'I left MIT in 1971," says Clark Smith, founder and co-owner of Vinovation. "It was partly due to my own blindness, but I didn't really see an opportunity to do something artistic with the technical stuff I was learning there. I wanted to try to put the two together and do some kind of inquiry into the nature of what it was to be a human being." So, naturally, he wandered out west and got a job in a liquor store in California. "It took me nine years to figure out that wine was a place where you could do that kind of combination" -- a joint effort between art and science. Retail led to winery work led to UC Davis; then it was back to winemaking until 1991, when he started consulting.
Research for Benziger led to his getting a patent on the process of using a super-tight filter to separate alcohol, water, and acetic acid from flavor, color, and tannin in wine. That meant you could let your grapes hang until they achieved physiological ripeness -- softened, complex tannins, esters, phenolics, etc. -- and not worry about skyrocketing sugars and the resultant spike in alcohol levels post-fermentation. You just distilled off your extra alcohol and then recombined the two elements.
That recombination is what separates Smith's filtration from the filtration railed against by wine importer/writer/crusader Kermit Lynch. In his book Adventures on the Wine Route, Lynch gets a chance to compare filtered and unfiltered versions of the '83 Vieux Telegraphe. Everybody agrees the unfiltered is better. "The filtered was a limpid, one-dimensional ruby color, boring to the eye. The unfiltered was deeper-colored, shimmering with glints of purple and black. The filtered smelled as clean as it looked, but what little nose it had seemed superficial compared to the unfiltered. The unfiltered had a deep, healthy aroma. One might say that its aroma had texture; it smelled dense and full of nuances of spice and fruit.... On the palate, too, the filtered bottle lacked texture. It had body, but it didn't coat the taste buds with flavor like the unfiltered, which was chewy and substantial." The overall conclusion about the unfiltered: "There was more wine in the wine!"
The difference is that the filtration Lynch rails against removes something more than alcohol and that something never gets added back. His conclusion is literally true: a filtered wine contains less of the stuff that makes wine wine. It's been brought just a little bit closer to being an ideal solution -- pure liquid, no bits floating about. That isn't necessarily a problem for white wines, says Smith. But when you start dealing with red wines, you start dealing with tannin/anthocyanin-based colloids that contribute to flavor, texture, color -- all the things Lynch found in his unfiltered Vieux Telegraphe. Wine, says Smith, "is not like Kool-Aid; it's like chocolate milk. It has a structure. Make a list -- what are the foods that you -- just momentarily -- think of killing your grandmother to get? Nobody kills their grandmother for consommé. It's béarnaise sauce, lobster bisque, chocolate. It's the structure of food that makes it visceral. The reason is that you have a fatty part and a watery part in those foods, so any flavor element can find a home -- they're either soluble in fat or in water. If you have a very fine structure, then you get an intimate association between those two different kinds of flavors." In food, it's fat; in wine, it's colloids.
Smith goes so far as to say that for red wine, "The deviation from the old German 'ideal chemistry' model is a pretty good working definition of quality. The more we can retain and refine the texture of wine, the more that wine seems to have this visceral quality -- this proof that God loves us, capable of creating the desire to spend multiple twenties on a bottle. When you have a winemaker looking at red wine, if he's using the German model and he sees a defect" -- say, an excess of harsh tannin -- "he wants to take it out. You can add gelatin or milk protein or isinglass, and they will absorb the tannins, strip them out. We're more like chocolate makers. We want that tannin; we want to turn it into something positive. I don't think it's evil to use fining agents; I just think it's unnecessary and kind of naïve." But if you don't want to fine those rough tannins, you have to do something else with them. Letting your grapes hang longer on the vine is just one option, but whatever you do, odds are you're going to need tools. And some tools (reverse-osmosis filters) seem more techie than others (refrigerated tanks). What about art?
Smith, the MIT dropout who wanted to combine art and technology to investigate the human, says art is what he's after. "I do think there is a reason why science needs to be quite humble around the arts, but I don't think it has anything to do with weird-sounding tools. The tools aren't the problem. The problem is the aesthetics. I think it's a travesty that UC Davis refuses to teach aesthetics. If you went to Juilliard to be a musician, or if you went to the Culinary Institute of America to be a cook, and all they ever talked about was scientific principles, you'd say, 'Why the hell did I just waste my money?' Winemaking is not research. It's just a form of cooking. There's really no difference between the wine and the sauce -- in both cases, you're trying to make something delicious. So you need to tap into the idea of 'What is delicious? What moves people?' Trying to do that with statistics and the aroma wheel without talking about why people love things is silly. The experience of deliciousness is not reducible. You wouldn't go to a Pavarotti concert and say, 'He hit a lot of A flats in this piece; that must be what people are looking for.' You can't pull it to pieces. What makes it work is the whole thing; you have to look at it holistically. You have to look at wine like chocolate milk."