Category:Wine rants

Let the computer write the wine reviews

computer-generated wine reviews

How am I supposed to know if there’s too much oak?

Could artificial intelligence make writers obsolete? Because I’m not the only one who wonders. Barbara Ehrenreich, writing in the New York Times, firmly believes that “the business of book reviewing could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers.”

So why not wine writing — computer-generated wine reviews?

This would solve any number of problems, not the least of which is that winemakers wouldn’t have to deal with people like me. I had a brief email discussion recently with an annoyed producer who insisted that her wines didn’t taste the way I described them; she certainly would have been better off with WineNet than what Ehrenreich calls a “wet, carbon-based thinking apparatus” with self-awareness and a sense of obligation to its readers.

The last time I wrote about this, a company called Narrative Science had made significant inroads in taking disparate facts and turning them into a readable narrative. Unfortunately, it seems to have veered elsewhere, developing a product that “creates new revenue opportunities by transforming data into engaging content that can be productized and monetized.” This approach has little to do with writing, since there is money involved.

Still, much work has been done. TechCrunch reported last month that robot writers are all the rage in Silicon Valley, while a data scientist named Tony Fischetti has written that Markov chains can be used to simulate what he calls the “exercise in pretentiousness” that is a wine review. The concept of a Markov chain, which deals with probability, is far beyond my math skills, but Fischetti used 9,000 reviews from the Wine Spectator to write a program that came up with tasting notes that are no worse than most, including: “Quite rich, but stopping short of opulent, this white sports peach and apricot, yet a little in finesse” and “this stylish Australian Cabernet is dark, deep and complex, ending with a polished mouthful of spicy fruit and plenty of personality.”

Meanwhile, a wine producer in France, using N-Gram analysis (also beyond my math skills, but apparently related to word order) also thinks it’s possible to generate wine reviews without a wine writer. Both approaches seem to jive with what I wrote last time, that an artificial intelligence, working with a wine term database and the proper algorithm, could scrape together effective reviews. Probably even scores, too.

I just hope, if and when this puts me out of business, that someone will remember that I saw it coming. Maybe I can monetize the blog that way.

Image courtesy of Techbrarian, using a Creative Commons license

Money magazine’s not very cheap cheap wine story

cheap wineOne would think, after almost a decade of writing about cheap wine, winning awards, writing a critically-acclaimed book, and seeing the blog annually ranked as one of the most influential wine sites on the Internet, that the Wine Curmudgeon would have made an impression on the wine world. Apparently not, if this week’s Money magazine cheap wine story is any indication.

Mark Edward Harris asked four experts to list their “favorite bottle bargains,” and the results were so depressing that I almost gave up wine writing on the spot. The selections, save for those from “Wine for Dummies” impresario Mary Ewing-Mulligan (who I know and have judged with), reinforced every wine stereotype I have been fighting against for years. It’s as if the cheap wine revolution that has given us better wine for less money never happened, and it’s still 1999.

This is not to denigrate the other three experts, all of whom are immensely qualified and probably know infinitely more about their specialties than I could ever imagine knowing. But they don’t know more about cheap wine than I do, and their selections showed that. Among the problems with the recommendations that weren’t Ewing-Mulligan’s:

? Almost half of the other 42 wines cost $20 or more, ignoring that 95 percent of us will never spend more than $20 for a bottle of wine. Granted, Money’s readers may well be in that five percent, but if you’re looking for bargains, shouldn’t the editors know what a bargain is?

? The implication that wine that doesn’t cost more than $20 isn’t worth drinking. I’ll offer the writer, his editors, and the other three experts the same challenge I always make when I see something like this: Let’s taste the best cheap wines blind against more expensive wines, and you see if you can tell which is which.

? One rose, and a three-year-old rose that is apparently not in any U.S. retail stores, if Wine Searcher is to be believed. How a list of bargain wines could leave out rose, the greatest bargain in wine, is astounding.

? The usual wine geek choices that only wine geeks know about and that most of us can’t buy, including three Austrian wines and a Greek. I live in the ninth largest city in the country, with terrific retailers locked in death grip competition, and none of those four wines are available here.

? Almost half of the other 42 selections came from France and California, ignoring what has happened in South America, Australia, Oregon, Washington, Spain, and southern Italy over the past two decades.

And I wasn’t the only one who was upset. The New York Times’ Eric Asimov, hardly a champion of cheap wine, didn’t like it, either. And, for some reason, one of the experts was allowed to recommend a wine made by the winery that he works for. Has a major U.S. publication sunk so far that no one at Money sees that as a conflict of interest? Or is it OK to do it because it’s only wine?

Want a real list of bargain wines? Then check out the 2015 $10 Hall of Fame or the story I wrote for the Bottom Line Personal magazine. Or, since I don’t like to criticize without offering an alternative, my list of 10 bargain wines, $12 or less, that Money should have included. It’s a PDF, so you can print it and take it the next time you go wine shopping.

Wine and sex

wine and sexThe Wine Curmudgeon, being a sort of academic these days, understands the need to publish, garner attention for your institution, and prove how wonderful you are. That’s the way the Ivory Tower works in the 21st century, and I’m more than willing to do my bit. But that still doesn’t excuse this kind of behavior — yet another wine and sex study showing that wine and sex make people happy.

This one comes from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, where researchers discovered that booze and sex rated highest on the study’s ?pleasure scale, ? beating out volunteering, religion, and childcare. Shocking news, I know.

To its credit, the study looks for legitimacy by noting that governments, faced with policy decisions, want to find out what makes its citizens happy. But even the most loopheaded government (do you hear me, Texas?) has to know that drinking and sex make people happy, while doing housework and being sick, which ranked low on the scale, don’t. So claiming public policy benefit isn’t quite what it seems.

Six years ago, I banned wine health news from the blog, after the infamous Italian study that revealed what every teenage boy has known for as long as there have been teenage boys: If you get a girl drunk, she is more likely to have sex with you, as the noted researcher William Shakespeare discussed. Apparently, little has changed in the wine and health world in those six years.

Finally, this study has been knocking around the cyber-ether for three years. That it showed up a couple of weeks ago when I was looking for something else speaks to the power of Google in determining what we find on the Internet, and that Google thinks we want stories about wine and sex. And yes, I have used the term wine and sex five times in this post to make Google happy; isn’t that what content providers are supposed to do?

Ain’t the Internet grand?

Restaurant wine prices in Europe

restaurant wine prices in EuropeThe email from my friend visiting Spain not only waxed poetic about the wine, but about the prices: “Talk about cheap wine. Beautiful wine for ?12, and the most expensive bottle was ?24.” In other words, restaurant wine prices in Europe were U.S. retail prices — which is unheard of in the States.

This is not unusual. When my brother was in Sicily, he marveled at both the quality and the prices in restaurants, drinking Cusumano for more or less what I pay for it at a Dallas liquor store. I’ve seen the same thing when I’ve traveled to Europe; as one sommelier at a very high-end restaurant owned by a famous Spanish chef told me: “Why would we want to charge as much as you do in the States? Then people won’t order as much wine.”

How is this possible? After all, talk to most restaurateurs in the U.S., and they make it sound as if they’ll go out of business if they don’t charge $30 for a wine that cost them $8:

? Europe’s on-gong recession, and especially in southern Europe. If there is 25 percent unemployment, it doesn’t make much economic sense to overcharge for wine.

? The idea that wine is part of dinner, which is the way Europeans have always seen wine, and not something in addition to dinner, the way Americans — and especially American restaurateurs — have always seen wine.

? Better wine list sensibilities, where the restaurant sells wine to drink and not to impress high-dollar patrons or wine snobs. Or, as Jacques Pepin told me, why would anyone want to pay for Bordeaux when you can drink the local wine, usually of high quality, and spend less money?

? No three-tier system, which may be the most important reason. In Europe, there isn’t a distributor getting its cut, which can add as much as 20 percent to the cost of wine. The restaurant can order directly from the producer, who is often local, and enjoys supply chain efficiencies that we can only dream about here.

The Wine Curmudgeon as hipster: Dude, he likes rose

rose

I totally get the resemblance… hat and beard and even glasses.

The news is official, from not just Deadspin and Details, which are about as hipster as post-modern media get, but from Manhattan sommeliers — and even their more hip Brooklyn brethren: “Dude, we’re drinking rose.” “Bro, you are so right.”

This is so exciting that the Wine Curmudgeon, given his long love and advocacy of rose, is going to grow one of those hipster beards and wear one of those hipster hats. Because, dude, rose is freakin’ awesome. Fist bump here.

On the one hand, I should be thrilled that the hipsters have embraced rose, because anyone embracing rose is a good thing in the fight for quality cheap wine, given that it’s almost impossible to find a $10 pink wine that isn’t worth drinking. Plus, that people who may not know wine, who usually drink craft beer or artisan cocktails made with pickle brine, are now drinking rose is something to be much appreciated.

On the other hand, why is this trend — any wine trend, really — only official if a Manhattan sommelier approves of it? Why can’t it be a trend if a cranky, middle-aged ex-sportswriter who lives in the middle of the country approves of it? And, regardless of the personal insult to me, why isn’t it a trend because rose sales have been spiking upward for a couple of years — without any help from people who work at what the Details article called a Brooklyn “fauxhemian” hangout?

Just chill, dude.

Maybe so. The Wine Curmudgeon has been known to visit Manhattan (Brooklyn, even). So, in the spirit of rose-mance, I will bring rose with me the next time I go, and not the usual Provencal pink the hipsters know. How about South African rose? Or Spanish rose? Or even Texas rose? Because, bro, I want to, like, be totally cool with that.

 

Wine education: Four things you don’t need to know about wine

wine educationBut that the wine business, through its allies in the Winestream Media, harps on ad nauseum. That’s because it makes them feel important to write about this stuff, even though no one else cares and it has nothing do with wine education. Hence, four things that you don’t need to know about wine:

? Wine fraud. This is an issue that affects almost no one who drinks wine; who is going to counterfeit Cupcake Red Velvet, Barefoot moscato, or any of the hundreds of other wines that dominate sales in the U.S. ? Nevertheless, wine fraud been blasting around the Internet for years, and especially if it’s in China. There seem to be couple of stories about it every day, bemoaning the fact that a very rich person has been cheated or that a world famous French winery has been besmirched by Chinese counterfeits. In fact, counterfeit wine probably accounts for less than one percent of all the wine made in the world each year. But you’d never know that by reading the Winestream Media.

? Bordeaux futures. This is the process in which very rich people buy very expensive French wine at a discount, even though they haven’t tasted it and won’t take delivery for a couple of years. In other words, about as far removed from buying wine at the grocery store as possible. Each week, I see at least a dozen stories about the futures process, which again affects fewer than one percent of the people who buy wine in the U.S.

? The next big thing. These stories make the Wine Curmudgeon the craziest, since they focus on an obscure grape, usually produced in small quantities in a lesser known part the world. And they always quote a Manhattan sommelier about how this wine will sweep the country, taking for granted that if someone in Manhattan says it is true, it must be, and ignoring three-tier and how little of the wine is actually for sale in the U.S. Hence, Georgian wine (and not the state in the southern U.S.) Note to Winestream Media: The next big thing is sweet red wine, and it has been here for two years.

? Wine writing. Every week, someone will write a long, garment-rending piece about how terrible wine writing is and how it was so much better in the old days. Or someone will write a long, snarky piece about how much better wine writing is today than it was in the old days. Or, and this is my favorite, someone — usually the same couple of older white guys — will do both in the same story. Wine drinkers don’t care about wine writing, which is why I stopped writing about it a couple of years ago. Writing about wine writing is just one more kind of cyber porn, and not nearly as interesting as the rest.

None of this is wine education. That would include practical advice about wine pricing, how to buy wine, and why three-tier matters to the ordinary wine drinker. But who gets famous writing about that?

More about wine things you need to know:
? Five things that make me crazy when I buy wine
? Five things the wine business can do to help consumers figure out wine
? Finding the next big wine region

The revolution in wine terms

wine termsWho knew wine terms had become more than they were? Certainly not the Wine Curmudgeon, who has been using words like sweet and dry and fruity for more than 20 years. But, apparently, I am not au courant, as a post at VinePair, describing “20 wine words most drinkers don’t know” reminded me.

My first question? Why, if these terms are so important and wine drinkers need to know them, how is it that most don’t? That would be like most food eaters not knowing what hot and cold means. “Hmmm, this soup is hurting my mouth. Is there a term to describe that?”

Second, one of the terms was hedonistic: “Robert Parker ?s favorite word. Wines that just blow you away. Parker likes hedonistic, but you can just say the wine is damn amazing.” Note to Adam Teeter at VinePair, who wrote the post and, save for an occasional lapse into cuteness, seems to know his business. Most wine drinkers don’t know who Robert Parker is and don’t care, so why do they need to know his favorite wine term? Plus, in 30-some years as a professional writer, wine and otherwise, I have never used hedonistic to describe anything. And I have had a fairly successful career.

Third, wine terms should be objective, like sweet and dry and fruity, and hedonistic (as well as ponderous, also on the list) isn’t. Parker may think those wines are damn amazing, but many of us don’t. We find them overblown and unenjoyable. What’s the point of using a term that tells someone they’re supposed to like something that they may not like?

Again, this is not to criticize Teeter, who is probably trying to help, but to point out yet again how most post-modern wine writing has little to do with the average consumer. It’s as if they’re writing a movie review that discusses camera angles and editing techniques instead of the plot, and then getting angry when someone asks them what the movie is about.

And what’s worse is that they call those of us — who want to write intelligently and clearly, who want to educate wine drinkers and not preach to them — a variety of not very nice names. I’m not going to link to them, because it’s not worth the aggravation and the Internet sniping that will ensue. But two prominent California wine writers have recently questioned whether people like me are competent to write about wine. Our sin? That we try to make it less intimidating and confusing, when real wine writers know wine is supposed to be intimidating and confusing. Otherwise, one of them wrote, what’s the point of learning about it?

How wonderfully self-absorbed and insensitive to the world around them they must be. Does this mean that we can’t enjoy wine unless we enjoy it exactly as they want us to? Nuts to that, and pass me some of that $10 Gascon white I like so much — the one that’s fruity.

Image courtesy of Westword.com, using a Creative Commons license