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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

Wine of the week: VinNico Radio Boka 2018

radio bokaThe Radio Boka offers Spanish value and quality for less than $10

The best cheap Spanish wines are made with grapes most of us haven’t heard of and are from regions that are equally obscure. Witness the Radio Boka, a Spanish white. It’s made with verdejo, common in Spain and almost nowhere else, and comes from La Mancha, a huge bulk wine region near Madrid.

In other words, this ain’t from Napa Valley or Burgundy.

In this, the Radio Boka ($9, purchased, 12.5%) is exactly what competent and enjoyable cheap wine should be. It doesn’t try to impress anyone, despite the post-modern name and showy label. This is a wine made for weeknight dinners, without any fuss or bravado. As we say on the blog, simple but not stupid.

Look for barely tart lemon fruit with a hint of something tropical in the middle. The finish is clean and fresh, and, like many Spanish whites, it’s a terrific food wine. Tapas, like the potato omelet, certainly, but also seafood and it would be terrific as a braising liquid for chicken.

Imported by Hammeken Cellars

Pricing note: All prices are suggested retail or actual purchase price before the October 2019 tariffs unless noted

Winebits 631: Costco wine, grape glut, Picard vineyard

costco wine

Annette Alvarez-Peters

This week’s wine news: Costco wine’s Annette Alvarez-Peters, often called the most important person in the U.S. wine business, retired quietly at the end of last year. Plus, the California grape glut does in Treasury Wine Estate’s stock and CBS fudges on Capt. Picard’s vineyard

Costco wine: Annette Alvarez-Peters, who oversaw Costco’s massive success in wine (as well beer and spirits), retired at the end of last year and without any fanfare. Which, given her annual ranking as one of the two or three most important people in the U.S. wine business, is amazing. As one wine marketer told me: “Potentially tectonic news.” Since 2010, Costco’s alcohol revenues almost doubled to $4.4 billion annually. She will be succeeded by Chad Sokol, who had been an assistant general merchandise manager.

Grape glut: Sinking U.S. wine prices, brought on the the California grape glut, sunk Treasury Wine Estate’s stock price last week. Its share price has fallen 18 percent on its home Australian stock market on news that too much wine in the U.S. forced it to “walk away” from around 500,000 cases of wine in this country. Or, in Wine Curmudgeon-speak, Treasury had to discount heavily to get rid of the wine. The story in the link says Aussie investors want the company to dump its U.S. producers, which include Beringer, BV, and Sterling.

Where is it? In Star Trek: Next Generation, Jean-Luc Picard’s family winery was in the Franche-Comte region of France, near the Swiss border. It makes high-quality red wine from the trousseau grape. Flash forward to the new Star Trek: Picard, and the winery has moved to the more popular and upscale Burgundy. The story in the link isn’t quite clear how the family winery moved, but as I noted when I wrote about wine and the movies in 2011, accuracy has never been high on the list production requirements.

Big Wine 2020

Big wine

Big Wine isn’t enough for a healthy U.S. wine business these days.

Big Wine 2020: Just being big doesn’t seem to be enough to reinvigorate wine in the U.S.

We need some sexy brands at $7 or $8 per bottle, and I’m not sure how many people in the industry want to try and do sexy things with $7 or $8 a bottle.
— Wine analyst Jon Moramarco

That quote tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the 16th annual Wine Business News magazine survey, which tracks the yearly ups and downs of the U.S. wine business and ranks the 50 biggest producers in this country. In this, it’s the second consecutive year that the trade magazine has painted a Wine Curmudgeonly-future of wine in the U.S.

How big is Big Wine 2020? There are more than 10,000 wineries in the U.S., and the top 50 account for some 90 percent of production. But that’s just the beginning of how top-heavy the U.S. wine business is. Almost one out of every four bottles of wine made in the U.S. comes from E&J Gallo, the world’s biggest producer. The top 3 companies account for 52 percent, and the top 5 account for 77 percent.

So if we need someone to ask about what’s gone wrong, we know who, don’t we?

Among the highlights

• Sales by volume may actually have declined last year, depending on whose numbers you believe. Nielsen said sales dropped 1 percent as 2019 drew to a close, but Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates estimated that volume could end 2019 up one-half to one percent. Regardless, it’s a far cry from the 3.5 percent annual growth rate during the wine boom, and it’s not enough to keep pace with the increase in the U.S. drinking age population.

• Even premiumization slowed. Sales by dollar volume were up just 1.7 percent in 2019; that compares to a 5 percent increase last year. Interestingly, several industry types quoted in the story insisted that cheaper wine was not the answer, since consumers don’t want to pay less.

• The average price of a bottle of wine sold at retail in 2019 was about $11. That’s more or less what it has been for the past several years, taking into account the various statistics used to calculate the cost.

• Gallo’s share of the U.S. wine market increased from 17 percent last year, even though its sales remained flat. Go figure.

• The share of the three biggest producers – Gallo, The Wine Group, and Constellation Brands – fell three points from last year and eight points from in 2017. In addition, the share of the top 10 companies declined for the fourth year in a row, from 84 percent in 2016 to 81 percent in 2017 to 78 percent in 2018 to 77 percent in 2019. That sounds awfully damn ominous, doesn’t it?

More about Big Wine:
• Big Wine 2019
• Big Wine 2018
• Big Wine 2017

Wine and food pairings 7: Not quite ramen soup

ramen soupThe Wine Curmudgeon pairs wine with some of his favorite recipes in this occasional feature. This edition: three wines with an improved version of perhaps the most notorious of cheap food, ramen soup

Ramen soup is the supermarket plonk of the food world – cheap and almost nasty. But who cares when it costs as little as 20 cents a serving?

The Wine Curmudgeon cares, of course. Why denigrate your body when you can make ramen soup that tastes better and is still cheap – and actually offers nutrition?

The secret is vegetable stock, which is as simple to make as boiling water and adding vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, and whatever else is in the refrigerator) with some salt, pepper, and olive oil. Let it cook for 20 minutes, strain, and you have practically free flavor for the soup – without the horrors of the ramen packet mix.

Putting together this soup is almost as simple as the store version. Again, there is no specific recipe other than using the best quality Asian noodles you can afford. So use what’s on hand — if there’s leftover chicken, put in the soup. If there’s leftover lettuce, put it in the soup. The key is to add ingredients you like, including a soft cooked egg (just like the pros).

Finally, a tip o’ the WC’s fedora to Frankie Celenza, the host of a cooking show called “Struggle Meals,” who made the recipe I adapted. Celenza can be corny, silly, and over the top, but he is also passionate about food and cooking. He wants his viewers to enjoy cooking, to understand how much fun it can be, and to realize that they don’t need to spend money on pricey ingredients or fancy appliances to make cheap, delicious meals.

Sound like anyone else we know? Would that we could find someone like Celenza to explain the joy and wonder of wine to younger consumers.

Click here to download or print a PDF of the recipe. These three wines will pair with the ramen:

• Boffa Carlo Arneis 2017 ($15, purchased, 12.5%): This Italian white is stunning, and especially for the price. It’s a beautiful, almost elegant wine, with subtle lemon and stone fruit, nuanced minerality, and whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Highly recommended. Imported by Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits

• Innovacion Rose 2019 ($11/1-liter, purchased, 13.5%): This Argentine pink, sold at Whole Foods, is a long-time WC favorite. This vintage should develop a little more fruit as it ages, but is already enjoyable — clean, bright, minerally, and a hint of berries. Imported by Winesellers Ltd

• Bodegas Matilde Cava Totus Tuus NV ($14, sample, 11.5%): Well-made and competent Spanish sparkling that is much more California in style than cava. The fruit is more chardonnay-like apple and there is lots of caramel on the finish. Good for what it is, but not exactly cava. Imported by Peninsula Wines

More about wine and food pairings:
• Wine and food pairings 7: Classic roast chicken
• Wine and food pairings 6: Louisiana-style shrimp boil
• Wine and food pairings 5: America’s Test Kitchen pizza

Slider photo: “Rome Elite Event: wine, food and nice people” by Yelp.com is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

TV wine ads: San Giuseppe Wines, because you can never have too much bare skin in a wine ad

This 2016 ad for Sam Giuseppe Wines reminds us that when in doubt, flash some skin

One constant throughout the Wine Curmudgeon’s TV wine ad survey has been model-quality men and women baring their skin. Which is exactly the case with this ad for San Giuseppe Wines, an Italian label that sells for about $12. How much longer could the shot last when the guy pulls himself out of the water?

My guess, since the ad is for pinot grigio, is that the swimmer is supposed to appeal to the pinot grigio demographic — the infamous women of a certain age who buy almost all the pinot grigio in the U.S.  The ad’s goal? Get them all hot and bothered so they will race to the store to buy San Giuseppe.

In this, it’s not necessarily any worse than any of the others in our TV wine ad survey. It’s just more of the same. Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

Video courtesy of QUE Productions via YouTube

More about TV wine ads:
TV wine ad survey: Hochtaler box wine – even Canadians miss the point?
TV wine ad survey: 1980s Richards Wild Irish Rose
One more example why TV wine ads are so awful