Am I a machine, or am I real?
In wine reviewing, do you want a machine, or someone who actually has an opinion?
More on this later, but first, consider this story that somebody invented a machine that “can identify different types of cava wine, the champagne-like sparkling wine from Spain” potentially more accurately than a person can.
Obviously, nobody would want a piece of laboratory equipment that spat out a chemical analysis of a wine in preference to a well-written, thoughtful opinion of a wine. This is relevant because lately there’s something of of a rift between the “letters after their name” types (MWs, MSs, SWE people) and “ordinary” wine writers—those of us without letters after our names. In a typical gathering of both, the lettered elite, especially MWs, will stick to their own kind, rather like the Canada geese that live in the park across from my house and waddle together. Ordinary wine writers, on the other hand, are the crows of the wine writing community, solo flyers who have no peer group to impress, and so go our own way. This penchant for—what should we call it?—eccentricity makes the ordinary, unaffiliated wine writer distinct. No group pressure to conform to, no norms, rules, association expectations. Just a struggle to find our voice.
So back to machine tasters, If the goal of someone who aspires to letters after her name is to identify different cavas blind—that’s the kind of thing they do, right?—well, if that can be done better by a machine, then what’s the point? The better you get at that sort of thing, the more machine like you are, the less human. But if the goal of wine is to communicate, which is the most human of activities, then why would a wine writer want to get less human, more like a machine?
This is the tension between the writer-as-machine and the ordinary writer. There are of course exceptions. Jancis Robinson is an MW but she is a very humanistic writer. Maybe machine-like accuracy wasn’t all that important back when Jancis became an MW. Then, wine knowledge was perceived as a kind of exotic art, of the most human, and humane, tradition. George Saintsbury’s books show that, as do the works of Harry Waugh. Even Michael Broadbent—aloof, austere, with the waspishness of a boarding school master—retains some of that humanity. Contrast that with today’s tired, ambitious parade of wannabe machines, lining up for letters after their names so they can work for an airline, restaurant group or corporation. They seem so antithetical to the amateur (in the truest sense) tradition, in which wine writers once sought, and acquired, knowledge for its own sake—not to get a high paying job, but for love, sheer love. It makes me glad to be a writer whose last name will never be followed by letters, except R.I.P.