There's A Meeting for That

Drinking in the Postmodern Winemaking Symposium

Clark Robert Smith follows classical ideals in both winemaking and meetings.

Illustration by Carmen Segovia.

2nd Annual Postmodern Winemaking Symposium
Nov. 15–16, 2014
The Orchard, Santa Rosa, California

Attendees
50

FRUIT OF THE VINE

As the symposium’s winemaker participants debated vine balance, water management, and “Time, Wine and The Five Senses,” they tasted as they talked. “At least in wine, the word ‘symposium’ means talking and drinking,” said Postmodern Winemaking Symposium founder Clark Robert Smith. “It’s really important to have the products in front of us.”

Clark Robert Smith follows classical ideals in both winemaking and meetings. His annual gathering of wine producers — the Postmodern Winemaking Symposium, which he started two years ago — hews to the ancient Greek meaning of “symposium”: a “drinking party” or “convivial discussion.” At the event, which takes place over a weekend in a converted Seventh-Day Adventist church in Santa Rosa, California, 50 winemaker participants discuss winemaking techniques and the future of their industry, while sampling the goods.

The symposium is as eclectic as its founder, a self-described “MIT dropout” who earned an enology degree from the University of California, Davis, and went on to pioneer red-wine production techniques, including reverse osmosis. Thirty years ago, he began teaching a “Fundamentals of Modern Wine Chemistry” class, and more than 4,000 winemakers have taken the course. He held the first Postmodern Winemaking Symposium in November 2013.

SMALL POURS

Smith wanted the symposium “to be a discussion among equals,” and for everyone to be able to make eye contact. To accomplish this, he limits attendance to 50, pushing 10 six-foot-long tables together to form a rectangular seating arrangement. He also uses the Native American “talking stick” tradition, in which anyone with the stick — in this case, two circulating mics — can speak without interruption. “People get excited,” Smith said, and “don’t behave themselves. If you haven’t got the mic, then you aren’t supposed to be talking.”

GOING VIRAL

Symposium attendees grapple with how “we’ve lost the whole concept of quality” in winemaking, Smith said. “What important things have we lost track of in the pursuit of scientific knowledge?”

Such questions continue to rankle — and have given the symposium legs. Smith was hired for regional versions in Portugal and New York’s Finger Lakes region in 2014, and has more events scheduled this year, as well as the third annual symposium in November. “Something about how we’re doing this has gotten a little viral,” he said. “To get people in a room and they’re able to say what they really think and explore concepts together — it can be electrifying.”

Corin Hirsch

Corin Hirsch is associate editor of Convene.