Let’s Talk About WineSmith Wines with Clark Smith

It’s not often that a winemaker initiates a discussion on consumer perceptions of wines and winemakers. Especially rare is a winemaker who openly discusses his use of oak chips in winemaking. Insists that wine tastes better paired with music. Or asserts that sulfite free wines age forever. Yet, all this and more was tackled head on during an online media tasting with Clark Smith, winemaker for WineSmith Wines & Consulting and author of Postmodern Winemaking.

I wasn’t sure what to anticipate from the virtual event. One thing was for sure, though. When I received the sample bottles, I was excited to see wines rarely associated with California such as Saint Laurent and Petit Manseng.

Here’s the first thing Clark wanted to say:

“My wines are highly manipulated. ALL wines are highly manipulated. Those are not grapes in the glass. No wine is as manipulated as any beer, and that’s the truth. The foundation of our brand is total honesty.”

Regarding Wine Lovers

Clark believes that there’s a bad marriage between wine lovers and winemakers, with a lot of distrust. He divulges that he’s right in the middle of it because of a lot of new technologies developed by him for the wine industry. For example, he invented a use of reverse osmosis to reduce alcohol and to remove volatile acidity from wine without harming it.

He goes on to profess that he doesn’t make wines for wine lovers because they want something predictable. Specifically, he points out, most want Cabernet Sauvignon. Clark further states, “I make wine for people that are poor but have standards. I don’t want to make clown wine.”

Oak Chips in Winemaking

When I first read the tech sheets for the WineSmith wines, the use of oak chips caught my attention. Although it’s no secret that oak chips can be used during winemaking, it’s not a practice that is widely disclosed. I therefore asked Clark to comment on that.

“Here’s my take on barrels and chips. A good French oak barrel is made from trees planted over 200 years ago to build a navy. They are a national treasure, and have proven themselves as a wonderful medium for aging wine. They are a piece of fine oak furniture that costs about $1,200 per 60-gallon barrel. If used once, they add $20 per gallon to the production cost. This is multiplied through our three tier system markups to presents a bottle price increase of about $10 per bottle.

So what. If that’s what it takes to make great wine, so be it. I feel the same way. I am interested in oak alternatives not to save money but to make better wine in an ecological responsible way, and sure, to do so at less expense to the consumer, though that is my least concern.”

Clark uses quite a bit of well-seasoned untoasted Alliers chips during fermentation. Unlike new oak barrels, he says the chips do not impart toast or vanilla aromas. However, they do impart phenolic compounds helpful in extracting color. In short, he finds this is a starting place for good structure in a wine.

WineSmith Wines

What type of wine does WineSmith offer? Clark says the one thing you can always expect from the brand is a Euro-centric style. He rarely makes a wine over 14% alcohol by volume (ABV). In his book Postmodern Winemaking Clark asserts, “Music pairing can greatly improve your chances of enjoying a wine.” If that’s of interest to you, be sure to check his recommended match for the Cabernet Franc.

Sparkling Grenache 2017

Santa Cruz Mountains
Blanc de Noirs Brut Zero
12.5% ABV

What do you do when your Grenache doesn’t get enough color on it? Make sparkling wine! That’s a solution I can definitely get behind. Give it a try for my newest tradition, Mousseux Monday! This easy drinking sparkler has no added dosage (a sugar/wine mixture that gets added prior to final bottling). The result is lively and refreshing. If you’re looking for something to spark joy besides decluttering your house, uncork a bottle of this bubbly.

St. Laurent 2015

Carneros, Ricci Vineyard
11.8% ABV

Since Saint Laurent is an Austrian variety that prefers cooler climates, it’s no wonder there isn’t much grown in California. This approachable light bodied red wine was among my favorites. It offered up flavors of dried cranberry, plum, pie cherry, baking spice, and tobacco. This was a terrific match for our salmon dinner. Try this pleasant food friendly wine if you like Gamay Noir, Pinot Noir, or lighter old world style wines.

Norton 2018

Yolo County, Heringer Estate Vineyards
12.9% ABV

The Norton grape is more closely associated with Missouri and Virginia than California. If not perfectly ripe, Clark points out “it can be kind of stupid.” A deep inky purple, this unique wine is a tooth stainer. While my first sip was highly energetic and tart, it transformed after it had a chance to breathe and rest up following its journey. In fact, the hubby kept going back for more the second day. As another participant aptly noted, this Norton has a balsamic character.

Cabernet Franc 2015

Lake County
13.5% ABV

Another winning wine, this appealing red delivered more fruit forward notes such as cherry on the first day. The second day, some rich cocoa notes made an appearance. Music fans, take note! Clark says to pair this Cab Franc with Bruce Springsteen’s Jungleland for a transformational experience. Simply take a big glass of this wine someplace dark where there’s a burning glow emanating from candles or a fireplace. Then, turn on Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” at very high volume. When the piece concludes, Clark guarantees the wine will be gone.

Meritage 2014

Roman Reserve
Humboldt County, Ishi Pishi Vineyards
12.8% ABV

Things are about to get geeky. This Right Bank Bordeaux style blend is fermented “Roman style”. That is, with no added sulfites. I gasped during the event when Clark commented, “Sulfite free reds age forever.” After all, introductory classes I attended in wine school taught that sulfur dioxide is typically added to the whole fruit or grape must as a means to prevent spoilage. Additionally, it’s level is often adjusted by small amounts being added throughout the winemaking process. Filtering the wine is a possible alternative. However, Clark doesn’t do that either. He hold the wines long enough for them to achieve microbial equilibrium so nothing more can happen. In this case, the Meritage was barreled down in neutral wood and ignored for more than five years. Not to mention, the grapes are organically grown. That’s some fearless winemaking!

Petit Manseng NV

12.9% ABV
This is a sweet one, yet not a viscous sticky style. The fruit comes in at naturally 32.5 brix, and is balanced by 12 grams per liter of acid. Every year Clark adds some fresh juice and re-ferments, sort of like a solera. I contemplated whether that was why I picked up some nutty Sherry-like notes. On the night of the tasting we enjoyed it with some cheese.

Resources for Clark Smith, WineSmith Wines

Curious? This same set of wines is available for purchase at a special price of $175.94 direct from WineSmith.
Shop WineSmith Wines.

If you’re interested in learning more about Clark’s take on winemaking, check out his book:
Postmodern Winemaking.

Special thanks to the nice folks at Zephyr and the Wine Media Conference who organized this event.