JOURNAL OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Aug. 1, 2056
It may be hard for today’s younger generation to believe, but once upon a time, the evaluation of wine was determined by people, not smart machines.
Weird, no? But it’s true, and you don’t have to go very far back to arrive at such a strange era. Barely 50 years ago, there was a class of mavens, “wine critics,” who were held in high esteem, especially by the privileged classes. These people occupied a position in wine selection more or less an equivalent to that of priests and gurus in matters religious and spiritual. Their followers gave the highest credence to their pronouncements and proceeded to organize their lives worshipfully according to their edicts.
In retrospect, we can see that this curious phenomenon represented a last vestige of a dying epoch: the false belief in authority, which peaked during the Dark Ages, and began eroding with the advent of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, only to be completely undone by the Internet. Why it should have taken so long for the era of the wine critic to begin its slow demise, though, is problematic. For, even as the privileged classes became more highly educated and rational, their irrational dependency upon the edicts of “wine critics” became more strongly entrenched. I leave it to modern-day psychologists to explain this.
Whatever the reasons, we can be thankful that a bizarre period has come to a decisive end. That it took smart machines, powered by artificial intelligence, to administer the final coup de grace was inevitable. Look at all the wasteful human practices that have been eliminated by the widespread application of A.I. We no longer depend on fallible humans to raise or instruct our children, or even give birth to them. Smart cars, buses, trains and aircraft take us swiftly and safely to and fro on our rounds, without human interference. Our farms and factories are guided by robots; fires are put out by intelligent devices and criminals are apprehended by automated policemen; surgeries are performed, not by tired, irritable humans, but by the most exquisitely trained doc-bots. Bots walk our dogs and scoop up their waste; bots catch our seafood from the ocean and even lately have learned how to shuck oysters. And, of course, the President of the United States is a robot, non-partisan and completely objective. Humans no longer have to toil behind counters, on assembly lines, or imprisoned within cruel cubicles; artificial workers can perform those tasks far more efficiently, without fatigue, complaint or boredom. Artificial intelligence has liberated us from the drudgeries and indignities that plagued our ancestors; included among these is the task of adjudging the quality of the drinks we ingest, including wine.
J.A.I. caught up with one of most famous wine critics of the old time, although he is long since retired. Mr. Steve Heimoff is 147 years old, but his brain is still young and vibrant, kept alert and nourished by caretaker drones, in a sunny, plant-filled solarium along the California coast. Mr. Heimoff had a distinguished career in the late part of the 20th and early 21st centuries. One of the towering giants of wine criticism of that period, he has been referred to as the “Einstein of wine reviewing,” and compared to Alexander the Great, George Washington, Mother Teresa and The Beatles. A great Heimoff review, the Wall Street Journal once reported, could sell 500,000 cases overnight, while a bad one could, and all too often did, bankrupt a winery. Such was the power of Heimoff: autocratic, absolute, pitiless.
We asked Mr. Heimoff if he regretted the end of the human wine critic era, and he replied, through his intelligent translation device, that he welcomed it. Early in his career, he had believed passionately in the wine critic hierarchy; only it, he felt, could weed objectively through the forest of wines and brands to arm the consumer with knowledgeable, independent information.
But, Mr. Heimoff added, by the second decade of the current century, he began to have his doubts. The “clergy of wine theocracy,” as he called it, began to crumble; far from being an elite priesthood, it became “a sort of subway church of the masses,” wherein anybody and everybody could claim to be a wine critic, in much the same way as individuals can purchase online “certificates of divinity” and call themselves “Reverend. That’s when I knew,” Mr. Heimoff attests, “that the old ways were forever gone.”
Of course, not all human activities have been replaced by A.I. devices. We still have human restaurant critics; smart machines have so far simply proven unable to review the dining experience. And, of course, “the world’s oldest profession” continues to be practiced by real, flesh-and-blood people. But, with the recent death of the oldest surviving human wine critic,” 1 Wine Dude, who still was practicing as recently as last June’s Trump Day, the practice of wine criticism—not just in America, but from China to the Moon colonies—is now reserved to smart machines.
I’m not big on blowing my own horn, but hey, if you don’t beat your own bush and shine a light on your own accomplishments, then who will? So, with these awkwardly mixed metaphors, I’m proud to announce that I have just been awarded the prestigious title of Master Sommelier!
I didn’t reveal to anyone that I was actually “going for it” because I feared it would be too embarrassing if I didn’t win. You know how it is with some people—they tell you how successful they are and how everybody else is a loser, and then, when they themselves lose, they have to eat some serious crow. Well, I’ve never been a fan of crow, serious or otherwise. But guess what, you losers and ugly people: I WON! Hahahaha. Or is it Bwahahaha?
It was hard going. First I had to qualify for the WSA, then the WSAT, then the WSIP and the WSIP-level II, then the WSOP and ASAP and FSOP, and after that the Beta-san Phlibit and the notorious Wackomole-46. The latter was particularly grueling as it included living for four months in Ughistan where I was sommelier in a restaurant frequented by the Russian mafia and recovering phlebotomists. Then when I passed my Beta-san Phlibit the Court of Master Sommeliers made me take the Service part of the exam standing on my head for 11 months while reciting Michael Broadbent’s Great Vintage Wine Book chapter and verse backwards and being molested by ardent butterflies. That was hard, no less because they wouldn’t let me bathe, and every six weeks Fred Dame came in to tickle me. If you think being tickled by Fred Dame is pure gastronomic pleasure then you’ve never been on a force-fed diet of wormwood and pflugets, which is all I had to eat.
Fortunately I survived the Service part and then it was onto Blind Tusting. This isn’t the same as Blind Tasting, which I passed easily, especially after paying off the examiner. Blind Tusting is hard, because you don’t know what you’re Tusting, and you don’t even really know the definition of Tusting, so it’s quite difficult to do it correctly. All I knew was that every once in a while somebody would yell at me “Bad Tust!” and then lights would flash and horrible sounds erupted and the hounds began to howl. But then I would do something and somebody would say “Good Tust” and I felt all, like, calm and secure, and then Fred Dame would come in and massage my feet. I got my Introductory Tuster certification, then from there went on to Certified Tuster, Advanced Tuster, Advanced Tuster II, Semi-Professional Advanced Tuster levels III, IV and V, and Super-Duper Nirvanic Tuster, which took me 15 years but I did it, gosh darn it, proving again that I Am Special.
But don’t think for a minute the Blind Tust test was the end, because it wasn’t! Far from it, my friends, far from it! There was the Evocation Schmevocation, the Allurid Vowels Competition and the Wine and Psychosis Pairing, where they lock you in a tea party ward for six years and you have to match the wackadoodles with wines from Bulgaria, Inkadinkadooland and West Bumfuck, and if you get it wrong, they turn off the power, take your clothes off and leave you at the tender mercies of….well, let’s just say Hieronymous Bosch would have painted it if he weren’t dead. Which is pretty much how I felt when the Court told me I was now qualified for the finals: The Feiroreticals.
OMG how I studied for that!!! Rainfall charts for the last thousand years in Rwanda, the pH of the soils in Brooklyn, the number of wigs Donald Trump owns, the typos in One Wine Dude’s posts…they even made me memorize every glass of wine Leslie Sbrocco ever described as “cheerful.” You enjoy watching old episodes of Check Please! ? Be my guest! Fortunately, I was told by an oldtimer that the Court no longer requires applicants to pass the Gary Vaynerchuk test, which apparently involves anti-emetics…I don’t know, and I don’t think I want to know.
On April 19, 2016, at 11:06 a.m. on a Friday morning, as Gus was dreaming (his little paws were twitching), I got the phone call from Fred Dame himself. “You’ve passed!”
Finally, after all this time! I thought, “Now, Fred will invite me to the Court,” which I imagined as a magical mystical castle, like in Disneyland, with Master Sommeliers flying like monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, and fountains of vintage Petrus, and servants (failed and embittered M.W. candidates) carrying platters of charcuterie and chocolate truffles. Like the Playboy Mansion, the Court in my fervid fantasies was a heavenly place of indulgence, hedonism and endless sexual pleasure.
It was disillusioning enough to find out that there is no actual “Court,” just a post office box in Napa. But even more disconcerting has been my discovery that job offers are not exactly pouring down from Heaven. I had thought that, now that I can add those sweet letters M.S. after my name, I could name my price and work for whomever I wanted. No such luck. It turns out that, with some 17,000 Master Somms in the U.S. and thousands more expected to be churned out of the pipeline in coming months, competition is intense. So I’ve been forced to take such work as is available. I can now tell you that, starting on Monday, I will be the Senior Intern at the Hosemaster’s blog. It’s not what I foresaw myself doing at my age…the money isn’t what I had hoped…I’m working out of a dumpster…but Washam is a kind man and supposedly not a mean boss. It’s a start.
Rule #1 about pricing: If you charge a ton of money for a food or beverage, people will assume it’s worth the price.
What aspect of human nature does this illustrate? I’m not enough of a psychologist, sociologist or anthropologist to say, but I know it’s true. They assume that Petrus is better than any other Bordeaux because it costs so much. They assume that Mast Brothers Chocolate is the best in the world because one Sea Salt Chocolate bar costs $10 at Dean and DeLuca.
And now, apparently, they’re assuming that a cup of coffee from Finca Sophia must be better than any other coffee in the world because it costs $15. Yes, a cup.
I haven’t tried it yet, but really, how good can it be? I consider myself something of a coffee connoisseur. I’ve had a ton of coffee, everything from Kona to Kopi Luwak, brewed in every conceivable way, and I have to tell you, there’s no way a cup is worth $15 unless what you’re enjoying has nothing to do with the coffee itself and everything to do with what’s happening in your brain, the seat of expectations, fantasy and self-delusion.
But buzz—the perception that you’re not hip unless you’ve done or had a particular thing–works. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Finca Sophia’s coffee is “already sold out” at the company’s Equator Coffee location, on 986 Market Street in San Francisco. Who would be buying it? Well, that part of Market Street is a little off the tourist path, but it’s not far from Blue Bottle Coffee, behind the Old Mint, a haven for local coders (and the people who love them), so I suspect Equator attracts the same crowd. And Twitter is located just a few blocks west, at 1355 Market. This stretch of mid-Market is, as all San Franciscans know, one of the hottest real estate areas in the city and a new mecca for young Millennials able and willing to buy $1.5 million studio condos or pay $6,500 a month rent for a one-bedroom flat.
Should we simply assume that coders all make $135,000 a year right out of college, are single and so have the discretionary income to spend on $10 chocolate bars and $15 cups of coffee? Not to mention $18 mojitos, $20 bars of soap, and whatever the going rate is for Pliny the Younger? It’s my impression that coders, who are after all just our era’s yuppies, feel like they might not even be alive in 10 or 20 years so they might as well carpe the old diem and spend all their money having fun today.
I went to @FincaSophia on twitter to see what the hip young caffeine-istas are talking about and couldn’t help pick up on the sense that the fascination has as much to do with wanting to keep up with the latest Big Thing. “Can’t wait [to try it],” tweeted somebody. “I found out about it too late,” tweeted another, who, apparently heart-broken, heard about Equator after they sold out. (They now say they’ve since received another shipment.) Tempting yuppies with Finca Sophia is like waving a red flag in front of a bull: you know they’re going to want the thing and will do anything they have to in order to get it.
And for what? I can’t believe that even a yuppie oozing discretionary income would spend that much for coffee on an everyday basis. Fine to try it once…it’s something to chat about. The convo might go like this:
Hey dude, y’know what I tried?
Enlighten me, dude.
That super-expensive coffee in the Chronicle? Far out, dude. So…?
Wow. Can’t wait to try it.
And so it goes.
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ABOUT OUR FOUNDER, GUS
After graduating from Harvard, M.I.T. and Stanford with degrees in economics, business and veterinary medicine, Gus moved to San Francisco, where he discovered SOCIAL MEDIA and quickly became one of the most sought-after dogs in town. Despite his busy schedule, he started SMOG in his condo. The results have been evident. Gus has won the American Wine Dlog Award for the last 17 years, and his Twitter followers number nearly 4 billion, more than even 1WineDude and the Geiko Lizard. He is the founder of doggiedoodoo.com, the leading canine social networking site in the world, and has been nominated for the Nobel Piss Prize.
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.