Berger on wine: Clark Smith, a daring wine innovator
I’ve known Clark Smith of WineSmith Wines since the 1970s and have written about his wine exploits often because he has always viewed wine as a challenge, not as a business.
At any particular moment, he is a walking wine/news story. In some ways, he might best be described as a wine philosopher, not just a winemaker, for more than 45 years. For Clark, the unconventional is normal.
I first got wind of his unique look at wine when he wrote a letter in the 1980s challenging UC Davis’ Department of Enology to do more than simply teach fermentation science but to investigate style issues as well. It raised some academics’ eyebrows and led to some public debates.
Next, Clark began to demonstrate how different wines tasted differently based on what sort of music was played at the time of the tasting. Again some questioned his conclusions.
Using his knowledge of chemistry, Clark invented several industry tools and procedures (including some that were patented) that helped revolutionize aspects of wine production. Many are still in use.
And he has traveled extensively, looking at grape varieties and wine cultures around the world. He researched innovative production techniques and has written about rare grapes’ unique characteristics and how they relate to where they grow.
That led him a decade ago to become the lead investigator for the website AppellationAmerica.com, which dissects and analyzes U.S. wine-growing regions.
His winemaking exploits began in 1972 in the Napa Valley (he worked at the original Veedercrest Winery in Napa with the late Al Baxter) and recently has made wine under various labels, including his own Santa Rosa-based WineSmith Wines, which lately has focused on Lake County grapes.
Three years ago, his book “Postmodern Winemaking” became popular with winemakers and wine geeks because it offered proof that some conventional ideas that had long been passed off as gospel were faulty.
Smith has often said Lake County fruit “is as good as anywhere,” and in many ways he finds even more fascination with its red wine grapes because of their authentic varietal-ness.
Often they display the minerality he prizes (notably in merlot and cabernet franc).
But Clark admits he’s usually fighting an uphill battle to have his wines understood because retailers and restaurants want to try them well before they’re ready to consume.
His thesis (that most fine wine is released too soon and needs time in the bottle) is one I have long believed as well.
But the idea runs counter to the industry’s current marketing mode of selling everything as fast as possible.
Nearly two years ago, Clark and I had lunch, and he poured me his 2011 WineSmith Merlot from Lake County ($30). I loved it, but said, “You’ll never sell it, it’s too euro in style. It needs two more years in the bottle.”
He agreed and shook his head. “Well, you know how the market is,” he said ruefully, noting that aging wine isn’t as widely appreciated as it should be.
Two weeks ago, we had the same wine. It was reaching a peak of enjoyment, and it’s still available. And it’s still $30. “It just needed time,” he said.
The same goes for many of his wines, such as his 2010 Cabernet Franc (also Lake County), now nearly 8 years old. It has such stellar mineral notes that it defines the variety. It’s $199 per case.
None of Clark’s wines have oaky flavors because he uses barrels for the original reason they began to be used: for maturity, not flavor.
As for WineSmith’s pricing, Clark said he offers liberal discounts from his website (winesmithwines.com) for most wines, and there’s no charge for case shipments. And most cases (mixed cases too) qualify for a 36 percent discount.
Especially intriguing is a 2013 WineSmith Meritage ($40) that spent more than four years in older barrels and is now perfect to consume without further aging.
Smith is also a stage performer, singing in barbershop quartets and musicals; he plays the guitar and has taught chemistry for decades. He consults with wineries around the world, and conducts wine research projects in cutting-edge areas of winemaking.
Among the wines he makes under his own label are a gorgeous dry rosé of grenache, and a unique red wine made from an extremely rare red grape that is the main varietal planted in the Czech Republic (see below).
Discovery of the Week: 2015 WineSmith St. Laurent, Carneros, Ricci Vineyard ($40): I have never had a wine quite like this. The Sgt. Laurent grape may be related to pinot noir, but is darker in color, so you’ll suspect it’s going to be tannic. It isn’t.
The aroma is like fresh blueberries and wild plums, and the wine’s intense fruit is offset by generous, softer tannins. Best served slightly chilled.
Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at email@example.com. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am