Practicing Postmodern Winemaking

Dear Mr. Smith:

I'm working on an article about the tools modern wine makers have at their disposal to make better wine. Vinovation seems like the company to talk to. I'd like to know if I could set up a time to interview you and/or other principals to learn about what Vinovation offers to its clients.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to learning more.

David


Dear David:

I do believe you are barking up the right tree. I assume you have already prowled around the Vinovation.com website, but since it isn't intended for the non-technical, you may have gotten lost! Let me take you through the basics from a layman's perspective.

The Smith family has dedicated itself to establishing what amounts to a Culinary Institute for winemakers. Our notion is that the reductionist principles of scientific enology which our young winemakers are stuffed full of at University simply can't address the making of viscerally compelling wines. Winemaking is a branch of cooking, not a science. It's our job to put something delicious on the table which moves people the way other great cuisine does. We call it "putting an opera in the bottle." This takes more than theory; it takes technique. That is what we teach.

We call our philosophical school "Postmodern Winemaking." The foods that move us this way -- lobster bisque, barnaise sauce, chocolate-- are structured foods. Wine may look like a simple solution, but it isn't. We know this because the red wine (anthocyanin) pigments aren't soluble in 13% alcohol. What we are seeing isn't in solution; it's in tiny suspended colloids composed of color molecules and tannin molecules, coordinated together into little beads. The tannins suspend and protect the color, and the color softens and enrobes the tannins so they are rich and smooth rather than harsh and nasty.

You can start to see why we speak of red wine techniques as similar to chocolate making. We use our skills in the cellar to refine these tannins the same way a chef turns cocoa powder into something rich and profound. We call this by the French name of "elevage" -- the raising of horses or of children. The term "ageing" doesn't cover it -- this is NOT a passive process! The tools for building structure include blending for phenolic balance, high finesse uses of oxygen (the wire whisk for our tannin "souffle"), a knowledge of the seven functions of oak and how to employ them, the re-incorporation of lees, which is similar to the conversion of dark chocolate into milk chocolate.

None of this can be done if the grapes are not properly ripe -- not to much and not too little. Unfortunately, nature almost never cooperates to give us perfect sugar content when that moment happens. Therefore we need a tool to finely adjust alcohol content later on. For the French it's easy -- they just throw beet sugar in everything ("chaptalization") because autumn rains assure that they have too little. In the fair weather of California, we usually have too much. That's why I developed a filtration technique to lower the alcohol to proper balance. Now we can pick the grapes just on perfect flavor balance and still make delicate wines.

More on this subject on the WIneSmith website as it applies to our own wines at http://www.winesmithwines.com/winesmithwines/grapecraft.html.

For a more specific discussion of the details of the Postmodern Winemaking philosophy and the specific tools and techniques we utilize, go to the graphical site and follow the links. We have just completed revising this poster for the better understanding of non-professionals.

In essence, all great cuisine is based on unique, distinctive flavors from careful, life-based agriculture which are presented with finesse through skillful technique. The cook must understand structure and possess the artisanality to refine and harmonize the presentation, but he must also get out of the way and let the distinctive characteristics shine through.

So there you have some homework. I reckon you'll want more detail on how all this actually works, and I would very much like to get you some of our wines to taste -- without that it's all hogwash, right?

musings: