Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Science of Minerality : rebuttal to Clark Smith

This is in response to Clark Smith's posting on his Grapecrafter's blog: the science of minerality , in which no science of his own is presented:

Few aspects ring more passionately for lovers of WineSmith wines than their obvious minerality. The source is pretty clear -- living soil. In a recent Wines and Vines article, Tim Patterson reports that “the one thing we do know is that it has very little to do with minerals.”

Sadly, Clark’s already off course by stating his conclusion without any evidence to back it up. Also, the use of the term "living soil" -whatever that means - couches his argument in a corner where it can't be debated without you being painted as a supporter of "dead soil"…

In support of this silly conclusion, Tim interviews pundits Ann “Aroma Wheel” Noble and her colleague, analytical chemist Sue Ebeler of UC Davis. Both admit they are unable to make sense of the analytical data on this subject. Amazingly, Tim accepts this professed cluelessness as proof that minerals are unrelated to minerality.

Pejorative comments aside, he’s claiming that Noble and Ebeler have erroneously dismissed a link between mineral content & a “minerality perception”. Also, the implication is that the reporter hasn’t got a clue either…

I’ve been pursuing the mysteries of minerality for ten years now, most recently with an open-minded group of CSU Fresno investigators. It’s a tricky problem. Atomic absorption data of the elemental content of organic vs conventional wines hasn’t so far yielded simple linear answers as to what minerality is. On the other hand, the sensory data is pretty clean. In other words, minerality quite obviously exists, but we don’t presently know how to measure it.

Weird, I would’ve expected him to have found something after 10 years, and working with a group of “open-minded” Fresno prof’s…if a link actually existed, that is…
And his final statement in that paragraph has a grain of the truth in it: perhaps “minerality” is a misnomer in relation to its cause – much like “bell peppers” perception is misleading in suggesting that bell peppers (the vegetable) is responsible for that same aroma in Cabernet, when in fact no bell peppers are ever used in winemaking…

Here’s what I’m pretty sure of. There is a characteristic minerally finish to wines which is strongly associated with living soil practices (earthworms, cover crops, abandoning pesticides or herbicides). It has been described as mineral energy, mineral electricity (as it resembles electric current in the throat), and also the flavor one has in the back of the throat after eating half shell oysters or when driving home from the beach. It’s similar to saltiness, but more complex and persistent. We don’t see this characteristic in wines from grapes grown using the methods of petroleum agriculture – bare soil, pesticide use, no earthworms present in the soil. These wines end in the mid-palate, and have a short, blank finish. They also don’t age well.

This ties in perfectly with his Biodynamic (BioD) comments on terroir at this link. And for his description of mineral electricity – I’m not sure where one would experience electric current in one’s throat , at least nowhere outside of Abu Ghraib prison or GITMO (“double-blindfolded tastings, anyone?”)…or that it would be nearly as enjoyable as water-boarding. How quaintly Rumsfeldian…
The over generalizations used to argument in favor BioD ag are obvious as many conventionally produced wines can and do age well.

We Grapecrafters have a healthy respect for minerality for several reasons. Mosel rieslings, strong in this sensory characteristic, can age 30 years, whereas Californian and Australian rieslings die like dogs within five years. Second, when we micro-oxygenate (a process which involves continuous sensory and analytical testing for the wine’s ability to take up the oxygen without signs of overwhelm, such as a rise in dissolved oxygen, aldehyde creation or open fruit expression), wines with minerality tend to take up much more oxygen than their dead-soil counterparts. Third, minerality imparts a liveliness on the palate and a lengthy flavor persistence that sets living soil vineyards apart from other New World wines.

WHOA! Whoa, Nellie!
Did he just suggest using a “wine manipulation”? Why YES, of course he did… this is Clark Smith of Vinovation fame! The man would love to sell you his services…a little RO to remove an objectionable VA problem? Sure! He can do it! Reduce pesky alcohol after picking faaaaar toooo ripe? That’s no problem with Clark around!
And again, more over-generalizations to support his point of view. The comment about more O2 uptake by wines with minerality leads away from his purported view that it's due to mineral content, and implies that there may be a reductive winemaking technique that could be responsible for part of the perception. Sadly he fails to follow that line...

Pre-empting discussion is the favorite ploy of the pundits of UC Davis. These folks did not receive media training in their scientific curriculum. They’re just busy people with well-defined self-proclaimed research agendas largely unrelated to any practical needs of winemakers and unanchored in observable phenomena. In general, they display impatience with educating the public and tend to chose end runs around serious discussion of challenging issues.

The only thing pre-emptive so far is his use of a “straw dog” to position the UCD crew in an untenable place. Geez, Clark, do you have some issues with UCD or what? And he misses his chance to announce his own agenda of wanting to market himself and his services to the reader. “Impatience with educating the public”?? Wait, these people are professional educators at a public university…what the hell’s this guy talking about…?
And the end run we’ve seen around this subject has been entirely Clark’s…

Science operates through hypothesis testing. In layman’s terms, you give an idea the benefit of the doubt, play with it, and see whether it gives back anything productive. Sorry Ann -- you get precisely nowhere if you don’t play. That doesn’t disprove effects the rest of us clearly see.

Again, it’s a straw dog. And his own hypothesis testing of the past decade apparently have been fruitless as well.

Ann & Sue haven’t dismissed “minerality” as a perception…they’ve just reported that they can find no link between it and mineral content in the wines in question…a finding he corroborates.

Now I’ve been aware of Clark for about a dozen years, and don't have anything against the services he offers nor anyone who uses them, but after reading this blog of his – at least this and his Terroir entry - I’d have to say I’m more confident trusting Ann & Sue’s analyses than his.

The pre-emptive ploys of UC Davis “experts” manifest all over the scientific community. We haven’t really investigated the agricultural effects of phases of the moon, or biological effects of high tension electrical power lines. But lots of lazy (or financially interested) scientists use the smokescreen of “inadequate evidence” to divert attention from their own ignorance.

Again, he’s the one being pre-emptive. As for the BioD drivel regarding EMF/Highpower lines, lunar phases, etc, well, sorry Clark, but they have been repeatedly studied, and continue to show nothing fruitful nor conclusive.
Clark also doesn’t want you to see how he’s positioned himself as the “expert” by implication…and his argument smacks of laziness, and he is MOST CERTAINLY financially interested in you believing he IS an expert so he can hustle his services.

Tim, you’re a good journalist, but this time you got suckered by the pros. You’re not the first. But you appointed them “experts,” and all they’re really telling you is they really aren’t. Don’t buy into this nonsense. The oldest trick in the book is denying a phenomenon exists because you can’t explain it. It’s an amazing ruse -- the dumber you are, the more you get to deny.

Would the second oldest ruse then be putting words in your opponent’s mouth to place them in indefensible positions, and then cutting them to shreds?
Have you no sense of decency, Sir?

Our trials at Fresno State are at least inquiring into the nature of this obvious phenomenon. Meantime, take heart – the sky is blue whether Ann Noble can see it or not.

Right. UCD is closed-minded, while Fresno State is a lone bastion of noble inquiry…how ridiculous…
But I do hope you are inquiring into the nature of the perception. Hopefully, your white paper on the results will be less vitriolic, dismissive and pejorative, and more substantive as to the reasons people actually perceive this “minerality”.

Good night, and good luck, Sir.

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Blogger Edward said...

Thank you for taking the time to analyse and refute Clark Smith's piece on minerality.

I read it earlier today and was stunned by his comment that Australian rieslings die like dogs after 5 years. There can be nothing further from the truth and it is a ridiculous generalisation.

December 13, 2006 7:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the best wine blog on-line. I wish you posted more frequently.

December 13, 2006 9:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That definitely needed saying. Clark Smith doubly lost me at earthworms. I don't have anything against earthworms, but the rich, moist soil they need is not the soil that favors the production of fine wine. Clark Smith's reliance on such a simplistic soil paradigm is telling.

December 13, 2006 5:11 PM  
Anonymous Tim Patterson said...

Dear Zinquisition:

As the author of the piece that got Clark so agitated, I appreciate in particular your observations about the goofy ad hominem arguments about anyone and everyone at UC Davis. Clearly, Clark was moledted intellectually during his time there.

I would also note that the text he was responding to (putting it generously) was an excerpt, missing 2/3 of the actual column. That should have been obvious--indeed, people emailed thte magazine to get the full story. The whole thing is now posted on -- for better or for worse.

Tim Patterson

December 13, 2006 5:49 PM  
Blogger St. Vini said...

Thanks to you all for stopping by!

Those statements about how wines which don't fit into his soils ideals don't age or aren't otherwise worthy were such easy game - and obviously false. As I said, I don't have anything against Clark or his services, but it seems incongruous to be a proponent of minimalist BioD agriculture while a proponent of micro-oxidation & reverse osmosis, etc.

The 'living soil' call to arms from the Green quarter is also too misleading (as I said) in that the implications are too severe - that anyone who uses any modern ag fertilizer or herbicide instantly sterilizes their soil...again, that's false. And while I encourage people I work with to minimize their reliance & use of those products, I have found many resposible people who apply such things in the most modest and minute amounts possible, and w/o compromising either the environment or their fruit.

Tim - many thanks for the pointer ( so that all can see it - and congrats on creating a stir from Bordeaux to New Zealand!

And I suppose I'll have to crow just a little: looks like everything you've found pretty much matches with my views on the subject that I've posted to date!


December 14, 2006 6:47 AM  
Anonymous DINO said...

There is an easy experiment to test the link between soil mineral content and the perception of minerality. Drink some mineral water! Does mineral water taste anything like a good Chablis, not to my palate. Also, didn't the perception of minerality in wine exist before BioD practices were introduced into some the vineyards?

December 14, 2006 11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good grief. Electrical current in my throat - maybe I'll skip the Sancerre and start a dead soil movement instead.

December 18, 2006 9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear St. Vini,

I want to clarify that Vinovation, the company which Clark helped to start over 15 years ago now is a thriving service company with 35 employees. Clark does not run the company nor is he it's spokesperson. Clark Smith, for better and for worse, speaks for Clark Smith. Not Vinovation. Thank you sincerely for your attention and Happy Holidays.

Bob Kreisher
Director of Marketing & Sales
Vinovation, Inc.

December 21, 2006 6:41 AM  
Blogger St. Vini said...


Thanks for the clarification. But Clark is still the founder and a co-owner of Vinovation, is he not? And is listed under your who's-who on the site page...also your site has links to both Clark's WineCrafter's and WineCrimes blogs, which reciprocate with links back to your site.

While I accept that his views don't reflect the official communications of Vinovation (which is likely why they're posted on separate pages), it is hard for me to separate Mr.Smith from the company he is -and has been- nearly synonymous with, and still apparently has some part in.

I certainly have nothing against the services offered by him or the company, but your note almost implies that he doesn't work there much anymore - did I miss a press release? Don't you in part work for him, even if indirectly?

Vinovation isn't really the point though, the point is that Clark is attacking UCD after spending much time there - ostensibly because they don't share his views on quantifying/qualifying 'minerality' - and the disparity in my view comes in being a proponent of technological responses/services to winemaking while trying to champion Biodynamic viticulture, which eschews such measures. One must either fish or cut is incongruous to try to do both simultaneously.

Sadly, I find much of Clark's points on his posts regarding the use of technology to be similar to my own, at least in the vein of "if someone wants to use it they should be able to", and that the resulting wines should be taken as the proof of the is his supporting comments for BioD and apparent abandon of the scientific method (as well as lack of a valid logical argument construction) which I find disturbing - especially from someone who spent time @ MIT & UCD...

Happy holidays!


December 22, 2006 7:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Vini,

I realize that I came off a bit gruff in my previous comment. Let me expand. You did actually miss a press release, which I will be happy to send to you. (Northbay Business Journal will run an article January 15).

Clark is indeed the founder and co-owner. Clark is also a dear friend who I often disagree with, or take exception to his tone or method. I think you and are on the same page here.

Clark turned over day to day operations to his brother, Brian, six years ago. Last year he turned over Sales & Marketing to me. He remains an executive and the director of R&D. My point, to put it plain and honest, was that Clark makes people mad sometimes. Vinovation however, is 35 people who have built an exciting and vibrant company together, with blood, sweat, and tears sometimes, and Clark is just one of them. Vinovation is greater than the sum of its parts. It is impossible to underestimate Clark's contribution, but also impossible to understimate the ownership that each of the 35 of us take each day when we do more than just show up. Vinovation, in its 15 years, has morphed into an entirely independent entity, not dependent on any one person for its strategic and tactical decisions. Much like Ford, Microsoft, or any other company identified with a charismatic founder.

People often equate Vinovation & Clark. I don't think you did this in any direct or overt manner. But I do think readers might draw that conclusion, which is the reason for my clarification.

I appreciate your thoughtful response to my prior comment.

Bob Kreisher
Director of Sales and Marketing
Vinovation, Inc.

January 10, 2007 5:41 AM  

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