Postmodern Winemaking


The Solution Problem: Overcoming Enology

January 2010
by Clark Smith

  • Wine’s microbial dramas must be played out in the cellar prior to bottling. Thankfully, structure is useful in integrating the resulting complexities.
  • The Modern Era eroded wine quality through the replacement of organic principles of viticulture with the facile farming solutions of petrochemical agriculture.
  • Better wine doesn’t result from adjusting intensities.
“Progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, ‘Alright, you can have a telephone, but you’ll lose privacy, and the charm of distance. Mister, you may conquer the air; but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline.’”
—Inherit the Wind

Louis Pasteur’s 1857 discovery of yeast as the mechanism of fermentation ushered in a century of scientific enological discovery that replaced the trial-and-error approach of traditional winemaking. In 1880, research stations in Bordeaux and Davis, Calif., were established to apply the fruits of scientific advancement to modernize winemaking.

The advent of electricity altered traditional winemaking forever. So welcome were the advantages in lighting, labor savings and refrigeration that one would be hard pressed to name a winery without electricity anywhere in the world today. Time-honored methods and equipment were rapidly discarded, and a holistic system painstakingly developed over millennia was abandoned in the wink of an eye.

As easy as it is to praise the advantages of these sweeping changes, there was a downside. Replacing empirical systems with winemaking according to theory devalues hundreds of years of specific knowledge and practice, tending to bring a squeaky-clean sameness to all wine. Before electricity, much greater care and attention was devoted to every step of the winemaking process.

When 20th century tools (stainless steel, inert gas, refrigeration, sterile filtration) became widely available for the first time, a modern winemaking revolution exploded out of Germany just after World War II. A completely new way of making Riesling—fresh, sterile-filtered, without oxidation—rapidly became the standard for white winemaking throughout the world.

But modernized winemaking was based on an invisible assumption with lethal consequences that would require a quarter century to recognize and unravel. Meanwhile, the Old Masters of pre-war empiricism were put out to pasture, and are now long dead, just when we wish we could pick their brains.

Unfortunate influences on reds followed when the modern approach spread first to Bordeaux and then across the ocean in the late 1950s. In The Taste of Wine, Emile Peynaud wrote in 1955 that “oxygen is the enemy of wine.” It sounded like a good idea at the time. In retrospect, treating Bordeaux reds with Riesling techniques led us away from their soulful, integrative properties. The ’59 Latour is still undrinkable today. Who knew?

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that tannin structure capable of integrating aromas began to be explored two hours south of Bordeaux, in the hamlet of Madiran, where modern vinification techniques had wrought disaster.

These huge, tannic wines had become incredibly dry, harsh and prone to overt expression of microbial defects. If the postmodern movement has a father, it is a peasant vigneron named Patrick Ducournau, who toiled to discover what had gone so terribly wrong with the region’s traditional Tannat variety that his neighbors were busily tearing it out and globalizing to Merlot.

It was Ducournau’s genius to recognize the real problem—the art of building structure through controlled oxidative polymerization had been lost in the shuffle. Protecting Tannat from oxygen was killing the wines. His development of micro-oxygenation was the first step to reviving the practice of “élevage,” a suite of practices involving raising up a refined structure capable of supporting integration and soulfulness. The complete package included an advanced understanding of the use of lees and a complete rethinking of the role of barrels.

That’s no solution
The tenets of scientific enology start with the idea that wine is a chemical solution. This simple, seemingly obvious statement guides all phases of modern winemaking. It also happens to be false.

Solution-based thinking brings to bear the powerful tools of analytical chemistry, chemical engineering and sensory science, which have shaped our view of wine and how we work with it. If wine is a solution, its sensory properties derive from the concentrations of substances dissolved in solution. The greater the amount, the more intense its odor and taste.

If wine is a solution, the goal of grapegrowing is to maximize good flavors and minimize bad ones. More fruity, less veggie.

If red color is dissolved in solution, the way to get more of it out of the skins is to work the cap more diligently to aid extraction, preferably in a gentle way that maximizes color but prevents excessive harsh tannin extraction. High alcohol is viewed as increasing the solubility of red pigment.

Tannin is viewed as the price we must pay for flavor, so we press as gently as possible (or just use free-run) to minimize harshness and allow palate access to fruity flavors. Everything in winemaking becomes about selective extraction.

If excessive harsh tannin is dissolved in wine, the way to decrease its sensory effects is to remove it through selective fining, hoping to avoid decreasing color and flavor.

If wine is a solution, you can sterile-filter it without changing its sensory properties. Filtration is okay, because it removes particulates without affecting the solution.

In general, solution theory leads to an analytical (sometimes called “reductionist”) view that wine flavor is the sum of its pieces. Off aromas point directly to root causes: Horsey aromas require more microbial control; woody notes mean use older barrels; veggie aromas mean p ull more leaves. To manage the whole, you manage the pieces. You break wine into its sensory constituents (for example using The Aroma Wheel); identify which are positive drivers and which are negative, and figure out ways to amp up the good stuff and dial down the bad stuff. That’s quality improvement.

In the postmodern view, every one of these beliefs is injurious to wine quality. Early anomalies confronting the solution model included the sparing solubility of anthocyanins, reported by Pascal Ribereau-Gayon in 1974. Beyond a light rosé color, it seems, red wine is theoretically impossible. My ultrafiltration work begun in the early 1990s showed that these compounds, which have molecular weights of around 300, will not pass through a filter with a porosity of 100,000 daltons.

“Ideal” solution behavior predicts that the concentration of a compound in solution corresponds to its aroma intensity. But when we micro-oxygenate Merlot, its bell pepper aroma decreases without any change in its pyrazine content. Why do pyrazines, Brett characteristics and oak components, even in very high concentrations, sometimes marry benignly in the aroma, while in other wines they stick out annoyingly as defects?

The solution model is a powerful approach that led California winemakers out of a wilderness of largely defective wines in the 1960s to our present world of nearly defect-free wines. But aesthetically, we have hit the wall.

Wine used to be a lot more exciting. I believe post-war modernization has cost us 50 years of clean, soulless wines. I believe that what we are drinking today is not the compelling beverage the Romans were using to stabilize their empire. Those were free-range wines. Today, we hover over our wines like helicopter parents, shielding and protecting them from the essential experiences that develop depth, character and strength. Neither Boomers nor Millennials have ever experienced wine as Stevenson’s “bottled poetry” or Ben Franklin’s “proof that God loves us and desires us to be happy.”

When I first encountered these quotations in the 1970s, I thought they were a bit over the top. There was no way to know for sure if wines had something more special then, or if the rhetoric was simply of a different age. We are like the Eastern bloc, where no one is old enough to remember pre-war capitalism. But today, there are many examples of postmodern wines available for tasting which convincingly bear out these extravagant phrases. In future columns, I will interview a host of postmodern winemakers, and I urge you to try their wines as you read their views.

Here I would like to briefly summarize the perspective that has emerged from two decades of postmodern retrospection, and the aesthetic construct that not only holds the solution model to be false, resulting in a radically altered view of what wine is and how to work with it.

Fundamental mystery
The new view begins by accepting that enology has fundamental limitations. As useful as modern winemaking has proven in eliminating gross defects, it has done little to promote excellence. Its central tenet is that a clean wine will show varietal character. This is fine for Muscat, but when it comes to great reds, pardon me while I yawn.

Winemaking is really just a branch of cuisine, the ultimate slow food. Our job is not to explain, but to delight. If music is any indication, the ways of the human psyche may be unpredictable and are often quite non-linear.

Aromatic integration, refined structure
Postmodernism not only challenges ideal solution behavior, it holds that the extent to which a wine can be made to deviate from so-called “ideality” constitutes a pretty good working definition of quality. A 2005 review by Roy et al in Materials Research Innovations hammers home the point that the properties of systems depend less on their composition than on their structure. In Japanese swords, hard and soft steel are folded like puff pastry until there are millions of layers in the blade, resulting in steel that is flexible yet holds an edge. Carbon can be arranged as graphite, charcoal or diamonds, each with different properties.

Structured foods like bisques, reduction sauces and emulsions are at the core of great cuisine. Aromatic integration is how sauces work, and why the saucier is the most important chef in a French kitchen. A great béarnaise doesn’t smell of tarragon, mint, fresh onion and vinegar; it just smells like béarnaise. The finer the emulsion, the more surface area between the fatty beads of butter and the aqueous phase that surrounds them, so there can be square miles of interactive surface in a tablespoon. The result is aromatic integration, because there is a solvent available for every flavor component.

The fineness of a great sauce is the source of our word “finesse.” Unified flavors touch us by soothing the thalamus midbrain, creating a sense of harmony, peace, viscerality and profundity.

In structured wines, tannins, anthocyanins and other aromatic ring compounds are almost insoluble in solution and aggregate into colloids—tiny beads of various sizes and compositions. Winegrowing choices at every stage have profound consequences for the textural and integrative properties of these colloids, as well as their stability.

Microbial equilibrium
Similar to the now well-established vineyard system of Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Once realizing the importance of structure, the winemaker is much more reluctant to sterile-bottle red wines. This means that the microbial dramas of the wine must be played out in the cellar prior to bottling. Thankfully, structure is useful in integrating the resulting complexities.

Living soil
The Modern Era also eroded wine quality through the replacement of organic principles of viticulture with the facile farming solutions of petrochemical agriculture: herbicides, pesticides and convenient mechanical methods of soil manipulation. These have robbed contemporary wines of flavor interest as well as longevity.

Life energy
An aspect of wine inexplicably left out of modern winemaking training is the central problem of reductive strength. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard taught me the notion that wine has chi, the Chinese life energy. When it is young, it is best served to exchange chi with the world around it. When it is old, it must guard its chi. Li fe energy diminishes during aging, so starting out with an excess is a good thing. I used to consider sulfides a defect. Now I worry about young reds that don’t have them.

Postmodern practice eliminates many problems that obsess conventional winemakers: Excessive tannins, bitterness, vegetal aromas, microbial spoilage all are much more easily handled. In place of these difficulties, new challenges emerge.

The principles of proper ripeness and the resulting phenolic vigor, lees incorporation and organic principles and the resulting minerality all combine to produce wines with substantial life energy. On the positive side, this results in wines of structural integrity, liveliness on the palate and graceful longevity. However, this anti-oxidative vigor tends to impart youthful austerity and even reductive aromas, thus delaying release dates and cash flow. Youthful mean-spiritedness can be overcome through carefully balancing of the wine’s energy.

Holistic approach
In this view, better wine doesn’t result from adjusting intensities. We do not seek to pump up the positive Aroma Wheel attributes and suppress the negatives. Instead, we try to merge all the wines flavors into a coherent whole, like a well-conducted orchestra producing a single, soulful voice.

Harmony and dissonance
Much discussion in modern sensory science revolves around how subjects differ in salivary rates, taste bud densities, aroma and bitterness thresholds and specific anosmias (aroma deafness). Postmodernism sees this work as important, but also regards difference testing as low-hanging fruit, and asks for a balancing voice for shared experience. Subjects who differ in hearing acuities can still appreciate music together, and differences in visual acuities do not preclude appreciation of paintings and movies. The communalities they perceive, though more difficult to characterize, are essential to the artistic process. A major chord is cheerful, and a minor chord is melancholy; played together they constitute noise.

Poetic terminology
Modern sensory science insists on concrete terms such as those in the aroma wheel, evoking Ray Koch’s famous remark that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. But holistic terms like harmony, austerity, generosity and balance are essential to wine experience and cannot be shown the door by deterministic reductionism. In the postmodern view, we should struggle to learn how to measure these properties instead of pretending they do not exist.

A postmodern glossary is available at

Beyond the low hanging fruit
In the coming months, I will explore each of these realms in more depth. Like any dogma, modern winemaking has solved the easy problems and left behind the more challenging ones. The postmodern idea is to get back to trial-and-error, but armed with modern tools and understanding. Eye on the prize: the elusive soulfulness, profundity, and harmony consumers go crazy for and critics demand. To get there, it is time for less theory, and more technique, care and attention.

In retrospect, it’s clear that progress has taken us in some insane directions. Not that we want to abandon progress, we just want our tools to serve us better.

Clark Smith is winemaker for WineSmith, founder of the wine technology firm Vinovation. He lectures widely on an ancient yet innovative view of American winemaking. To comment on this column, e-mail

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