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Cheap white wine face-off: Sunshine Bay sauvignon blanc vs. Farnese Fantini trebbiano

cheap white wine face-off

Who needs Cage or Travolta? We have Sunshine Bay and Farnese Fantini.

Which of these two about $7 wines offer the best value in this cheap white wine face-off?

A variety of cheap white wines have served the Wine Curmudgeon well over the years, starting with the late and much lamented Hogue fume blanc. These are the kind of wines you buy in quantity, keep chilled, and know that when you drink it, the result will be quality, value, and enjoyment.

My current choice is the Farnese Fantini trebbiano, an Italian white that costs $8. But, with the appearance of Aldi’s Sunshine Bay, a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, that costs $7, is it time to make a change?

Hence, this cheap white wine face-off.

• Price. The Fantini is $7.99, less the 10 percent case discount. That works out to $7.19 a bottle. The Sunshine Bay is $6.95 at my local Aldi, so it’s cheaper – but probably not enough to make a difference.

• Screwcap. Yes to both. This matters a lot, because I don’t want to go through a ritual when all I want is couple of glasses for no particular reason. This kind of wine should be open it and forget it.

• Quality. Are the wines professional and well made? Yes to both. Frankly, I was surprised. For one thing, there is still a lot of cheap, crummy Italian white wine in the world, and so didn’t expect much from the Fantini. But it is clean and crisp, without any off flavors or residual sugar. The Sunshine Bay, given Aldi’s track record in the U.S., was even more surprising. It’s much better made than similarly-priced New Zealand sauvignon blancs.

• Style. Do they taste like they’re supposed to? Yes, again, to both. The Fantini is lemon-lime-ish, simple but not stupid. The Sunshine plays up the New Zealand grapefruit style, but there;s a hint of tropical fruit in the middle, and the citrus doesn’t overwhelm the wine.

My choice? I’ll probably stick with the Fantini, since it’s more food friendly. But for those who like the New Zealand style or want a little more heft in their white wine, the Sunshine Bay is an excellent alternative. And I will keep buying it.

“Crisp and fresh:” AI wine writing strikes again

ai wine writingWill AI wine writing eventually make wine tasting irrelevant?

This is a mineral-driven wine that’s crisp and fresh, with a flinty edge. It is very tangy, with zesty citrus, giving a bright character. It needs time to mature, so wait until late vintage.

That’s a review of one of my favorite $10 wines – the Chateau Bonnet Blanc, a white French Bordeaux. But I didn’t write it, and neither, technically, did any other human wine critic.

Instead, it was written by an artificial intelligence – the Wine Review Generator created by long-time wine industry executive Michael Brill. Brill, who also does tech, software, and AI consulting, wanted to find out if he could “teach” a machine to write tasting notes.

And, for the most part, that’s what he did.

Brill left a comment about last week’s blog post about the future of AI wine writing. That led to our phone conversation this week, where Brill said improved technology has made it possible to create the Chateau Bonnet review with a minimal amount of human programming. All you need, he said, is a database of wine terms, wine regions, grape varieties, and so forth. That information, combined with advances in neural network research that have helped scientists better understand how to program machines to “think,” led to the review software and to the Bonnet review.

In this, Brill said, a machine’s ability to “write” longer and more coherent sentences has improved tremendously. Before, he explained, an AI story might be half readable and half nonsense, and the most it could create was a 10-word sentence. Today, those numbers are 90 and 10 percent, and it can write a readable 10-sentence paragraph.

How the machine does this, needless to say, is incredibly complicated. It makes predictions about what comes next in a sentence based on the words that came before, a process that is much more like writing than previous AI efforts; those were more like filling in a template. Here, the AI has “learned” that a mineral-driven wine is crisp and fresh, and not oaky and flabby, so it picks the former phrase to follow mineral-driven instead of the latter.

Which is why the Chateau Bonnet Blanc effort is not a bad tasting note. It’s mostly accurate (save for the bit about aging) and it conforms to the rules of grammar and the sensibilities of wine. That the machine wrote the review without tasting the wine is impressive, and knowing only the cost and some characteristics, is impressive. And more than a little spooky.

And not just because an AI is cheaper to hire than I am. Brill said advances in machine writing could eventually make product reviews useless. Some of that happens today on Amazon, where it’s not uncommon to see badly written AI reviews praising a product. But the situation could get even worse as AI writing improves.

A top-notch AI could flood Amazon with machine-generated positive (or even negative) reviews, with the resulting effect on sales. Or it might be possible for one restaurant to force another out of business with an AI-written campaign on Yelp.

And who would know the difference?

Wine of the week: McManis Petit Sirah 2017

mcmanis petit sirahThe McManis petit sirah: $10 California red wine that is well made and speaks to quality and value

California’s McManis family, despite the trials and tribulations of the post-modern wine business and the faint-heartedness of others, still cares more about quality than focus groups. The McManis petit sirah is just one of the family’s many wines that proves that point.

The McManis petit sirah ($10, purchased, 13.5%) is a reminder of the early days of the blog, when petit sirah was used to make quality cheap wine – a little plummy, a bit rich, not especially tannic, and just enough acidity for balance. Today, it’s mostly used to make sweet, “smooth,” flaccid red blends that cost $15 or $16, because someone somewhere thinks that’s what younger consumers want.

The McManis is the exact opposite of that, one of the best petit sirahs I’ve had in years, regardless of price. There is sweet dark plum fruit, but this is not a sweet wine. Plus, subtle acidity and the correct tannins. In this, it’s a reminder that California used to give us some of the world’s best cheap wine. Drink this with everything from takeout pizza to fancy meatloaf, and it wouldn’t be so bad on its own after a hard day at work, either. And you could do a whole lot worse using the McManis as a gift for the holiday that must not be named later this week.

Highly recommended, and a candidate to for the 2021’s  $10 Hall of Fame and Cheap Wine of the Year.

Winebits 632: Sommelier cheating scandal, wine tariff, wine lists

sommelier cheating scandalThis week’s wine news: A comprehensive look at the sommelier cheating scandal, plus the wine tariff sinks French wine imports and wine list foolishness

Sommelier cheating scandal: The trade website SevcenFiftyDaily takes a long, thorough, and comprehensive look at the 2018 sommelier cheating scandal – some 4,000 words. It’s mostly well done, fair, and reaffirms the suspicions that those of us had about the lack of transparency surrounding what happened: The “events of the past year raise broader questions about an organization—and the title it confers—that’s one of the wine world’s most powerful. And not just for the trade: With the 2012 release of the film Somm, which details the efforts of four Master Sommelier candidates to pass the exam, and its subsequent appearance on streaming services like Netflix, many consumers have come to view the MS title as the standard of wine culture.”

Plummeting exports: The 25 percent U.S. tariff on some European wine has pounded French wine exports to this country, says a French government official. They dropped 44 percent by value in November 2019 from the previous month, after the import penalty went into effect on October 2019. The story also says that the “tariffs have been especially painful to producers at the lower ends of the market, where a 25 percent price hike can turn an affordable bottle into a once-in-a-while luxury.” We should know something this week or next about the next stage in the trade war after the World Trade Organization rules on a complaint by the European Union about illegal U.S. subsidies to Boeing. It was illegal EU subsidies to Boeing competitor Airbus that started this mess.

Incomprehensible wine lists: A recent Vinepair podcast takes on a subject guaranteed to make the Wine Curmudgeon crazy: The “many wine lists floating around out there that seem to revel in being inscrutable to all but the most sophisticated and educated wine drinkers.” The podcast talks about the problem, explains why it doesn’t have to be one, and offers more pointers on buying wine in a restaurant.

Expensive wine 129: Bonny Doon X-Block Syrah 2013

x-block syrahThe Bonny Doon X-Block syrah is magnificent California red wine, combining the Old World with the New World

Those of us who love savory syrah – that is, where the wine is earthy and funky instead of being stuffed with sweet fruit, like the Australians do it – were especially sad when Boony Doon’s Randall Grahm sold his legendary winery at the beginning of the year. Grahm was famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for many things, but I don’t think he ever got enough credit for wines like the Bonny Doon X-Block syrah.

Grahm was able to combine an Old World approach to syrah with California’s riper and richer fruit. In this, the Bonny Doon X-Block syrah ($48, purchased, 13.5%) is an amazing wine – funky enough for those of us who want that, but fruity enough so as not to turn off people who think funky is a slang term 50 years out of date.

The X-Block is a step up from Grahm’s Le Pousseur syrah, which costs about half the price. But it’s more than worth the added expense: There’s the smoked meat, bacon-y aroma, a bit of pepper and spice, soft tannins, and full, rich black fruit. Open the wine about an hour before you drink it, and serve it with anything beefy or smoky or both. In addition, it’s still young and should age for at least a couple of more years.

Highly recommended, and just the gift for someone who likes savory syrah, what with the Holiday that Must not be Named coming up later this week. So long, Randall. It was a hell of a ride.

AI wine writing: Maybe it’s not around the corner after all

AI wine writing

This AI’s wine notes may not be as good as those written by a human — so how bad would they be?

AI wine writing technology needs to advance past copying a formula, even for something as simple as a tasting note

Will software replace wine writing? We’ve worried about this on the blog, where every advance in artificial intelligence made AI wine writing seem that much more likely. It became especially terrifying after noted journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in the New York Times that some writing “could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers.”

Scores are bad enough, but artificial intelligence scores?

Not to worry, though. Two recent reports found that no matter how far artificial intelligence writing has come, it hasn’t come quite far enough, even for AI wine writing.

The New Yorker’s John Seabrook offered the most complete story about AI writing I’ve seen. “Each time I clicked the refresh button,” he wrote, “the prose that the machine generated became more random; after three or four tries, the writing had drifted far from the original prompt. … [I]n a way that reminded me of Hal, the superintelligent computer in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ when the astronauts begin to disconnect its mainframe-size artificial brain.”

That’s more or less the conclusion, too, of the Johnson column in The Economist working off of Seabrook’s essay: “Don’t fear the Writernator,” Johnson said, and so it looks like human wine writing has been saved – for the time being, anyway.

Why was I so worried? Because there have been so many advances in AI writing that it seemed inevitable that something as formulaic as what we do would be turned over to an AI. How difficult would it be to write an algorithm that would parse wine grapes, wine regions, and descriptors to give us what we see all the time in every Wine Magazine? How much cheaper would it be to dispose of wine writers? After all, it’s not like writing a tasting note-style wine review is like writing for the New Yorker.

And, in fact, tremendous progress has been made with tasting note-style writing. As I reported last summer, it’s possible to use basic Python programming skills to come up with formulaic writing like tasting notes thanks to advances in neural network research and how to mimic what the human brain does. I wasn’t able to write reviews for the blog, as I had hoped; my Python skills are too rudimentary. But those more advanced are apparently doing it.

But both Seabrook and the Johnson writer argue that even that simple kind of writing is still a ways off. It’s one thing to teach a machine how to route rush hour traffic, but it’s something completely different to teach it how to write. Mimicking a formula is not writing.

“What eludes computers is creativity,” said Johnson. “By virtue of having been trained on past compositions, they can only be derivative. Furthermore, they cannot conceive a topic or goal on their own, much less plan how to get there with logic and style.”

Which makes me feel a lot better.

More about AI wine writing:
Winecast 30: Arty, the first artificial intelligence wine writer
Let the computer write the wine reviews
Do we really need wine writers?

Wine, strawberry fruit spread, and nutrition labels

nutrition labels

No thanks: Three tablespoons of this aren’t as appealing as a glass of wine.

The power of nutrition labels: A glass of wine has the same number of calories as three servings of strawberry fruit spread

The biggest surprise during last month’s Silicon Valley Bank State of the Wine Industry report was not the sad state of wine in the U.S. Rather, it was that Rob McMillan, the report’s author, said it was time for wine to acknowledge the need for ingredient and nutrition labels on its bottles.

This was revolutionary. Previously, only a couple of consumer groups, a handful of progressive wineries, and cranks like the Wine Curmudgeon wanted to see the labels. To the rest of wine, the labels were a waste of time – confusing, costly, and bottle clutter. Wine drinkers don’t need to be bothered with what was in their wine, and that was was that. And stop bothering us.

But McMillan’s argument turned that reasoning on its head. Wine, he said, is the most natural of products – grapes and yeast. Why, when younger consumers care more than ever about what’s in their food, should the wine business hide that?

“We can’t be more plant-based than wine – you put it in a tub and squish it and it turns into something else,” he said. “Yet we’ve got to this point where spiked seltzers are seen as a more healthful choice because of the clarity and transparency of the ingredients.”

Which, of course, is what some of us have been arguing for years. I was reminded of the good sense of this approach when I looked at the fact label on a bottle of Smucker’s Natural Strawberry Fruit Spread, where the front label puts the emphasis on “natural” and adds “No High Fructose Corn Syrup.”

A serving is one tablespoon, and there are 40 calories per serving of this “natural” product. In other words, I can drink a glass of wine, which has about 120 calories, or I can have three tablespoons of something called natural strawberry fruit spread. What do you think most consumers would choose?

And how has the wine business missed this connection all these years?

More about wine nutrition labels:
Nutrition labels: What wine can learn from two packages of frozen onion rings
The final “nutrition and ingredient labels for wine are a good thing” post
Wine falls further behind in nutrition and ingredient labels