Since the birth of modern art, artists and art theory have had a symbiotic though troubled relationship. The conceptual nature of modern art and its “difficulty” for the ordinary patron meant that art had to be explained, and so the theorist acts as a critical interpreter and translator providing context and meaning for what might otherwise seem obscure. (Yes, there is irony in the jargon-laced abstractions of art theory serving as clarifying explanations).
In the wine world, by contrast, aesthetic theory plays almost no role. Although there have been articulate winemakers such as Paul Draper or Randle Grahm who can put wine in a larger context, and wine writers occasionally wax philosophical, “theory” in the wine world usually means science and there is little discussion of the aesthetic aims or the larger meanings of that science.Clark Smith, proprietor and winemaker at Winesmith is a prominent exception. With Clark you not only get delicious, intriguing wines. You get chapter and verse on the science and aesthetics of wine found in his book, Postmodern Winemaking and his website which is brimming with information.
Clark defines postmodern winemaking as “the practical art of connecting the human soul to the soul of a place by rendering its grapes into liquid music.” That sounds like you might expect a discussion of auras and energy fields, but that definition rests on rigorous science and many years of experimentation seeking that elusive quality that makes a wine great. Clark invented the filtering technology that enables winemakers to remove alcohol through reverse osmosis and is equally at home talking about beauty or vicinal diphenol oxidation.So what is “soulfulness” in a wine? In a phrase, “aroma integration”:
“Aromatic integration is the source of soulfullness in food be it a bearnaise, a bisque or a Bordeaux. When aromas are integrated into a single voice the food speaks to the soul in the way a symphony does when the orchestra plays as one.
A sense of unity and harmony is the goal. But contrary to much of what you hear about winemaking that treats oxygen exposure as the enemy, it’s the absorption of oxygen that is the key to both flavor integration and age-worthiness.
…a young wine when challenged with oxygen behaves homeopathically, increasing its reductive strength….In effect the introduction of oxygen has made the wine hungrier for oxygen. Instead of oxidation we get increased reductive strength.
Oxygen introduced at the right time accelerates the bonding of color molecules and tannins, shortening the polymers, creating a more refined texture and more opportunities for the flavor molecules to bond to the colloids. The soulfullness of flavor integration is a product of refined structure. And these properly formed tannins will remain in suspension longer holding on to their aroma and flavor as the wine ages.
That’s the theory. In practice?
Every wine I’ve tasted from Winesmith has been its own unique child. Here are 4 of the siblings.
Faux Chablis Napa County 2005
California Chardonnay grapes inspired by the explosive minerality and stalwart ageability of Chablis. The nose is floral showing lemon blossom with a subtle background of dry hay. This florality is very unusual in a wine this old. As with many great wines, there is caprice and vacillation with occasional tropical notes hovering uncertainly between pineapple and ripe banana. Round but not weighty on the palate, the texture is supple, with a layered mouthfeel, angularity at the foundation and ethereality on top, a wine of duality like others in this lineup. The finish is generous and long, with no rough edges, and an endearing seam of pure mineral water, giving way to a subtle electrical charge at its final destination. Sunny and playful, yet exotic and mysterious like this gorgeous offering from Debashish Battacharya . This music brings out honey notes in the wine.
Roman Syrah California 2005
“Roman” refers to a series of wines made with no added sulfites, akin to “natural wine” although aficionados would blanch at the use of micro-oxygenation to build structure. Light garnet and transparent in the glass with some browning, this Syrah shows floral aromas blended with a hint of volatile acidity against a rich almond/milk chocolate background. The palate has an electric intensity, the mineral/acidity playing a top note against a wonderfully soft, ingratiating mouthfeel with good midpalate extension, gradually unfurling that electric minerality which reappears on a finish of fine-grained tannins. It’s good natured but quirky and other worldly, a wine of paradox, soft and pretty but with a core of bristling acidity, aging but refusing to go quietly. The grapes were sourced from Renaissance Vineyards in the North Yuba AVA.
Amon Tobin’s Kitchen Sink is as quirky and other worldly as this wine.
Syrah Suisun Valley Mangels’s Ranch 2005
This Syrah differs from the Roman in that it was sulfited and the grapes sourced from Suisun Valley, a relatively cool climate region adjacent to San Pablo Bay. It shows intense aromas of chocolate-covered berries, caramel, and newly turned earth with hints of dried flowers. The full bodied, lush palate has that same electric acidity. The tannins are soft, like velvet, yet persistent supporting a lengthy finish which I would describe as chalk without the grit, the minerality hanging on forever as the fruit fades. Tense mineral top notes contrast with the lush full foundation gradually fading to a powdery, yet enveloping texture. The wine caresses but has a provocative edge.
Erik Truffaz “Flamingos” pulls something earthy out of this wine.
Crucible Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2007
Straight from the cellars of Sauron, the nose shows intense cassis and sweet black cherry with fig undertones mingling with wet autumn leaves against a hazelnut background. It’s dense and full bodied in the mouth, the finely honed tannins giving plenty of quiet yet resolute structure. The midpalate is extraordinarily broad and dimensional with a seam of raucous dark fruit that owns the night forging its way to a finish that builds layers of character. This wine perhaps best illustrates the idea of flavor integration. The palate seems deep and broad yet the core of intense dark fruit belts out a single note like a massive chorus singing in unison. There is no fruit basket here; just exquisitely rendered force, a wine that shows why power and elegance are not contraries. This spent 60 months in old French oak with grapes sourced from the vineyards of Napa Valley Community College.
Disturbed’s incredible “Sounds of Silence” will match this wine’s countenance. You have not understood this song until you hear this version.
I hope it’s clear from the above that these are starkly original wines embodying paradox and depth, yet made with intention bringing together rigorous science and aesthetic sensibility. But as with all great art they give great pleasure as well; the soul is not satisfied until the endorphins flow.