Tim Cook’s announcement on Tuesday of Apple’s new iTaste © app is exciting, and certainly represents a great leap forward in technology, but I wonder if it will really replace traditional human wine tasters.
As you’ve probably heard, the app, which runs on the new Apple Watch, is easy enough to use. You just put a drop of wine into a little hole in the watch, and in a nanosecond the screen gives you a complete readout of all the wine’s qualities: aroma, taste, finish, etc. The flavor descriptors run up to 120 words, and the iTaste can determine the precise blend. It can tell you where the oak came from, what the chemistry is, and even rates the wine on the beloved 100-point scale.
As Tim Cook explained, this frees wine lovers from “enslavement” to critics. “Forget about Parker, Wine Spectator, Enthusiast and all the rest,” the Apple CEO told an enraptured audience at San Francisco’s Moscone Center, who were sipping French Champagne. “They can be wrong, they can have their biases, they may be fatigued or sick or even drunk when they’re tasting.” The iTaste, by contrast, being a machine, “does not suffer from these human frailties. It is infallible.”
I was lucky enough to try out the iTaste, through the connections of a friend who asked not to be identified because he’s not authorized to speak for Apple or to provide the media with advance peeks of the product. It’s pretty cool, all right—as all Apple products are. It certainly knows more about wine than I do! I gave it a drop of a Slovenian Refosco, and it correctly identified it; it even knew it came from Dobrovo. I don’t think a Master of Wine could do that!
We should have seen this coming, right? I mean, everybody’s already convinced that wine critics are a dying breed, if not an anachronism. Millennial bloggers figured that they’d be next to take a bite of the golden apple—maybe in a crowd-sourced way—but instead, we may be leaving the human factor behind altogether, and plunging straight into robotics. If it happens, this will have broad impact in a number of areas: restaurants, publishing, retailing; the Wine Bloggers Conference will even go the way of the dodo. And what of shelf talkers? Would a wine store dare to put one up that says, “94 points, iTaste”?
I told my friend—the one who let me use the iTaste—how much I liked it, but I also asked him about a potential problem. Can the devices be hacked into? Even with Apple’s well-deserved reputation as being fairly immune to viruses, isn’t there a possibility that a powerful influence could tinker with the scores of certain wines, raising them or lowering them in such a way as would help itself and hurt its competitors?
My friend, who is highly placed within Apple circles, had no answer to this. As with all new leaps of technology, the early promise outshines the potential problems. Who, after all, could have foreseen that such a marvelous development as texting on mobile devices would lead to increased automobile accidents?
Another thing I wonder about is whether companies other than Apple will come out with their own reviewing software. This seems likely. Will we then have competing i-reviews and i-scores? If so, won’t this put consumers right back where they are now, into a situation of hopeless bafflement? Technology was supposed to make us all smarter. How has that worked out?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. I’m all in favor of advances. I, personally, will miss the good old days when we had actual human beings who associated their names with wine reviews. I mean, a guy like Charlie Olken could put his reputation behind a review, and we could trust it because it came from him. Will we be able to put the same trust into an iTaste review? After all, the fundamental rule of software is GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.
But I recognize the March of Progress. And there will be inevitable repercussions. Once we get rid of human wine critics, why not get rid of human winemakers? The entire winemaking process can be automated, like automobiles.
I was busy helping Santa deliver presents all over the world on Christmas Eve, so took the last few days off to rest and recover! It’s nice to be back on the blog.
We (Santa and I) had a lot of time to chat inbetween chimneys, so I asked him what he thought about Social Media.
“Ho ho ho!” Santa chortled. Then he whipped Dancer, Dasher et al. on. “Faster! Faster, you damn beasts!” he roared. Then, to me: “I have more presents than ever to get to all the good boys and girls, and these lazy curs are slower than ever.”
I sensed he was avoiding an answer. “But surely Santa,” I insisted (we were high in the sky somewhere over Pennsylvania), “you have a view on Social Media. You know: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs and all the rest.”
“We didn’t have them in my day,” Santa finally replied, “and the world seemed to go on. In fact, in many ways, it was better.”
“How so?” I pressed on.
“Well, the children were happier,” he said. “They didn’t worry as much. And they minded their manners and listened to their parents. Nowadays, if you say something to a child, they’re more likely to be staring into a blue screen, and not even hear you.”
I thought to myself, Well, Santa’s getting on. He must be, what? 800 years old. He probably thought movable type was bad. So I had to cut him some slack. It would have been wrong to expect the old fellow to be up to date on S.M.
Still, I couldn’t resist plying on. “Santa, have you ever used email?”
Santa snorted. “Email? Now, why the Devil would I do that? I talk the old-fashioned way: with my mouth.”
“I take it you’ve never tweeted?” I asked.
“Tweet? That’s the noise a damn bird makes.”
“Did you know, Santa, that tweeting is considered a necessary part of the skill set that employers look for in new hires?”
“Thank you, young Jedi. I did not know that,” Santa replied. “But then, I don’t intend to ever apply for a job again. This gig”–and he motioned with his hand, to the reindeer pulling us ahead, and to the giant sleigh behind us, groaning under the weight of Christmas presents–“is my last hurrah, believe me. Pretty soon, Mrs. Claus and I are going to retire to our condo in Playa del Carmen. Have you ever seen me in a Speedo?”
“Oh, but who will deliver the presents to all the good little boys and girls when you retire?” The thought made me shudder.
“Maybe those bloggers,” Santa suggested. “After all, they’re just wasting their time anyway. They might as well put their efforts into something that actually does some good.”
As a staunch supporter of the bloggers, particularly the wine bloggers, I felt it necessary to rise to their defense. “Santa, I don’t know why you say that the bloggers are wasting their time. Some of them are very helpful.”
“How is that?” Santa shot me an inquisitorial look. “Name one.”
“Well,” I stammered, “ for instance, there’s ___, who reviews every wine he tastes at every trade tasting he goes to–and he goes to them all, with his little tablet conputer–and then he posts his reviews on his blog for all the world to see. At last count, he’d reviewed more than a million wines, each in less than 140 characters.”
“And does anyone care?” Santa asked, with more than a trace of sarcasm.
“I can’t say that they do,” I had to admit.
“Exactly!” my bearded friend exclaimed triumphantly. Then he yelled to his reindeer. “Rudolf! Donner! Blitzen! Have you ever heard of this wine blogger?” The only response from the animals was Comet raising his right rear leg and emptying his bladder. We got hit with a warm spray of moisture.
“I hate when that happens,” Santa said, wiping his face.
Suddenly he changed tack. “I don’t want you think I’m too old to appreciate Social Media though,” he confided, with a wink. “Actually, it’s a great help to me.”
“I use it to determine which of the world’s children have been naughty or nice,” he said. “That used to be a real challenge, believe me. I have a pretty good network of spies around the world, keeping track of the children–after all, what do you think my Elves do all year when they’re not wrapping presents? I’ll tell you what. They’re hiding under children’s beds, watching and listening to everything they say and do, and reporting back to me. Before the advent of email and Social Media, I had to depend on my reindeer to transport their messages by paper. And you know reindeer. [Here, he leaned in close and whispered in my ear.] Not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier.
“But with the advent of smart phones, my Elves can now report to me directly, through my Intelligence Center which is located beneath the North Pole. It is constantly staffed with new Elves I hire right out of Elf School. In fact, I believe a few of them are ex-bloggers. Of course, that means my reindeer aren’t getting as much exercise as they used to, which is why they’re getting a little plump.” At this, Santa giggled, and, patting his own ample belly, he added, “but I’m hardly one to criticize.”
“Aha!” I said. “So you do recognize that Social Media has its uses!”
“Of course I do!” Santa exclaimed. “It gives the children hope.”
“Hope?” I wondered what Santa meant.
“Yes, hope. It makes them feel that somehow, it will make their lives better. And that is the Spirit of Christmas, isn’t it?”
I had to think for a moment about that. “Well, I suppose it is. But how does Social Media give the children hope?”
“Look at this like this,” Santa began. “The world can be very bleak. You’re born into it, against your will, dragged literally kicking and screaming from a warm, safe place into a cold, noisy one filled with impersonal and dangerous forces. That must be a terrible experience for a child.”
Recalling my own childhood, I considered that, yes, it must be a terrible experience.
Santa continued. “But Social Media, with its promise of connecting us into a circle of friends and followers, breaks that impersonality, and gives people the impression they’re part of a broader family of love and support. That is a wonderful thing.”
I decided to play Devil’s Advocate. “But Santa, this ‘family of love’ you refer to is a complete illusion! As you yourself said, it’s an ‘impression,’ not a reality. There is no family, just images on a screen, most of them from people you wouldn’t know if you bumped into them on the street. And in fact, Social Media actually and ironically is one of those ‘impersonal and dangerous forces’ you referred to earlier. It cuts people off from the real world and pushes them into a make-believe digital one.”
“Perhaps,” Santa mused, rubbing his beard between two chubby fingers. “But who are you to take away from the children that which gives them hope?” Suddenly, his voice sounded angry. “Say, you’re not one of those Social Media haters, are you? I ought to throw you right out of my sleigh!”
“No, no!” I insisted. We were over the North Atlantic. “I don’t hate Social Media. I use it all the time! But isn’t it weird, Santa,” I continued. “When we began this conversation, it was you who was dissing Social Media. Now, you’re defending it.”
“This is the twenty-first century,” Santa said. “You can’t expect me to be consistent.”
“You know, Santa, being of such strong opinions, you should start your own blog. You could go to the Bloggers Conference.”
“What’s that?” Santa inquired.
“It’s where the bloggers all go someplace together, drink a lot and try to get laid.”
“Sounds like my Elves’ break room,” Santa observed.
“And if you’re a really successful blogger,” I added, “it could pay off with a hefty ROI.”
“Hmm,” Santa replied. He seemed to be thinking. “You know, when I retire, my income will fall–and by the way, I don’t have a pension. That’s something Mrs. Claus is concerned with, because she likes the finer things in life. Don’t get me started on her American Express card! Oi. But I don’t know anything about blogging. Would you teach me?”
“Not really,” I demurred. “But Santa, there are many fine Social Media consultants who would be pleased to help you learn the tricks of the trade.” And here, I mentioned Mr. ___.
“Hah!” Santa snorted. “I know exactly who he is. Last Christmas, I delivered a book to him, ‘101 Ways to Make Money At Social Media.’ And #31 was “’Become a Social Media consultant, and then write a book on How to Make Money Using Social Media.’”
“Who sent him the book?” I asked.
“No one,” Santa grinned. “He ordered it from Amazon.” And at that, we both laughed so hard, it threw the startled reindeer off-course, and we found ourselves over Central Africa.
“You know, Santa, for an old guy, you’re pretty cool,” I told him.
“Thanks, young Jedi. For an upstart, you are, too.” And that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
GUS! Is probably the best known wine critic dog in California. Wherever I go, people ask me about him. So I figured it’s time to Spotlight Gus here on the blog, so his many fans can learn a little more about him.
Gus is about 4-1/2 years old. We met at the East Bay SPCA, here in Oakland. There was an immediate attraction on both sides, so we decided to live together. Although Gus is naturally shy, he agreed to this interview, which took place last Friday.
Steve: So Gus, do you like wine?
Gus: Yes, I do. I didn’t used to, but it’s pretty hard to live with you and not get into wine!
S: What are some of your favorite wines?
G: I like Chateauneuf-du-Pup, Chateau Pup-Clement and Puppynet Sauvignon.
S: What was your favorite wine-and-food pairing ever?
G: Remember that time when you gave me kibble mixed with chicken gizzards? I had an Italian Dogcetto that brought out all the smoky, meaty notes.
S: Do you read wine blogs?
G: I don’t know how to read, but if I did, I would read yours, of course. And I hear good things about 1WineDog.
S: Do you like visiting wineries?
G: That is my favorite thing! Usually there’s a nice doggie or two for me to play with. My favorite winery to visit is Frenchie, where they always make me feel special! But I had a very nice time visiting Martinelli and running around that Redwood forest.
S: What do you think of the 100-point system your Daddy uses?
G: I can’t count, but if Daddy likes it, then so do I!
S: Do you help your Daddy review wine?
G: Well, of course, that’s his job, not mine. However, I do like to sit in his lap while he’s tasting. Sometimes a drop of wine will spill on me and I like to lick it off.
S: Do you ever get drunk?
G: I don’t think so. What does that mean?
S: Like, you slobber and fall asleep on the floor. And sometimes you pee inappropriately.
G: Well, I do all those things anyway, so I guess I get drunk.
S: What do you think of social media?
G: It’s very nice, but you can’t eat it, so that limits its usefulness, as far as I’m concerned. And if the social media crowd doesn’t like my answer, they can rub my tummy!
S: What’s the best part of living with a wine critic?
G: Being with him 24/7!
S: And what’s the downside?
G: I don’t like it when he’s recycling those bottles. So noisy!
S: Besides your Daddy, who’s your favorite wine critic?
G: Jancis Doginson. Only I can’t afford her purple pages because my Daddy doesn’t give me any money.
S: What do you think of Parker?
G: Does he make bacon?
S: No, he’s from Monckton.
G: I never had any Monckton. I like bacon.
S: What’s the best wine to drink with bacon?
S: Gus, do you ever feel like you’re losing your mind?
G: Sometimes, but then I look at my Daddy and I feel pretty normal.
S: Do you help your Daddy come up with ideas for his blog?
G: I want him to change it from a BLOG to a DLOG. That’s much nicer, don’t you think?
S: Who’s the cook in the Heimoff household, you or your Daddy?
G: Well, Daddy prepares most of the food himself, but I help him keep the kitchen tidy by eating any little tidbits that fall to the floor.
S: Do you like the Riedel “O” or do you prefer a glass with a stem?
G: Actually, scientific research has proven that wine tastes best when it’s lapped up from a plastic bowl.
S: I did not know that.
G: Now you do.
S: How does it feel to be such a famous dog in wine circles?
G: I like it. I get lots of belly rubs. But don’t ask for my autograph, because I don’t know how to write!
S: Finally, Gus, if you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
G: That’s an easy one. Dogwood!
Dec. 18, 2039 – It’s a pleasant day here at the Cloudy Lees Home for Retired Wine Writers, or, as one of my less reverent pals (Jim Gordon, actually) dubs it, The Last Bastion of the Over the Hill Gang.
As far as senior citizen communities go, it’s not bad. We have morning swirling sessions to keep our wrists limber, and every Thursday afternoon there’s a distance-spitting contest that Wilfred Wong always wins, damn him. Then, at night, we gather around the electric heater to reminisce. Dan Berger tends to tell the same story every time, about when he tasted 2,000 Merlots in a single afternoon at the Riverside International Wine Competition, but then, he’s the oldest, so we cut him some slack.
Karen MacNeil just waddled by and said to say “Hi” to you all. She’s still her well-tailored self, although the red hair is now snowy white. She cackles more than she used to, although nobody knows quite why. We celebrated her 80th birthday the other day with a cake the kitchen made in the image of The Wine Bible. It was, needless to say, very rich and heavy.
Of course, not everybody is in good shape. You can’t expect that at this age! Poor Jim Laube, we almost never see him, except when Helen Turley drops by. Then Jim emerges from his penthouse suite—the most expensive in the place—on his walker, accompanied by Jancis Robinson. She’s a little dotty, and under the impression people still read the Purple Pages. But she’s awfully perky in that candy striper’s outfit. I never did find out how Jim and Jancis hooked up. Memo to self: Ask Jo Diaz. She knows everything.
One of my favorite times is when the volunteers visit to amuse us. Joe Roberts comes on Sunday afternoons (that is, if he’s not on some junket) for his weekly Wine Quiz. Now that he’s become a mime, he’ll describe a wine non-verbally, like in charades, and we’re supposed to guess what it is. He’s hysterical with words like “bubbly” and “tart” but really outdid himself with a Naked Chardonnay.
Then there’s Eric Asimov. Sadly, since his stroke, he thinks he’s Mimi Sheraton. He writes a daily column in our newsletter on the dining room. For example, yesterday he said the scrambled eggs “lacked clarity,” although he did like the cream of wheat for its “balanced hedonism.” Don’t get him started on the chicken a la king.
Every retirement community has a curmudgeon, of course, and you just know that here, it’s Paul Gregutt. He’s always muttering under his breath, scowling and fuming like Clint Eastwood about to shoot someone, but underneath all that, Paul’s a teddy bear. He leads us on our Wednesday night singalongs, playing old rock standards on the guitar. And if you ever need a doobie, Paul’s room is #203. (I didn’t tell you that!)
Jordan Mackay moved in last week. I think he’s the youngest resident. It’s nice to have new blood in the hood. All the old ladies lust after Jordan. It’s a little unseemly, if you ask me, to see Meredith May asking him every 5 minutes if he’d like “a little something from the pantry,” which I take to be a metaphor. But I have to admit, Jordan’s a cutie, even with the lobotomy scar.
Our Dean, if you will, is Pierce Carson. He’s been here since longer than anyone can remember. They say at first he was his usual funny self, cracking wry jokes and pinching the nurses’ tushes. But lately, he’s been kind of quiet. Every morning, the attendants wheel him over by the fern in the rec room, where he stays pretty much alone except for Gary Vaynerchuk, who replays episodes of “Wine Library T.V.” all day, which nobody else wants to watch.
The classiest retired critic in Cloudy Lees is Roger Voss. With his tweed sport jacket and elbow patches, not to mention that British accent, he’s our own royalty. Roger likes to preside over the Port service, where he insists the decanter be passed counter-clockwise, and gets quite cross if it’s not. He almost came to blows once with Matt Kramer. Matt, who unfortunately has bladder problems, said the counter-clockwise thing was “a myth” and tried to pass the Port clockwise. It was tense for a while, but Ron Washam told a few jokes and the next thing you know, everyone fell asleep, so all ended well.
It’s been nearly 4 years since I posted this gag video on my blog. I remember some of my friends telling me, “You can’t do that!” They thought it was demeaning for a professional wine critic to poke fun of himself and of the whole system of wine reviewing. However, I thought then, and still do, that we shouldn’t take much of anything in this world too seriously. If you can’t see the lighter side of things, then you’re wearing blinders.
The truth is, if I didn’t take wine tasting as seriously as I do, I couldn’t have made this video. Every time I issue a score, I completely understand it’s impacting somebody’s life. If it’s a good score, the winemaker will be happy and use it to sell cases. If it’s a bad score, it can hurt the winemaker economically. That’s the main reason to take the job seriously.
Another is because people read my reviews and believe them. I have therefore a responsibility to the public for my reviews to be as honest, accurate and transparent as they can be. There’s a bond of trust between a wine critic and his or her readers–a bond that must never be disrespected or violated.
I’m sure I could list other reasons for taking my job seriously, but the rationale of this post is to point out the lighthearted side of what I do. Wine reviewing is probably the easiest thing in the whole world to make fun of. It’s pretentious (or so the criticism says). It’s snobby. It uses elitist words to baffle people and make them feel stupid. It’s fundamentally anti-democratic in that it divides the world into a few “experts” and a lot of ignoramuses. And worst of all, say the critics, wine criticism is fundamentally flawed. It takes what is essentially one person’s opinion and elevates it, in an irrational and fundamentally dishonest way, above everyone else’s opinions, so that it achieves the quasi-religious status of revealed truth.
From a certain point of view, all of these critiques have some validity. Especially in a nation like America, where we like to believe that we’re all equal (whether it’s true or not), wine criticism can come across as the worst form of royalist baloney. And for someone like me, who sincerely believes in the first sentence of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, it is a little odd to find myself in the position of being “an authority.” It has never sat well with me and has always made me uneasy, but I’ve consoled myself with the thought (or maybe it’s a rationalization) that my self-doubt justifies the whole thing, or at least helps me keep things in perspective. I always liked Harry S. Truman, who on many occasions said that the only way he could think of himself as President without going off on some massive ego trip was to remember that he’d been a failed haberdasher. It was a constant reminder that he was no one special, just a guy with a job to do, who took that job seriously.
All this is by way of explaining why I made the video. (Actually, I should tell you that I made the video at the height of the Gary Vaynerchuk craze, and this was plainly satirical given his over the top video mannerisms.) There is a tendency in this country for people to elevate wine critics, especially the more famous ones, to godlike status, as if they can make no mistakes, as if everything they say came straight from the source. That is dangerous, and it seems to me that these same wine critics do little or nothing to dissuade people from lionizing them. I do believe that my wine reviews are authoritative, if for no other reason than that I’ve gotten good at this over the years. I do take reviewing very seriously. I take it humbly, too. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see the silly side.
Yes, it’s true. I’ve admired Hugh Johnson‘s country shack for years, ever since he invited me to stay there while attending Prince Andrew’s and Fergie’s wedding, back in 1986. Hugh and I go way back, to when we joint published Vintage: The Story of Wine. So when he decided to put Saling Hall up for sale, for the ridiculously giveaway price of only 2.8 million pounds sterling, I couldn’t say no.
For the time being, I’ll divide my time between my Oakland home,
my villa on Mustique,
and my Paris Pied-a-terre, which I bought in the 1980s with my first profits from wine writing.
I think I still own a condo in Abu Dahbi
but it’s been so long since I stayed there, I can’t remember. [Memo to self: check on status of Abu Dahbi condo.]
I never dreamed wine writing could be so rewarding when I first started. To tell you the truth, I didn’t set out to be rich. No, I started writing about wine because I loved (a) wine and (b) writing, so I decided to put the two together. I didn’t care at all about making money as long as I could pursue my dream career.
It’s funny, though, how sometimes, you get things you’re not even looking for! Here I am, all these years later, with homes all over the world, luxury cars,
and Hollywood starlets throwing themselves at me.
Little did I dream of all this wealth and happiness, but there you are. No wonder so many of these young bloggers want to succeed as a wine writer, the way I have. They yearn for the life I lead!
Once I move into Saling Hall I’m going to have to make it feel like my place, not Hugh’s. I was thinking of buying this little hat from Queen Elizabeth
and wearing it when I’m home. When I was over in London for Kate and Will’s nuptials, Liz told me I could have it for a mere 10.5 million pounds. (I think she and Phillip are a little short on cash following that expensive wedding.) I don’t have that much in my checking account, but I’ll just sell off a few of my older bottles of Romanée-Conti and Lafite to the Chinese. Which reminds me: I seem to recall buying this house in Beijing
with the royalties from my first wine book. Did I really, or am I just dreaming? [Memo to self: Look into Chinese real estate holdings.]