Oh, it's too sweet a shot, almost too easy not to take: Frankenstein...wine... Frankenwine! And here to tell us about his latest creation, the good doctor himself! Doctor, just what are you doing to this lovely, handcrafted Cabernet? "Lovely? Ha! At 16 percent alcohol, it's a clumsy, club-footed monster! The sugars were too high at harvest! But I will redeem it! It's the triumph of technology! I'll just dump it into my reverse osmosifier machine, rend it asunder, fiddle with the components, and slap it back together! Gentlemen, we can rebuild it. Richer...smoother...better than it was before. Behold, my ultimate creation! The superwine to rule them all! Bwahahahaha!"
Clark Smith -- winemaker and founder of Vinovation, a company that provides, among other things, reverse-osmosis services to wineries -- says it's not quite like that, even if that's the way the wine press tends to present it. Or at least, if it is like that, it's not as bad as it sounds.
The reason the wine press is upset, he says, isn't that he's employing technology. The reason is that he's employing new technology. "You've got a sort of paparazzi element in the press that's tapping into people's desire for wine to be the one place the 20th Century didn't screw up. But the truth is, as with everything else in the 20th Century, technology has utterly transformed winemaking, so that it's all but unrecognizable to any 19th-Century practitioner. There's no such thing as a traditional winery anymore. Electricity, stainless steel, inert gas, plastic, selected strains of yeasts -- we didn't even know yeasts were involved until 1857, when Pasteur figured it out." But since most of these advances have been around for as long as most wine writers, they don't attract attention.
For that matter, neither does chaptalization, the practice of adding beet sugar to wine in order to provide sufficient food for the yeast during fermentation. And chaptalization has been around longer than anybody currently writing about wine. "If a wine writer were really trying to protect the public, I think it would make more sense for them to go after beet sugar. I think that the one thing people expect from wine is that it doesn't have ingredients -- it's just grapes." Chaptalization also has an old-timey sound, like Pasteurization. It's not creepy like reverse osmosis. Smith hates the term, though he's willing to use it. "You can always make something sound horrible. If you wanted to be an anti-breakfast person, you'd start talking about denatured chicken embryos and scorched pig parts. All reverse osmosis is is a really tight filter."
Filtering is a classic -- if not always lauded -- concept in winemaking, beginning even within the grape itself. While Smith was a student at UC Davis in the late '70s--early '80s, "Roger Boulton would talk about harvesting when it was cool so that the skin would work as an ultrafilter. What holds the skin together is pectin, which is kind of like jelly. If you let jelly get up to 80 or 90 degrees, you don't have jelly anymore. You have soup. If the skin is cool, on the other hand, you get a molecular sieve with more integrity. Boulton would talk about how you could extract the aromatics and flavor elements during crush and leave the tannins behind. That way, you could make very delicate white wines with low phenolics but good flavor extraction from the skins. The result was a wine with a natural sweetness that would appeal to both the connoisseur and the novice."
The reverse-osmosis filter is tighter than the grape skin. It's so tight, in fact, that all that gets through is water, alcohol, and acetic acid. "The color, the flavor, and the tannin don't come through." Excess alcohol can be distilled off, acetic acid removed via a water softener. The modified liquid gets blended back together with the color, flavor, and tannin, and the result is a wine made from grapes picked at optimal physiological ripeness. The wonder is that it's also a wine unmarred by an excess of alcohol, alcohol brought on by a surge in sugar concentration as the grape's tannins and flavor compounds softened and matured. "It wasn't so much a winemaker's tool as a grape grower's tool," he says. One of the great axioms of wine PR -- which is not to say it isn't true -- is that you can't make good wine from bad grapes. The notion is that no amount of technology or skill is going to make gold from lead. Smith would agree; he'd just say that his machine helped you to make sure you got gold to begin with. If you don't have to worry about alcohol levels, you can let your fruit ripen to perfection.
Clark stumbled onto the idea, in classic scientist-inventor fashion, while working on another project. After seven years of making wine at R.H. Phillips, he got a job with Benziger as "a kind of outsourced R&D department." One of his projects involved making nonalcoholic wine. "Bruno Benziger's liver went bad on him in the late '80s, and his doctor told him he had to quit drinking. So he got really interested in making a product that carried the positives of wine without the alcohol. I did experiments, and I wasn't all that successful -- I think the alcohol is really important to what wine is. But while we were working with this ultratight filter, we said, 'Wait a minute. We could use this to very economically uncouple the harvest decision from sugar content.' We were able to get worldwide patent rights to the idea," he continues, "and that's where Vinovation got started."
In the beginning, his customers were interested in saving wines that had developed volatile acidity. "They had beautiful, beautiful wine, and there wasn't anything they could do with it. So, they would give us a try. They were usually very surprised when the wines came out well. Once we'd had some success, they were a little bit more willing to give us their best wines and let us work on alcohol adjustment. At this point, we work with about 600 wineries in California and about 500 more overseas. Something like 40 percent of the premium wine in California is alcohol-adjusted."