TN: Six WineSmith Wines...(long/boring)

We tried last night (2/26/14) some of ClarkSmith’s WineSmith Wines:

  1. WineSmith Chard NapaVlly StudentVnyd/NapaVllyCollege (12.9%; Sebastapol 2003: Deep golden
    color; rather smokey/toasty/oak quite spicy/old Chard/bit herbal bit funky/dirty feet/pungent/resiny slight
    earthy/melony/Chard/tropical fruit/spicy complex nose; rather tart/lean rather smokey/pungent/toasty/oak slight
    piney/resiny spicy/pungent/old Chard rather complex flavor; very long tart/tangy/grapefruity/austere some
    smokey/pungent/toasty/resiny/old Chard bit melony/tropical fruit/Chard complex finish; shows no signs of
    oxidation nor tired fruit; a pretty unusual/bizarre rendition of NapaVlly Chard w/ lot of savory character;
    sorta liked this wine but few others did. $30.00

  1. WineSmith FauxChablis NapaVlly StudentVnyd/NapaVllyCollege (12.9%) 2004: Deep golden color; quite smokey/charred/
    toasty/oak more ripe/molony/Chard/tropical fruit/herbal bit pungent/aged Chard/resiny rather complex nose; quite
    tart/grapefruity/tangy bit aged Chard/resiny some melony/lemony/Chard slight butterscotchy rather complex flavor;
    long very tart/tangy/austere/grapefruity slight aged Chard/resiny/piney light melony/lemony/Chard slight earthy
    austere/savory complex finish; the only resembelance to Chablis I get is the lean/austere character but none of
    the minerally/chalky character of Chablis. $30.00

  1. PennyFarthing DryRoseWine Calif (12.5%) NV: Light copper/salmon/orange color; rather earthy/dusty little fruit
    bit stony/mineral rather light/low-key nose; very tart/sour somewhat earthy/dusty little fruit some stony/tangy/
    metallic quite sour flavor w/ little tannins; med. very tart/tangy/metallic somewhat savory stony/earthy/dusty/
    mineral little fruit quite sour finish w/ light/sharp tannins; strange rendition of a rose. $10.00

  1. PennyFarthing Barbera Calif (14.5%) 2007: Med.dark color; rather earthy/dusty slight fumey/alcoholic somewhat
    spicy/Italian Barbera d’Asti/Italian sausage bit metallic/pungent/graphite strong oak/smokey nose; rather
    tart fairly earthy/dusty/loamy somewhat spicy/Italian Barbera/Italian sausage/fennel flavor w/ some bitey
    tannins; long somewhat tart/tangy/metallic rather earthy/dusty some ItalianBarbera/Italian sausage/spicy/
    fennel rather smokey/oak finish w/ some sharp/bitey tannins; lots of oak and not a lot of fruit; reminds some
    of a sharp Barbera d’Asti; rather savory & tangy & needs food. $20.00

  1. WineSmith CabSauv MokelumneRiver/Lodi (13.5%) 2006: Med.color w/ slight bricking; rather earthy/mushroomy/
    Lodi some toasty/Fr.oak slight fumey/alcoholic strong plummy/blackcurranty/Cab/chocolaty fairly classic
    Lodi Cab nose; tart bit sour spicy/Fr.oak/toasty/cinammon/clove strong chocolaty/blackcurranty/Cab some earthy/
    mushroomy/truffly/pungent flavor w/ modest/firm tannins; long rather spicy/Fr.oak/toasty/cinammon/cloves
    strong blackcurranty/Cab/chocolaty somewhat earthy/loamy/mushroomy finish w/ light/firm tannins; needs more
    age; quite a good expression of Lodi Cab and more structured than most; my favorite of the reds. $40.00

  1. PlanetPluto Meritage Calif RTW (13.5%) WineSmithCllrs/Sebastapol 2006: Med.color; slight funky/herbal strong
    toasty/Fr.oak somewhat blackcurranty/Cab/chocolaty/boysenberry/ripe bit earthy/loamy rather exotic/complex nose;
    bit tart strong toasty/Fr.oak rather ripe/blackcurranty/boysenberry/Cab/chocolaty slight herbal/earthy/dusty
    rather exotic flavor w/ some hard/firm tannins; long slight herbal/dusty/earthy strong toasty/Fr.oak rather
    ripe/blackcurranty/Cab/boysenberry/chocolaty quite structured quite exotic finish w/ some firm/hard tannins;
    quite an unusual & exotic rendition of Calif Cab. $24.00

A the usual bloviations from TheBloodyPulpit:

  1. ClarkSmith: Clark became well-known by his founding of VinoVation in Sebastapol. He was an early proponent
    of ReverseOsmosis for lowering the alcohol level in wines and MicroOxegenation, a procedure that slowly
    bubbles O2 into wines for tannin manipulation. Because of offering these manipulation services to wineries
    who recoiled at the thought they might be found out, many felt Clark was the Devil Incarnate. I did a vist
    w/ Clark at VinoVation early on, a bit sceptical of the use of RO on wines. That visit, combined w/ my
    tasting of the FresnoStateU RO’d Syrahs and the Ridge RO’d YorkCreekZin, convinced me that RO is not the
    evil that some would have us believe. It’s a tool…nothing more. Manipulation?? Yea…but BFD.

  1. WineSmithWines: I was totally befuddled on what to expect from these wines, given Clark’s background. On
    one hand, given his embracing of high-technology tools, I thought the wines would be varietally-correct,
    totally clean, unthrilling, a bit sterile; much like the “correct” wines you find on the aisles of TJ’s.
    OTOH, given Clark’s bit eccentric nature, I had no idea what to expect.

  1. Chards: These two 10-yr old Chards are what’s available currently on Clark’s WebSite. 10 yrs old?? That’s
    pretty strange.
    These were very/very unusual renditions of Calif Chard. They had some hints of old Chard to them; but they
    were not at all tired and nowhere near what I’d expect for old Calif Chard. No oxidation character that I
    could identify and a certain sort of fresh quality to them. Rather lean/austere on the palate and a sort of
    savory character that I get in some skin-contact whites.
    Most of my group actively disliked these two Chards, probably because they were not like any Calif Chards
    they’d had before. I rather liked the savory character they showed and found them quite interesting
    (“interesting” in the sense they fully engaged my mind & I was trying to figure out if I liked them or not;
    not “interesting” used as a code-word for “bad” but didn’t want to call them “bad”).

  1. Rose: This was my least favorite of these wines. It was not a typical Calif tutti-fruity rose and had a real
    paucity of fruit. That I could live with. But on the palate, it had not the tingle of a sharp acidity, but a
    distinctly strong/sour character that you felt on the edges of your tongue and was a bit off-puting. I reminded
    me a bit of some of the roses that come from the Languedoc/Rousillon area.

  1. Reds: Again, these were sort of a mixed bag and not to everyone’s taste. I liked the Lodi Cab the best of the
    lot. The Meritage I found quite exotic & unusual and different from most Calif Meritage’s, but actually
    liked it quite a lot. The Barbera was rather Italin Barbera d’Asti in character w/ its sharpness, but I kinda
    liked it. The rose I just couldn’t bring myself to like because of the sourness on the palate.

  1. Soulful: One of Clark’s big schticks is to make wines that are “soulful”. That’s a term I’ve been having a
    hard time wrapping my arms around. His book has not done a whole lot for me to clarify that term. When asked
    about the term, he characterized SteveEdmunds wines as some that are “soulful”. Well…OK…that’s a step in
    the right direction and certainly helps. On the WB forum, I asked Clark to rate these wines on the famous
    ClarkSmith 100-pt Soul scale. Alas, he refused to take my bait.
    I’m assuming that these wines are what he refers to as “soulful” wines. I guess I’d like Clark to identify
    which of these six mostly display “soul”. My guess would be the FauxChablis. Maybe oneday I’ll understand
    the term.

  1. All in all, this was a pretty unusual tasting. These are not your usual renditions of these varieties from
    Calif. At the end of the tasting, I went back and retasted them all. Again, they pretty much left me
    scratching my head and wondering what the heck is this wine and what’s Clark trying to say here. These are
    not wines for everyone and certainly not gonna play well in Monktown. But they are all worth trying if you
    want to try things outside the box and get your intellect fully engaged. And maybe that’s just Clark’s
    goal in making these wines.


Thanks so much for this examination, which is pretty much dead on the money.

As for my motivation in making these wines, WineSmith is all about exploring the possibility to make Eurocentric styles from California fruit. In a way, it’s an examination of our terroir by looking at our grapes from a different angle. We learned a lot about Gene Kelly when he departed from screwball musicals and played a cynical newspaperman in Inherit The Wind. The Chardonnays clearly show elements of citrus oil aromatics, complexity and longevity seldom allowed to emerge through our stereotypical oaky butterbomb standard issue. These typecast caricatures are taken to be Napa terroir, but nothing could be further from the truth.

WineSmith wines are, as you guessed, intentionally enigmatic. I find it useful to consider that wine is like the movies. You have comedies to make you smile, action/adventure to blow you away, and dramas/foreign films to make you scratch your head. It’s disorienting when a California winemaker makes a rosé in the style of Provence rather than a fruit bomb. That wine is a 2007, and it’s the one I drink the most, just as the French do. Not sure what you mean by sour, but I definitely find a slightly bitter watermelon rind character in the finish which for me makes it a very versatile food wine.

As to soulfulness, I’m not sure what to say, because the concept seems so obvious. Louis Armstrong said that if you have to ask what music is, you’ll never understand it. But from your writing, I can tell that you get it, so I think my languaging is what’s getting in the way. So I’ll take a shot.

A good SF Symphony ticket runs over $100. There is a moment during the evening, hard to sustain, when the music just gets to you, and you decide you’re glad to have spent the money. Music moves us. I think Fred Franzia is almost right when he says no wine should cost more than $10. I would add the caveat that if it does, it ought to move me like a symphony does.

Now, soulfulness is not in the bottle, any more than my music example. Lots of people simply do not “get” Chopin or Tchaikovsky and are bored sh*tless all evening and regret their purchase. Almost everybody loves some kind of music, but often it’s pop music that comforts them and makes them smile, or hard rock that blows them away. I like those experiences, too, but am personally most transported by enigmatic works from Samuel Barber, Charles Ives, Copeland, Gershwin and Stravinsky. Not coincidentally, my wines taste better when this kind of music is played.

So I can’t rate the wines that way with anything more than a personal assessment. For me, the Lodi Cab has developed (in its 78 months in neutral barrique) a great deal of nuanced bouquet that draws me in and touches me deeply. Sometimes I have the same impression with great Hunanese food - that some guy who doesn’t even speak English is showing me parts of my soul I didn’t know existed. I agree with you that despite its considerable exposure to oxygen, the wine will still improve with time, something of a miracle given its humble provenance. That doesn’t make it soulful per se, but it’s a very nice combination - interesting in a good way,as you say. But if you were looking for lush fruit or impactful tannin, the wine would be a disappointment. I think there are plenty of those wines around, and I make a lot of them, but for WineSmith I prefer to explore my uncrowded Eurocentric aesthetic.

The 03 Chardonnay / 04 Faux Chablis duo is also miraculous in that they have survived so well, a demonstration of the virtues of lower alcohol, lees stirring and minerality for aging potential. The '03 was until a couple years ago quite tight and disjointed, like the '04 is now, but is beginning to bloom aromatically and soften, showing what it will soon be - a wonderful seafood / sushi wine with nothing in common with the typical Napa Big Fat Mommas. It can be argued that the '04 is the more interesting wine because it is still in its clumsy, austere phase and needs another few years to emerge. Without the evidence of the '03 beside it, one would never believe this possible.

I’m pleased that you find my Barbera austere and Piedmonte-like. I don’t agree with you (I think it has way too much fruit and is very New World in style despite my efforts) but that is certainly what I was shooting for.

Rather than to pioneer another new region, I am exploring the true terroir of California’s familiar regions by showcasing unexpected possibilities through the lens of a European aesthetic. In the Planet Pluto Meritage, I stand this concept on its head by producing a blend from several under-appreciated California regions to demonstrate that grape price has little to do with quality and everything to do with celebrity and pat answers to the riddle of purchasing quality.

The virtues of my wines tend to be quite obvious to New Yorkers and Europeans, while Californians often find them impossible to appreciate. That’s perfectly okay with me – they will buy my clients’ wines. At a thousand cases, I need a microscopic but ravenous following unlike anyone else’s. Evey small winery should follow suit, seeking out their own unique blue ocean as far from KJ as they can get. America’s postmodern era is jam-packed with emerging miracles: Texas tannat, Pennsylvania GV, Iowa Brianna, Alabama dry Muscadine, New Mexico orange wine and sparklers, and La Crescent from the St. Lawrence Seaway.

As for me, you have pegged me correctly. These are teaching wines. They are only enigmatic if evaluated in the context of contemporary California. I am told that they are rather convincing knock-offs of traditional European styles, many of which you were able to identify without prompting.

I remember when I ate my first Belon oyster. I didn’t like it. I was used to the sweet, rich Japonicus from Puget Sound, and these had a bitter, metallic finish I found very unpleasant. Months later, a tiny voice whispered to me that I had better get some more Belons soon. Perhaps this will happen for you for the '03 Chardonnay, or even (dare I say it) the rosé.