Super Tuscan style
  • A Lake County Malbec
  • An Alexander Valley Petit Verdot that Smith expects will be in barrel for four to five years

Truth in Advertising

Other wine writers have pointed out that the technologies Smith uses can be viewed simply as more automated and high-tech versions of long-used techniques to “improve” or “correct” wine such as racking and chaptalization. To my mind, those practices, whether the high-tech or low-tech versions, are infinitely more benign than spraying the grapes with synthetic herbicides and pesticides, using colorants and other chemical additives in the winery, and using commercial yeast strains during vinification to create artificial aromatics and flavors.

Smith is forthcoming about how he makes his wines. In our culture we have the notion, encouraged by corporate marketing departments, perhaps, that wine is or should be an artisanal product, free of manipulation by technology. But that kind of marketing leads to deception, probably making winemakers feel they can’t be transparent about their methods. How many winemakers’ websites have you looked at that emphasize their low-interventionist approach, their desire to express the vineyard site’s soil and climate in their wines, their belief that wine is made in the vineyard? How many of those winemakers use MOx and dealcoholization in the winery? Can a winemaker express a sense of place and vintage and use the industrial tools thoughtfully to that end? Smith would say yes.

If these practices are as widespread in the global wine industry as Smith says, then unless we drink so-called natural wines (but even then . . . one can argue that hand-crafted wines, too, are manipulated in that every decision a winemaker makes can be viewed as a manipulation), we are drinking manipulated wines. It is still not mandatory for winemakers to list the ingredients in their wines on the label, much less to describe how the wine was made.

I don’t necessarily object to drinking a wine that has been minimally “adjusted” or “intervened with” in some way, but to wine marketers and winemakers I say: Just be honest with me about what’s in my glass!

Copyright © 2020 by Carol Hartland

Masterclass: Wines of Santa Barbara County

Look at a map of California’s coastline and you’ll notice that its north-south direction switches to an east-west orientation at Santa Barbara. Thanks to this marked topographic shift (the longest such east-west orientation from the Aleutian Islands to Tierra Del Fuego), mountain ranges traverse east-west and valleys open directly to the Pacific Ocean, receiving the full force of its maritime wind and fog. The result is one of the coolest and driest winegrowing regions in California, with one of the longest growing seasons. No fall rains mean no mildew, making possible long hang times. All these factors suit the region perfectly to growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

As I learned at a recent Guild of Sommeliers masterclass focusing on 15 wines from top producers in Santa Barbara County taught by master sommeliers Matt Stamp and Brian McClintic (of Santa Barbara’s Les Marchands wine bar), of the 20,000 acres in Santa Barbara County devoted to growing wine grapes, some 4,800 are planted to Pinot Noir, 6,800 to Chardonnay, and 1,400 to Syrah. The county’s many different microclimates enable the growing of several different grape varietals, but Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah represent the county’s focus. 

The five federally recognized AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) within Santa Barbara County are Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. (There’s a petition pending for a sixth AVA, Los Alamos Valley.) These are young wine regions: Santa Maria Valley, the northernmost appellation in Santa Barbara County and, since the 1980s, home to Au Bon Climat and Qupé, was granted AVA status just 34 years ago in 1981. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two varietals grown in its foggy, windswept, and cool climate. Santa Ynez Valley, a climatically diverse and extensive east-west AVA established in 1983, has very cool coastal temperatures that warm as one moves inland. Pinot Noir does well in the cool western part of the valley, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot thrive in the warmer east. Located farthest west within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA is the AVA of Sta. Rita Hills (granted AVA status in 2001). Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grow exceptionally well in its extremely cool, ocean-influenced climate. Ballard Canyon is the youngest AVA, having received its AVA status in October 2013. Syrah and other Rhône varietals such as Grenache and Viognier grow well in its moderate-to-warm climate. The easternmost AVA, established in 2009, is Happy Canyon. Situated above the fog line and with less coastal influence, the climate is too warm for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc grow very well here.

The Wines

We tasted through two white flights and two red. Though our focus was Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah, we tasted a few other varieties as well, beginning with the first flight. I’ve included very brief tasting impressions of the wines.


Flight One:

Tatomer “Kick-On Ranch” Riesling 2012 (Santa Barbara County)

Lieu-Dit Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Grassini Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Happy Canyon AVA)

Tatomer’s flagship 100% Riesling was classically dry, with very little botrytis influence but with a bitterness that Matt said was a result of skin contact. Of the two Sauvignon Blancs, Lieu-Dit’s had pronounced fruity aromatics of passionfruit, grapefruit, and currant, while Grassini’s aromatics were of sweeter citrus fruits; peachy, creamy.

Flight Two:

Liquid Farm “Golden Slope” Chardonnay 2012 (Sta.  Rita Hills AVA)

Sandhi Chardonnay 2012 (Sta. Rita Hills AVA)

Chanin “Los Alamos Vineyard” Chardonnay 2013 (Santa Barbara County)

Tyler “Bien Nacido” Chardonnay 2013 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Of these four wines, the Sandhi had the most new oak (20%), but it was unnoticeable! Grapes were whole-bunch pressed, giving a much cleaner, less phenolic juice. This is a beautiful wine! Liquid Farm’s “Golden Slope” went through 100% malolactic fermentation and was round, creamy, and leesy. The Chanin was extremely aromatic and floral; broad, big. In contrast, the Tyler was leaner in style, showing a strong sulfite character.

Flight Three:

Martian Ranch Gamay 2013 (Santa Barbara County)

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir “La Bauge Au Dessus” 2012 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Whitcraft Pinot Noir “Pence Ranch—Mt. Eden Clone” 2013 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir “Machado” 2012 (Sta. Rita Hills AVA)

Martian Ranch’s Gamay was fresh and clean, with good acidity and “lots of carbonic pop!” in Matt’s opinion. The Whitcraft and Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs were both pressed 100% whole cluster and both had no new oak. Whitcraft’s ABV was a low 12.2; good acidity; tart and lean. Brian told us that Greg Brewer wanted his Machado Pinot Noir to taste “like a red bouncing ball” and, in fact, the wine had a lift and a bounce; fruit forward (riper than Whitcraft); terrific balance of ripeness and restraint. Au Bon Climat’s Pinot was aged in 50% new French oak (yet the wine was balanced); zesty, forward red fruit; spicy; unfiltered.

Flight Four:

Ojai Syrah “Solomon Hills” 2011 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Stolpman Syrah 2012 (Ballard Canyon AVA)

Qupé Syrah “Bien Nacido” 1999 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Clendenen Family Nebbiolo Riserva 2004 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Three delicious Syrahs! The Qupé is from the oldest planting in Santa Maria (“X” block in the Bien Nacido vineyard), planted in 1981; the vines look like trees. The Ojai was densely concentrated, zesty, spicy, fresh, and invigorating, while the Stolpman was a bit riper and rich and belied its 14.1 ABV. The Clendenen Family Nebbiolo Riserva represents the experimentation going on right now in Santa Barbara County winemaking. At 10 years old, and having spent 5 years in barrel, this wine is still young! Floral (roses), tar, earthinesss, and nice acidity. In Matt’s opinion, this wine is like Barolo Riserva and belongs in the conversation of Piedmont Nebbiolo. I agree!

The Guild of Sommeliers

GS_logoAn international membership organization of sommeliers, wine industry professionals, and wine enthusiasts, the Guild of Sommeliers provides members with rich opportunities for learning and networking. Members receive access to in-depth masterclasses (this is instruction at a very high level) such as the one I’ve written about here, taught by master sommeliers in cities around the country, articles, podcasts, discussion forums, online study guides, maps of the world’s wine regions, and job postings. Please support this wonderful organization by becoming a member! Visit guildsomm.com for more information.

World of Pinot Noir

image001Pinot Noir lovers, take note! Four of the producers whose wines we tasted in this masterclass—Sandhi, Tyler Winery, Au Bon Climat, and Brewer-Clifton—are participating in World of Pinot Noir, a two-day celebration of our beloved grape, and will be pouring their wines on March 7 at the Saturday Pinot Noir by the Sea Tasting at Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara. As of this posting, some tickets remain for this event, which showcases more than 120 producers. In addition, World of Pinot Noir features a Friday Pinot Noir by the Sea Tasting, at which approximately 100 winemakers (a different roster from the Saturday event) will pour their wines. Food pairing seminars pair Pinot Noir with chanterelles from the Santa Rita Hills and local uni from the Pacific Ocean. Five-course gourmet dinners highlight local cuisine and the wines of attending winemakers. On Saturday night Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat—Pinot Noir and Santa Maria Valley pioneer—will be honored at a special Rockstars of Pinot Noir dinner. Visit wopn.com for details and tickets.

Copyright © 2015 by Carol Hartland

Joe Spellman on JUSTIN Vineyard and Winery and Landmark Vineyards

I have previously posted about the excellent seminars at Rom Toulon’s 24 Hubert Wines in Tribeca (see my posts about Alphonse Mellot and Fritz Wieninger’s Wiener Gemischter Satz). This past week I attended another top-notch seminar at the Manhattan store, presented by master sommelier Joe Spellman, winery sommelier for JUSTIN Vineyard and Winery in Paso Robles, on California’s Central Coast. 

Joe Spellman

Master Sommelier Joe Spellman

Tracing the history of JUSTIN Vineyard, Joe explained to us that Justin Baldwin purchased 160 acres of the limestone-rich soils of the Santa Lucia Mountains of Paso Robles in 1981 with the dream of making Left Bank Bordeaux-style blends from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc on California’s Central Coast. With its elevation of 1,200-1,500 feet, Pacific Ocean breezes, and wide day-night temperature swings, Paso’s microclimate allows the grapes to develop flavor, structure, and balance. Justin Baldwin realized his dream in 1987 with the first release of Isosceles, now his flagship wine, named for the three varietals that make up the blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

We tasted three wines from JUSTIN Vineyard and Winery, each one of them beautifully balanced:

2013 Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc, $14. 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Whole-cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel tanks; no malolactic fermentation. Alc. 14.5%. Citrus, apple, and pear, with a crisp, refreshing minerality and a long finish. Lean, clean, citrusy and meant to be enjoyed young.

2012 Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon, $25. Juicy, ripe red and black fruit, hand picked and hand sorted, aged in small American oak barrels (30% new) for 16 months, and displaying the very low and soft tannins typical of Paso Robles. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, along with some Syrah and Petite Syrah, although the exact blend is not divulged. Alc. 14.5%.

2011 Paso Robles Isosceles, $88. A spicy, aromatic, full-bodied wine modeled on the Left Bank wines of Château Margaux. 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc. Aged in 100% new French oak barrels for 21 months. Unfiltered; racked twice per year. Alc. 14.5%.

Joe also brought two wines for us to taste from JUSTIN’s sister vineyard, Landmark Vineyards, located at the base of Sugarloaf Mountain in Sonoma Valley in northern California.

Landmark has a very interesting history. It was founded in 1974 by a group that included Damaris Deere Ford, great-great-granddaughter of John Deere, who invented the steel plow. The first vintage of Landmark’s flagship wine, Overlook Chardonnay, was produced in 1991. In 1993, Landmark hired world-renowned enologist Helen Turley, now owner of the 9-acre boutique winery Marcassin Vineyard, who helped craft Landmark’s signature style: grapes harvested by hand and pressed whole cluster, fermented by naturally occurring wild yeasts, and aged in French oak barrels. The philosophy of Landmark’s current winemaker, Greg Stach, is “the best grapes make the best wines. The less the wine is manipulated, the more flavors and aromas remain for the consumer to enjoy.” 

The two wines we tasted were:

2012 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Chardonnay, $25. 100% Chardonnay, with the grapes sourced from 22 vineyards in the following counties: 83% Sonoma, 11% Monterey, and 6% Santa Barbara. Grapes are whole-cluster pressed and native-yeast fermented in 100% French oak barrels for 10 months. Lees are stirred throughout the wine in the barrels twice per month, to create roundness, richness, and texture. Alc. 14.3%.

2012 Landmark Vineyards Overlook Pinot Noir, $25. 100% Pinot Noir, with the grapes sourced from cool-climate vineyards in the following counties: 53% San Luis Obispo, 40% Sonoma, and 7% Monterey. Grapes are harvested and sorted by hand, fermented in small single-vineyard lots, and aged for 10 months in 100% French oak barrels. Winemaker Greg Stach and his team taste and select from the individual barrels and create the final blend. Alc. 14.5%. Stach’s goal for this wine was to craft a fruit-forward, accessible, and reasonably priced wine with good acidity.

24 Hubert Wines has several other appealing seminars coming up. Check out their schedule here.


Copyright © 2014 by Carol Hartland