An Open Note to a Revered Teacher

Dear Dr. Singleton:

It was an honor to read your reflections about me appended to Alan Goldfarb’s recent blog. Studying your work has been a life’s privilege over the years, and I just wish there were only a few of your comments I was confused about from the encyclopediaic knowledge you imparted in Wine Phenolics! So I imagine you can relate to my current difficulties in being understood.

I fear few are aware of the theoretical underpinnings you provided some 20 years ago for the oxygenative wine structuring we now perform routinely, to say nothing of your studies of wine’s reductive capacities, which even today fall mostly on deaf ears. Most enologists’ oxygen regimen for chardonnay and cabernet is still pretty much the same.

I remember clearly your observation that you had taken this theoretical understanding as far as you could, and now to implement it would require practical techniques geared specifically to each wine. This is what Patrick Ducournau (with a lot of help from Michel Moutounet at Montpellier) accomplished and subsequently taught me. Without your explanation of the counterintuitive nature of the vicinal diphenol cascade, I would never have been able to believe that a wine’s anti-oxidative potential could actually increase by feeding it oxygen. Of course no media pundit has ever managed to grasp this, and thus micro-oxygenation continues to be dismissed as an accelerator to ageing.

Concerning alcohol adjustment, Vinovation has certainly opened Pandora’s box. The extended hangtime vogue has taken a good idea to a bad place, resulting, as you say, in far too many prune-jam flavors, low acidity and lack of varietal distinctiveness. But I don't completely concur that we should just head back to the good old days.

Having de-alcoholized some 20,000 wines since 1994, I have come to advocate a middle view. In my opinion, the average wine picked at 23.5 brix in 1975 was about as underripe as today’s wines are on the average overripe. Somewhere in between these extremes lies true ripeness at which point anti-oxidative vigor and aromatic richness reach a peak. Unfortunately, this peak often coincides with aggressive tannin -- what my Australian friends call “mean-spiritedness” – which if denied sufficient oxygen during ageing turns dry and harsh on the palate.

Lacking an understanding of wine’s potential in the cellar, many of today’s winemakers elect to tame these tannins in the vineyard through field oxidation via prolonged hangtime. I see this as the enological equivalent of frying an egg on the sidewalk instead of in the kitchen – it’s just not the right place to do it. One loses freshness, depth and interest, and these wines are capable of perhaps one tenth of the oxygen uptake of properly harvested material. Here we again get palate dryness early in ageing.

These are complex matters. If you are confused, pity your B students now plying their craft in Napa or Lodi. And how much more difficult are advances in understanding in the conversational vacuum created when the luddite press mounts personal attacks on anyone arrogant enough to speak frankly about matters beyond its schooling. Yet I know no other course than to continue to map on my blog the intricate connections of good practice in hopes for increasing comprehension among my colleagues if not the fifth estate.

It’s a tremendous challenge knitting together into an integrated philosophy the concepts of wine structure, phenolic vigor, ripeness, aromatic integration, distinctive terroir expression and the contribution of living soil. Because of the nonlinear blending effects such as alcohol sweet spots, I’ve chosen to speak of wine not as primarily scientific but as a form of cooking. This permits our winemaker clients to explore empirically a calendarized system we’ve named “GrapeCraft” through use of a graphic which (I hope) lays out the goals and techniques of touching consumers with what Maynard Amerine used to refer to as the “come hither.”

The proof is in the bottle. Ducournau chides me regularly that it is pointless to discuss wine in its absence. I was terribly dismayed that in his lengthy discussion of my foibles, Mr. Goldfarb declined to review any of the wines we tasted together, some of which he pronounced as great. With your permission, I’d like to ship a box of mixed WineSmith current releases for your inspection including:

’05 Cabernet Sauvignon, a good example of aromatic integration through MOx
’04 Cabernet Franc, which overcomes the graininess and capsicum so often seen
’04 Crucible, showing off these techniques in a $100 icon Cabernet (pre-release)
’04 Roman Syrah, a successful sulfite-free wine of great soulfulness

I have linked above technical data on each wine for your perusal. I do not think you’ll find any prune-jam notes or flabbiness in these offerings. I’d be honored if you can take time to examine them and share your views.

Lastly, it was equally embarrassing to me that Mr. Goldfarb should choose to repeat my locker room intimacies verbatim. I am advised belatedly that this is the internet custom, so in future I will be less chummy with the press no matter how charmng they appear. What agenda Alan thought was served I cannot imagine, except to distract readers even such as you from consideration of the real issues. Still I apologize for exposing wine lovers across the world to gutter language.

Warm regards,

Clark Smith