Manipulation is not necessarily a bad word when it comes to winemaking

10/29/2013 3:35 PM

10/29/2013 3:35 PM

At the Digital Wine Communications Conference in Spain, a keynote talk was given by one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met, Clark Smith, a winemaker and winemaking gadfly.

It would also be true that he is amongst the most vexing. To some degree, that’s by design. He wants to challenge our notions about wine and wine “purity” whatever that is.

Clark’s biggest complaint is wine writers — fair enough. He correctly denigrates many of the prejudices today’s wine press and bloggers bring to wine: the use of sulfites (must be bad, right?), additives (sounds terrible) and most annoying to him: manipulation.

Writers will tell you that wine manipulation is bad. But as Clark points out, “wine does not make itself.”

“Benign neglect is not high moral ground,” he says. “Wine writing is done today by people who don’t understand winemaking.”

Clark begins his argument by noting that the word “manipulation” has dual meaning: it might describe “shrewd or devious management by artful, unfair or insidious means.” Or it might mean “treatment or operation in a skillful manner.”

When it comes to wine, the term manipulation is itself not so subtle manipulation of the reader’s prejudices. But wine is food (grape juice). Food is supposed to be natural, so isn’t manipulation in itself bad?

Winemaking, as Clark likes to say, is just cooking. Would these writers insist that a chef is a devious manipulator of foodstuffs when they transform wheat into pasta and tomatoes into marinara? Beef into meatballs?

Winemakers, like chefs, ought to use all the healthful and beneficial tools in their tool kits to make the most delicious wines. Some of those tools include the addition of water, sugar, powdered tannins or tartaric acid (basically ground up parts of wine grapes), sulfur (used for centuries and in far greater proportions in bagged and dried fruits), and micro-oxygenation (just getting some air to wines), among other tactics.

There are some techniques that are particularly confusing and even unsettling, such as the addition or removal of alcohol or other compounds by fairly complicated processes. But I’m not sure I understand precisely what is happening when a chef magically creates that marvelous transformation from egg yolks and butter into Hollandaise sauce. That doesn’t mean something evil is happening.

Now, I am decidedly not arguing for wine to be something other than the fermented grape juice that it has been for millennia. Ideally, I’d like it to be affordable; and I’d like it to speak of the place in which it’s grown.

I want it to remind me of human culture too. And winemakers are always coming up with some ideas for improving their own particular wines. We can argue plenty about whether or not the wines are in fact better as a result. But today, there are words and practices that frighten consumers. As Clark says, “You [in the wine press] have made honesty too expensive.”

So instead we pretend nothing has happened at all. And that’s a bad strategy for wine improvement and consumer understanding.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column for The Star’s Food section.

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