Tag Archives: wine writing

Six days without wine

winespeakHow does a wine writer get by if he goes six days without wine?

How is this for irony? A day or so after last week’s wine blogging and coronavirus post, I got sick, and that meant no wine for six days.

The illness was nothing serious, just a variation on a theme that I’ve been enduring since grade school. It’s not really strep throat and it’s not exactly the flu; more of a cold and sore throat that last a week to 10 days and where the only thing one can do is wait it out.

So, of course, that meant no wine for the worst six days, which is hardly ideal for someone who makes their living drinking wine. Still, given how crappy I felt, I didn’t notice the absence. That’s more or less what happens every time I get this. In fact, one of the ways I know I feel better is that I want a glass of wine instead of the salt water I have been gargling every two hours.

My illness-induced abstinence made me ponder (though, to be honest, I didn’t do much pondering at the time given how crappy I felt):

• I didn’t want wine because I was sick. So how does that work during Dry January? I understand the motivation for people who are alcoholics, but if you’re not an addict, where does the impetus come from? The link above describes it as “reassessing your relationship with alcohol.” That phrase raises a variety of psychological and metaphysical questions that rarely come up when Dry January is discussed, as well as the U.S.’ seemingly ever-lasting temperance legacy.

• The only good thing about being too sick to drink wine is that one doesn’t have to worry about which wine to drink with dinner. When your meals are turkey vegetable soup for four days in a row, pairing doesn’t matter much.

• Second irony? The last glass of wine I had before I got sick was an oxidized, not-very-Beaujolais-like Beaujolais at one of Dallas’ more trendy French-style bistros. Talk about leaving a bad taste in your mouth.

Finally, I felt too crappy to care enough to to look at the blog numbers. Which is just as well, since they no longer resemble one of the best read wine blogs in the cyber-ether, but sit about where they were a decade ago. The drop in visitors I noted in the coronavirus post has accelerated, and if I was the kind of person who worried about metrics, I would be worrying.

Wine blogging in the time of coronavirus

coronavirus

How many of us remember this from high school?

What’s the point of a wine blog in a world consumed by the coronavirus? Call it necessary optimism

Friday update: Thanks to everyone who left such kind comments and sent such considerate e-mails. Again, I didn’t write this post to elicit sympathy, but to try to offer a bit of perspective. And to those of you who sent less than kind e-mails? No doubt your pandemic pantry is well stocked.

Blog traffic has been down as much as one-half over the past couple of weeks, mostly since the coronavirus started its deadly expansion from China to western Europe and points in between. In addition, blog cancellations have increased steadily, even though I haven’t written about screwcaps, ingredient labels, overpriced California wine, or any of the other things that usually portend cancellations.

Frankly, it’s damned depressing to write posts that no one reads. I say that not to elicit pity, but to ask a larger question: What’s to be be done about wine blogging in the time of coronavirus? Does it matter? What’s the point? Does anyone really care?

The answer, of course, is incredibly complicated. On the one hand, don’t we all want to behave like Albert Camus’ narrator in “The Plague” – “a man who, faced with suffering and a common crisis, does what he must and becomes a leader and an example, not out of heroic courage or careful reasoning, but rather from a sort of necessary optimism?”

On the other, and no matter how absurd it may seem, we also have a need to overwhelm Walmart and Costco to buy hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, household cleaners and staples like rice, pasta and canned food to build a “pandemic pantry” – just in case. And what about all that toilet paper?

And I can’t shake the feeling that the people who are supposed to be our version of Camus’ Dr. Rieux are more concerned with the stock market, the presidential election, and interest rates than they are with the coronavirus.

And maybe that’s the point, that the answer lies somewhere among all those contradictions. I am neither an epidemiologist nor a philosopher, but it seems that Jim Schutze, a former newspaper colleague and all around wise human being, hit on something recently: “We should be thinking about ways to keep doing what we need to do while minimizing our risk. It won’t work to try to shut everything down and hide in our holes. In fact, that will make things worse.”

So the blog will be here. If you read it, you read it. If you don’t, you don’t. But it will be here: Call it my small contribution to necessary optimism.

My apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote “Love in the Time of Cholera,”  and to everyone else who has used a play on that title for their recent coronavirus posts.

Do wine critics matter any more?

wine critics

“It’s good to know someone is still reading my stuff.”

Go figure: Some one-quarter of wine drinkers still say wine critics’ scores and reviews are highly influential

The wine world has Instagram influencers, Facebook groups, Twitter raves, and who knows what else. So where does a traditional wine critic fit into all of this in the second decade of the 21st century?

Almost where we did the last time I wrote about this, according to one recent survey. We’re not quite as important as store employees or friends and family, but we still matter, according to a January survey by Wine Opinions (with analysis by Lew Perdue at Wine Industry Insight). One quarter of wine drinkers say a 90-plus score from a “respected” critic is highly influential in wine purchase, while about one in five say a review on-line or in print is highly influential in making a purchase.

That compares to 42 percent for friends and family and 31 percent for store employees. Interestingly, tasting wine in the store ranked highest, at 60 percent, and second highest was “wine is from country or region I like,” at 45 percent. What makes those interesting? Talk to people who do store tastings, and they’ll tell you they often don’t sell that much wine. And that we buy wine from regions we know isn’t surprising; in fact, it’s one of wine’s great problems, that people won’t buy out of their comfort zones.

The other surprise? Price didn’t matter, coming in as only the seventh most influential. The question was phrased oddly, which may account for the result: “The wine is on sale for 10 percent off or more,”

And where did those Instagram influencers rank? The survey didn’t address them specifically, but this result speaks volumes for that approach to wine marketing. “Recommendation through an app” was just 8 percent, second lowest.

The survey results, not surprisingly, skewed significantly with age. Older men cared more about scores (which is why the preferences for scores didn’t bother me all that much). Meanwhile, younger wine drinkers cared more about recommendations from friends and family.

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?

Winebits 630: Two-buck Chuck, Italian wine fraud, winespeak

Two-buck Chuck

This week’s wine news: Two-buck Chuck costs $2 again in parts of California, thanks to the state’s grape glut. Plus, a 1-million bottle Italian wine fraud and the 2019 winespeak winners.

Just $1.99: Two-buck Chuck, the Trader Joe’s private label wine, costs $1.99 again in California, just like it did when it debuted in 2002. That’s a drop of about one-third for the wine, labeled as Charles Shaw. Credit the California grape glut for the discount, which has dropped the prices of the bulk grapes used to make the wine. However, the price remains $2.99 to $3.79 a bottle in the rest of the country, thanks to higher transportation costs.

A massive fraud: Italian police arrested five people, including two regional wine officials, and broke up a 1-million bottle wine fraud ring in the Oltrepo Pavese region near Milan in northern Italy. A wine co-operative in Oltrepo Pavese and several winemakers had worked together, combining sugar, additives and grapes from other regions to make fake Oltrepo Pavese DOC (PDO) and PGI wines for the 2018 vintage. This is the second major fraud in Oltrepo Pavese in the past five years; in 2014, police broke up a scam involving 200 people.

Good old winespeak: John Tilson at the Underground Wine Letter presents his annual list of the most stupid wine descriptions of the past year. As always, he brings a chuckle to the Wine Curmudgeon. My favorite descriptors this year are “treacle tart,” a sweet British dessert, and beef blood, which were used by two different writers to assess the same Spanish red wine. How, do you ask, can two completely opposite descriptions be used for the same wine? All I can say is that this is why wonder I wonder about the future of the wine business.

Winebits 627: Happy New Year 2020 edition

legal weed

This week’s wine news: Beaujolais legend Georges Duboeuf dies, plus the Italian Wine Guy critiques wine writing, and Canada’s legal weed bubble bursts

An icon dies: Georges Duboeuf, one of the icons of French wine, died on Saturday. He was 86. Dubouef, known as the Pope of Beaujolais, almost single-handedly made the release of Beaujolais Nouveau an international event every November. Said one of his competitors: He “was responsible for “raising the Beaujolais flag all over the world. He had a nose, an intuition, [he was] a step ahead of everyone.”

• “A pitiful thing:” Alfonso Cevola, the Italian Wine Guy, doesn’t mince words in assessing the state of wine writing: “Wine writing has become a pitiful thing. There are so many bad articles about wine, misspelled, written from a perspective that sounds more like someone is pushing a (p.r.) agenda rather than trying to educate the readers. …But real writing, real good writing?” Cevoola writes this as someone who has been around wine writing for decades, both as a retailer and wholesaler and as a successful wine writing. So his opinion is worth pondering.

Not so fast: Legal weed in Canada was going to make everyone rich when it debuted a year ago – and the wine business was more than a little worried about how it would hurt sales. Turns out, hardly at all, reports the BBC, with Canadians sill buying pot from the “black market.” Or, as we used to say, “you know, the guy down the street, who knows your friend.” Says the story: “Statistics Canada estimates that about 75% of cannabis users still use illegal cannabis,” since the guy down the street is cheaper and more convenient. Which, in retrospect, seems quite obvious.

Photo: “Wine Train – The restaurant” by micurs is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

The Wine Curmudgeon’s favorite posts of 2019

favorite posts of 2019

Don’t work so hard. No one is reading these posts, anyway.

These six posts weren’t necessarily the best read, but they were among my favorite posts of 2019

Welcome to the Wine Curmudgeon’s fifth annual year-end top 10 list — not the most-read posts on the blog, which anyone can do. These are among the best posts I wrote in 2019 and that didn’t get enough attention the first time around.

Again, these aren’t the best-read posts; Google takes care of that. Barefoot wine, anyone? These are the posts that I enjoyed writing, thought were important to write, or both.

Here, in no particular order, are my favorite posts of 2018:

• I wrote two wine video parodies this year, and neither did as well as they should have. I know why: Wine is not supposed to be funny; it’s supposed to be $40 worth of serious. Besides, how is Google going to send someone to a post about Bogey, Casablanca, and saving cheap wine? But how can anyone pass up the “Shaft” parody?

• The WC gets all hip and with it, writing a distracted boyfriend meme post. Who else can combine Gen X and Millennial humor with a wine rant?

Premiumization, overpriced wine, and consolidation are nothing new for wine. In 1947, one wine critic lamented the lack of quality cheap wine; another wrote in the early 1970s that California was focused too much on expensive wine and not enough on wine people could afford to drink.

Sweet Chianti, anyone? Because smooth. Because soft. And because women don’t want to drink dry red wine. Is it any wonder I worry about the future of the wine business?

• A study revealed that most wine producers may care more about status and image than quality. Maybe this news was so obvious in the second decade of the 21st century that no one needed to read about that kind of study.

More on the WC’s favorite posts:
Favorite posts of 2018
Favorite posts of 2017
Favorite posts of 2016