Clark Smith: The Ramble
A rambling interview with possibly the most interesting man in American wine.
For this first interview at Substack, I reached out to Clark Smith, easily among the most interesting people in the American wine industry. Clark is a winemaker, entrepreneur, teacher, philosopher, chemist, author, consultant, singer, researcher, Quixotist and a very thoughtful man, as this rambling interview should demonstrate. I urge you to visit his Winesmith website to get a flavor for how winemaking is something of a playground for him. To go deeper into his philosophy of winemaker visit his Postmodern Winemaking website, and certainly go purchase his award-winning book Postmodern Winemaking.
And a word about this interview format. Normally I would send off a set of questions to a subject, let them respond in writing and there it is. This interview, and those that follow in this series, begin with one question emailed to the subject. They respond in any way they choose, which in turn prompts my next question, and so on. It is a less formal way of conducting an interview, results in something a bit messier and rambling, but also produce something more interesting and authentic.
FERMENTATION: At the outset, let me set the stage by relating that while I’d known of you for some time, I’d never really had the chance to spend time with you until about a decade ago when we were both judging at one of Dan Berger’s wine competitions. Something prompted us to sit down on a bench and begin chatting. It was during that conversation you urged me to think differently about how we interact with people and ideas inside the wine industry and outside of it. Since that conversation occurred I’ve taken every opportunity to listen to you and read whatever you produced. Yours has been among the most unique fascinating minds in wine and that’s why I wanted to have his conversation.
So, you are a winemaker, consultant, philosopher and much more. At the outset of this discussion, talk briefly about the path your career has taken to this point. But I also want to hear what kind of principles and prompts motivate your thinking on subjects having to do with wine, the wine industry and the choices you make in the course of working in the industry.
CLARK SMITH: Well, this didn’t turn out all that brief.
I grew up on the East Coast, literally the son of a rocket scientist. We moved around a lot, but I consider that my formative years aged 7-11 were spent in New Jersey, which is where I got my attitude. In 1969, I ended up at MIT, where I received instruction from twelve of the great minds in science. Noam Chomsky taught me linguistics; Francis Crick for molecular biology, Jerome Letvin and Edwin Land for Biological Aspects of Perception, D.S. Kemp for Chemistry, Teuber and Luria for Psychology, and so on.
When I got to my Junior year, I had to declare a major. I was presented with a dozen great career paths, and couldn’t decide. I also began my career as a folksinger/songwriter. Nothing called to me to the extent that I would give up everything else. So I dropped out, ended up in Oakland and got a job at a wine shop in 1972. This was the ground floor. There were only 250 wineries in the U.S., and we carried every wine made in the U.S. and about 1,000 imports. Over five years, I not only tasted everything available but visited most of the wineries.
The attraction of the wine industry was partly that nobody knew what they were doing. It wasn’t all worked out the way, say, the Periodic Table was. There was the opportunity to make a difference. I also liked the way winemaking brought science and art together, similar to music in that way.
In 1976, while visiting Bill Fuller at Tualatin, I decided to dive into production, and in 1977, got a job as Cellarmaster at Veedercrest in Emeryville. In 1980, after a nine-year sabbatical, I started my junior year at UC Davis. By this time, I knew a lot more about the wine trade and practical winemaking than my professors, and I could see right away that in many ways, they were full of shit. My Jersey attitude kicked in big-time. For example, there wasn’t any wine tasting going on at all, and they didn’t think it was their job to teach wine appreciation or wine quality.
So I got activist. I started an Experimental College course called Hedonic Wine Appreciation. I founded the student club, the Davis Enology & Viticulture Organization (DEVO) so we could visit wineries, invite guest lecturers from industry, and interact with the Enology Club at CSU Fresno. Jim Lapsley at the University Extension asked me to produce a number of short courses for him, and in 1984, I created a condensed course called Fundamentals of Modern Wine Chemistry that contained the essentials of a four-year Davis degree in a weekend. I have since delivered this course in-person hundreds of times to over 4,500 winemakers. It’s now available online at www.modernwinechemistry.com.
After snagging my BS in 1982, I took the MS degree program, working my thesis on Brettanomyces. While I finished this work, I got snagged by the Giguieres to start up R. H. Phillips and never turned in my Thesis, so I never got that degree. Over seven years, I took them from 3,000 cases in 1983 to 300,000 cases in 1989.
I left in 1990 to start WineSmith Consulting. My principle client was the Benzigers as an outsourced R&D department. Besides setting up their Educational Center, I was put in charge of development of a non-alcoholic wine line. This was Bruno’s dream, and he had purchased a reverse osmosis machine I learned to operate. This led to the inventions of recombinatory RO applications for VA removal and alcohol adjustment which I patented, giving birth to Vinovation in 1992 and since licensed to 14 foreign countries. We became California’s principal and most trusted high technology service provider, which made us a magnet for many other technologies such as ultrafiltration, micro-oxygenation and designer oak alternatives. This morphed into a sort of cooking school for progressive winemakers.
In 1994, I started my own experimental brand, WineSmith, to proselytize for a balanced Eurocentric wine style and explore exotic varieties. Today we make forgeries such as Cab Franc (St. Emilion), Crucible (1re Cru Pauillac), Faux Chablis from Napa Chardonnay, Tempranillo (Rioja), Zinfandel (Super Tuscan) and Petit Manseng (Pecherenc de Vic Bihl) as well as goofy explorations into Norton, St. Laurent, and a port style called Any Gorilla.
In 2008, I sold Vinovation to Winesecrets in order to concentrate on writing and winemaking for myself and about 120 wineries. I was Chief Editor for AppellationAmerica.com and pioneered the Best-of-Appellation Blue Book, characterizing over 1,000 signature variety/AVA combinations. The original investors took a tax loss in 2009 and sold me the operation, which is sort of in mothballs at present while I look for a sponsor to breathe life back into it. I just thought it was too good to die.
In 2010 I started a monthly column called The Postmodern Winemaker for Wines and Vines, culminating in the publication of Postmodern Winemaking in 2013, Wine and Spirits Magazine’s Book of the Year.
Today, I divide my time among winemaking, writing (I have a book in the works called The Myth of Science), consulting, lecturing and making a lot of music. Besides songwriting and performing, I sing in my wife’s church choir (she’s a very talented composer) and am President of the Santa Rosa Redwood Chordsmen Barbershop Harmony chapter and sing in two quartets, Vintage and Sound Logic.
FERMENTATION: No, that was not brief. But fascinating.
There is a certain amount of “rebel” in you, isn’t there? While I don’t think it takes possessing very much of the rebel gene to be a real rebel in the notoriously conservative wine industry, you seem to possess that inclination more than most. Where did that come from?
CLARK SMITH: I suppose growing up in New Jersey with a pigheaded crusader father had something to do with it. Also, we were all rebels in Boston in the late ‘60s.
Like you, I’m drawn to tilting at windmills, especially in defending the fine people who threw away perfectly good lives to make wine for the pleasure of others. It’s kind of an aroused Momma Bear defending her cubs.
FERMENTATION: Regarding that Quixotic temperament of yours, I don’t get the impression you are entirely joking when it comes to the plight of those fine people who are attempting to give others pleasure through wine and who you take particular pleasure in helping. It turns out you’ve helped hundreds of wineries, primarily in your role as a “consultant”—a moniker that gets a bad wrap by the way. Let me ask you to put your consultant hat on. Based on your experience with those folks who decide winemaking is going to be their new career, what do know about the dispositions and habits of those who succeed in starting up a small winery. And while we are on the subject, what is the single biggest mistake made by those who fail at creating a successful wine brand?
CLARK SMITH: First of all, you’re right that “Consultant” is a hard sell. My business card used to say “Winemaking Sidekick” – everybody needs a Tonto or at least a Gabby Hayes. My assistant winemaker stole the title from me -- after all he was my Tonto -- so I changed my card to “Wise Guy”.
All winemakers are open, passionate, versatile, egocentric, hardworking, proud, stubborn, cheap, resourceful, dedicated, worried and not in it for the money! The successful ones get there by surviving a long waiting game, facing down entrepreneurial terror, maniacal perseverance, an appetite for chaos, and a clear sense of purpose. They usually have at least a decade of sustaining income and a lot of winemaker-wannabe friends who take pity on them and admire their vision. A cute dog helps a lot, too.
Failing to define your winery’s vision and purpose at the start. (This is the single biggest mistake.)
Undervaluing your personal labor.
Undervaluing automation, underspending on hardware, software and consulting at the expense of labor. The right ratio is $10K a year for hardware, $20K for software, $50K for consulting and $200K for labor. Cut the first three in half and you’ll double the last.
Placing too much value on initial reactions of a small number of people or initial medals – positive or negative are equally destructive. God save you from an early positive Parker review.
Following trends. Whatever the big boys are doing, head the other way.
Hiring the architect before the winemaker.
Many get into the business because they made some good Zinfandel in a trash can in their garage and their neighbors told them to go pro. This is a bad situation. They have no idea what will be required of them. Every winery has about 25 jobs, and for a startup, the owner does them all. She has to be CEO, COO, CFO, VP of Marketing, VP of R&D and Vineyard Manager.
As CFO, she needs to master G&A, finance, inventory management, A/R, A/P, licenses and permits from local, State, Federal and out-of-State, six kinds of tax reports and payments, payroll and five kinds of insurance. As COO she needs skills at winemaking protocols, materials and equipment selection, facilities design, lab skills, records systems, and monthly BW reports. Marketing includes website design and operation, tasting room management, wine clubs, customer service, email campaigns, social media, schmoozing influencers, media, distributors, retailers and consumers and organizing travel.
Nobody who fully appreciates what they’re up against would ever go into this line of work. Nor would anyone ever have kids. Or become a jazz musician. This is why hormone levels in humans are so much higher than in other mammals.
The definition of success is being able to afford to do only the jobs you love on this list and find other people to take on the rest. Thank God for our diverse natures. I’ve been on this learning curve for fifty years now, so yes, I’m motivated to throw the newbies a rope if they’ll grab it. But it also feels good to warn them of the many pitfalls I’ve experienced, from channel drains to cordon-training Norton to SalesForce CRM to Quickbooks online version.
It’s also a real treat to share the rapidly emerging game-changing technologies like Maceration acceleration, Zenith instant cold stabilization, ozone treatment for smoke taint, Metschnikowia cold soak protection, Innovint, and Zoho software, and the SmartBarrel. Winemaking is way easier than it was three years ago!
FERMENTATION: I’ve tasted your wines, Clark. They are idiosyncratic and unexpected. One would think wines that fall into these categories might get a hearing amongst today's enological hipsters. How would you describe your intellectual relationship with the Natural Wine movement, and the Pet Nat and Orange Wine adherents? It seems to me that simply mention of "Zenith instant cold stabilization” might make you the enemy.
CLARK SMITH: I have a couple chapters in my book addressing “Natural Wine Nonsense” and “Yeast Inoculation: Threat or Menace?” I don’t think these people deserve our attention any more than the Proud Boys. They are very vocal, very opinionated, very distrustful of winemakers, and more hungry for ink than thirsty for properly made wine. They’ve constructed an echo chamber impervious to dialogue.
That said, We have a lot of common ground. They want what we want. We all want wine to be un-fucked-with, which it mostly is. We respect artisanship. We are bored with the standard grocery-store fighting varietals and want to explore.
That the movement exists at all is completely our fault because around 1980, we started lying about the technological revolution that occurred in winemaking and is still ongoing. That’s why I wrote Postmodern Winemaking in hopes to begin to heal these wounds through candor and explanation. I describe the perfect storm that led to this closing down of communication and leading to “I do the minimum, not like those other wineries.” We are cutting our own throats by pandering to a small cadre of ignorant reactionaries.
Top chefs went the other way. Wolfgang Puck would appear on the Food Network and show us how to grate ripe brie by freezing it with liquid nitrogen, right there on TV. As a result, molecular gastronomy, sous vide, puff technology is all the rage.
Since I’m small, I don’t have to care. While there are some people who call me Doctor Evil, many others have heard my arguments, taken my classes, and become vocal fans. They’re thin on the ground, and finding them is my current challenge. Several presented themselves at the Slow Wine Tasting last week in SF and Seattle (and hopefully this Wednesday in NYC). It doesn’t take that many folks to support a 1,500-case brand. It will be lovely to be virally hip so I can expand my experimental wine line, but I’ll be happy if we can simply become self-sustaining.
As for amber wine, I’m all for it. It’s what wine was for its first seven millennia. The Georgians really hate the Orange Wine designation (It’s not made from oranges and it’s not orange) but I guess that ship has sailed. The Friulians temporarily stole their thunder, but in the end, have helped them into the market. I don’t consider them a child of the Natural Wine crazies, though the alignment supports them, so why not take the money? I’d love to explore amber wine versions of several varieties: Rkatsiteli, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, etc…
FERMENTATION: Speaking of "cutting our own throats” and small cadres of ignorant reactionaries, what’s the wine industry to do? This January the general news was that while 2021 was a good year for wine—even a comeback year after 2020—there is a great deal of concern that wine is losing market share to other drinks and that the younger among us are less inclined to reach for wine than they are some sort of pre-mixed cocktail in a can, a bottle of booze or even no alcohol concoctions. You’ve been at this for 50 years. You know where the real and metaphorical bodies are buried. Should the wine world be worried?
CLARK SMITH: In the sense you are implying, there is no such thing as wine. There are two wine worlds. 65 wineries over a million cases completely control national distribution, moving about 20,000 labels through the three-tier system, around 95% of the volume. This conversation is about them, not us, the 11,000 wineries averaging 2,000 cases and selling 500,000 labels at 5% of the volume almost entirely DTC with very high profit margins.
Very little of this wine is standard fighting varietal styles. We’re selling a personal connection to a goofy dream by someone you personally connect with and admire. You might as well be asking me how Capital Records market share of the AM dial affects my church choir or my barbershop quartet.
FERMENTATION: Is it your contention then that those who drink and support Barbershop Quartet wines are not first devotees of AM radio who graduate to consuming the concoctions of those with goofy dreams and therefore the 95% ought not to be concerned with diminishing numbers of new wine drinkers?
CLARK SMITH: I assume you understand that this is an analogy.
I don’t fully understand the many pathways through which true enophiles come into being. Perhaps for many, the Safeway wines (AM dial) are the gateway drug. I do know that you have to have a peak experience to become a true believer. That experience shows you something unrelated to alcohol or social schmoozing, something in the wine itself that shows you a part of your soul you didn’t know you had. A great quartet can do that. So can great Chinese food.
So yes, I don’t think the shrinking numbers of consumers who don’t “get it” is a reason for concern for me and my small potatoes D-list homies.
FERMENTATION: I have one last question for you Clark. But before I ask it, I want to thank you for engaging in this ramble. It’s exactly the kind of conversation I was hoping for from us given the somewhat stilted format of email. So, again thank you. Ok…The question: you are throwing a dinner party for five, including yourself. But all you get to do is choose the food and wine, to drink, eat, and sit back, watch and listen. Who do you invite and who is most likely to storm out first?
CLARK SMITH: I’m flunking your test. I can’t think of anybody who would storm out if I offered postmodern wines. Leticia Chacon wants to understand and be seen as a centrist. Alice Feiring is a showman, highly interested in promoting an angle in a nasty blog (she called my Roman Reserve 2005 sulfite-free Syrah “unadulterated pickle juice”, then changed her mind to “adulterated pickle juice.” But not in my presence. Her style is the knife in the back. I really don’t think she is passionate in her beliefs, just highly narcissistic.
I guess the way I’d get this to happen is to serve really bad “natural wines” and invite Alice and Nicolas Joly (or maybe Alan Goldfarb) along with Doug Frost and Lisa Granik. I think Lisa would be the first to crack. But I’d only do this for a lot of money, because Lisa would never forgive me, and I really couldn’t handle that.
I used to raise Golden Lab puppies for Canine Companions for Independence. The hardest command to teach them, once we had gotten them to give up barking, was to teach them to bark on command. It involves sort of torturing them until they broke their training and barked, then rewarding them. Horrible. I don’t think you’re going to induce me to do that to Lisa. But I picked her because she has great passion for wine and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
FERMENTATION: Thank you, Clark.
Great piece ! Thanks Tom and thanks Clark !
That was a lot of fun :)