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New robot wine taster threatens real critics

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Following its success with a car that drives itself, I have learned, through my sources in Silicon Valley, that Google is secretly working on a robotic wine sensing machine, using artificial intelligence software that can mimic if not surpass the actual blind tasting abilities of the greatest wine critics.

The machine, which is said to physically resemble C-3PO, the robot from Star Wars, already has tasted more than 1,000 wines, without any form of human interaction, and correctly identified 99.87% of them.

The machine, which is nicknamed “Lobby” because it was conceptualized during a company party in Google’s lobby, also rates the wines it tastes, using the familiar 100-point system. Google programmed hundreds of thousands of scores from the world’s most famous wine critics, including Robert Parker and (ahem), myself, into Lobby’s database, using special algorithms that enable Lobby to search through it, seeking similar words and phrases, and assigning score numbers based on “hits.”

According to my source, the differences between Lobby’s scores and mine are “statistically insignificant.”

It’s not clear what Google plans to do with Lobby. My source, who is an engineer affiliated with the project, says the company is considering creating an online wine magazine using Lobby as its critic. Google then will argue that Lobby is actually better than a real, living wine critic, since he [it?] has no mind and cannot think, making him [it] immune to subjective factors.

According to the engineer, “Lobby is the perfect wine critic. He has the I.Q. of a penguin. He has no opinions, and in fact isn’t even conscious. All he can do is review wine. And he can do it all day and all night long, requiring only an occasional rinsing of his intake tube.”

The launching of Lobby represents, in the eyes of some analysts, Google’s long-awaited “second act” — the search for a major revenue source beyond the advertising its search product generates. With existing print wine magazines in a weakened position, and wine blogging having shown its inability to generate revenue, Google may be attempting to make a big play in the wine world. Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman/ceo, has been seen frequently in Napa Valley and in Bordeaux, and is known to have recently invested in Crushpad, the custom winemaking facility.

The amount of effort and resources poured into the development of Lobby suggests that Google is taking the machine very seriously. My engineer source also tells me that Lobby understands and can speak in eleven languages, including Mandarin, Urdu, Bengali, Hebrew, German and, of course, English. There are plans for a personalized wine reviewing application, MyLobby, that can be downloaded to a computer or cell phone. If the effort is a success, Schmidt has told insiders he plans to construct a new center on the Google campus; its main entrance will be called The Lobby Lobby.

“This project is still in the experimental stage, but it does provide a glimpse of what wine reviewing might look like in the future. The implications are staggering,” my source says. “Google wants to take over the world, and wine might be the way they do it.”


Judge rules that same-variety blends can be Meritage

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A federal judge, Helen T. Franzia, in San Francisco yesterday ruled that Meritage wines may no longer discriminate against wines made entirely from the same variety.

The case stems from a 1988 ruling by the Meritage Association, a wine trade and marketing group, that in order to qualify for a “Meritage” designation, a red or white wine must be made from a blend of designated grape varieties traditionally used in Bordeaux, France.

Six years ago, that rule was challenged by a Napa Valley winery, Chateau Newsom, which put the word “Meritage” on the label of a wine made from a blend of 100% Malbec grapes. The Meritage Association brought a lawsuit against the winery, alleging that it had proprietary rights to the word “Meritage,” and that only a wine made from a blend of two or more defined varieties could legally use the term. A lower court agreed, and forced the winery’s proprietor, Dr. Gavin Forceps, a noted opthamologist, to remove the labels.

Forceps appealed, and the case eventually made it to the California Supreme Court. After a lengthy trial, in which noted wine critic Robert Parker testified on behalf of the Meritage Association while the equally famous critic, James Laube, supported Chateau Newsom, the state’s high court ruled, in 2008, in the winery’s favor, overturning the lower court and affirming the right of a single-variety blend to the “Meritage” name. The Meritage Association in response put an initiative on the California state ballot, asking voters to overturn the Court’s ruling and instead approve the original requirement that a Meritage wine must be comprised of two or more traditional Bordeaux varieties. In Nov., 2008, voters passed Prop 888 by 52% to 48%.

Forceps, allied with a group calling itself Citizens United Against Discrimination in Grape Varieties, challenged Prop 888 in court. Yesterday’s decision by Judge Franzia, which upheld Citizens United, was hailed by Forceps as “a great victory for freedom.

“Never again will Malbec, or Petit Verdot or Muscadelle du Bordelais or any of the other Bordeaux varieties, have to feel they’re not good enough to stand by themselves in a Meritage blend,” Forceps said at a packed press conference held outside San Francisco City Hall, moments after the decision was handed down.

He added, “Finally, in the eyes of the law, all Meritage blends are equal — be they one-variety blends or multi-variety blends.”

Opponents of the ruling were disappointed, and promised that their fight is far from over.

“How can one unelected judge overturn the will of a majority of California wine lovers?” asked a well-known winemaker who produces a “cult” style Meritage wine. The man, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals from certain powerful critics, added, “We believe God ordained Meritage wines to be multi-variety blends, not an abomination made from a single varietal. That’s what it says in the Meritage Associations by-laws.”

The Meritage Association immediately vowed to appeal Judge Franzia’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeal. The case is likely to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, but not before dozens, and possibly hundreds, of single-variety wines are labeled as Meritage wines as early as next week.

And, to complicate matters, a spokesperson for the P.S. I Love You group, Jo Diaz, announced her organization is considering demanding that Petite Sirah be entitled to the “Meritage” designation. “Judge Franzia’s brave decision has opened the door,” Diaz said, adding, “There is no longer any justification for the Meritage Association to discriminate against any grape variety.”


Acclaimed wine critic killed in freak accident

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April 1 - Steve Heimoff, one of the most famous wine critics in the world, died when the stretch limousine he was riding in collided with a delivery truck carrying cases of wine. Police arriving at the scene pronounced Heimoff dead. He was 35 years old.

Heimoff had been on his way to the Wine Bloggers Conference, where he was scheduled to deliver the Keynote Address. Killed in addition to him were his driver, as well as the driver of the delivery truck.

The news stunned the wine industry. “We have lost one of the Immortals,” said fellow wine critic Robert Parker. “Steve blazed the trail, and the rest of us could only follow.” Another rising wine critic, James Laube, observed how rare it was for one of Heimoff’s kind to appear in the world. “He was definitely one of a kind. What a mind, what a palate, what a great writer. And so modest.”

Across the globe, winemakers honored Heimoff in their own ways. The Napa Valley Vintners observed a minute of silence. In Bordeaux, flags on the famous chateaux were lowered to half-staff, while along the Rhine River in Germany, wineries put black sackcloth over their windows. In Tuscany mourners filled Florence Cathedral and held a prayer vigil. At the New York restaurant Per Se, acclaimed chef Thomas Keller prepared a new oysters and pearl dish named Bijoux d’Heimoff. The Court of Master Sommeliers posthumously named Heimoff an M.S. while the Institute of Masters of Wine gave him the prestigious M.W. honor, their first ever to somebody dead. There are rumors that the Society of Wine Educators was considering making Heimoff a Certified Specialist of Wine, but a phone call to that organization resulted in a no-longer-in-service recording.

Common people were grief-stricken. Joe Roberts, a wine blogger who had a luncheon appointment with Heimoff for the next day, was in tears as he said, “Steve was my mentor, my hero. I think of Charlie Olken as my Dad, but Steve was more like my bro.” Roberts noted the irony of Heimoff’s death being caused by a collision with a wine delivery truck. “And to die like that, literally being drowned by over-oaked Chardonnay! I mean, how bizarre is that?” The truck contained a shipment of Charles Shaw Chardonnay, commonly known as Two Buck Chuck. It was on its way to a Trader Joe’s outlet just a short distance from Heimoff’s Oakland residence.

A memorial service is scheduled to be held at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. That city’s Mayor, Gavin Newsom, an old friend of Heimoff’s and himself a vintner, will deliver the eulogy. Also expected to speak are Heimoff’s ex-wife, Jancis Robinson; his former business partner, Anthony Dias Blue; and celebrity talk show host Gary Vaynerchuk. Following the service, a torchlight parade will make its way from Union Square to the peak of Mount Everest, which the Nepalese government has renamed Mount Steve. And vintners from 42 wine-producing countries announced early this morning that they will call 2010 the “Heimoff Vintage” in commemoration of the late, great critic.

Heimoff’s family requests that donations in his memory be made care of this blog. Checks or money orders only, please.


Monday twofer

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1.

I was not surprised to hear yesterday that someone is taking on the New World (Australia, Chile, California) for global wine dominance in the value tier. After all, we’re in a recessionary time when all the cards are being reshuffled and recut, and who knows who will emerge on top. Nor was it surprising to learn who the potential usurper is: France’s Languedoc-Roussillon! All the 2,700 winemakers in that huge district — which covers 35% of France’s vineyard acreage — will now be able “to label their wine for the first time with the grape variety, vintage and location.” That will enable them to compete in the New World, where consumers look for wines with varietal names, like Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s why a top Languedoc official said, “It will help us a lot with the American market.”

That’s hundreds and hundreds of millions of bottles of wine, and a lot of it is going to cost under $10, giving stern competition to inexpensive California brands and New World imports.

Let’s back up and get philosophical. Since the recession began, we’ve assumed that the most expensive wines are in trouble. They are, but that doesn’t mean the bottom of the market is safe. You have only to look at Australia to see that. Nobody knows if and when the recession will lift and recovery return. But we know this: this announcement from the Languedoc-Roussillon is a shot across California’s bow, a warning signal that powerful interests in the European Union are moving in for their share of the loot.

2.

Announcing the first ever Wine Bloggers Conference on Wine Writing

The world already has a Wine Bloggers Conference and a Wine Writers Conference, but what we don’t have is a Wine Bloggers Conference on Wine Writing (or WBCoWW, pronounced “web-cow”). I’m not sure how this ended up falling between the cracks, but it did. Probably because everybody’s so darned busy blogging, tweeting and monetizing, not to mention going to conferences, that nobody noticed.

Why a Wine Bloggers Conference on Wine Writing? Why now? And why me? Answers:

1. Because it’s needed.
2. If not now, when?
3. It’s my karma, which was never all that great.

I doubt if we can get Meadowood again — too pricey, and besides, the proctologists have it booked the third week of July (I checked), which is the only time I can make it. Even if we could afford a little room, I wouldn’t want to be sharing that Meadowood campus at night on those dark, creepy paths with a bunch of probing ass doctors, especially if I’ve been drinking, which I will. There are several AAA-approved motels in the Vallejo/AmCan area we could probably afford. And speakers. We need speakers. 1WineDude, are you free the week of July 15? I know you’re crazy busy, and we’ll need to book you months in advance. Have your people get in touch with mine. Alder Yarrow, any chance you’ll chair the panel on “How to chair a panel”? There may be a syndication deal. I think I can get you Jancis Robinson, or, at least, a Jancis lookalike (I know one from San Francisco). Parker said nyah, nyah, but he didn’t say nyah, nyah, nyah your mother wears combat boots, so maybe he’ll come. (Memo to Morton Leslie: please prepare for me a draft of winery-media relations as they have developed from the late 18th century into the digital age.) There’s some hope the Coppolas will come. Every wine conference needs a little glamor, which is why God created Karen MacNeil.

For our breakout session I suggest a rousing game of Truth or Dare, libations to be provided by whichever winery underwrites web-cow with the most funding. In this game, players ask embarrassing questions of each other, and challenge each other to do embarrassing things. For example, Heather John might dare Charlie Olken to lapdance in a bikini with Eric Asimov while blind tasting without spilling a drop onto Eric’s khakis, and The Hosemaster (should he attend the festivities, which is not at all clear) might raise the ante by daring all the bloggers to rate CO’s performance on a 100-point scale, or else risk having Charlie lapdance on them. (Try not to visualize.) It’s great fun, and could give new meaning to the word “Gewurztraminer.” By this time we should all be relaxed and harmonized enough to attend our second panel, which Jim Laube has graciously agreed to come out of hiding and chair. (Memo to self: Does he still look like his old WS picture? Find out.) It is entitled, “What would happen to the 100-point system if all the 100-point critics in the world suddenly disappeared, the way all the women did in Philip Wylie’s 1951 novel, ‘The Disappearance’”? When Jim proposed this topic, I thought it was a little un-P.C., but it does win the award for the world’s longest panel title, and should garner lots of media coverage, especially in Cigar Aficienado. It also raises the issue of: If Tish were armed with weapons of mass destruction, would he use them and, if so, upon whom? My personal opinion is that the 100 point system will not die with the death of its critics, but will long outlive them; and, in fact, numerically rate their demises. As long as I’m still here to participate in the debate, I’m content.


Imagining a world without wine critics or scores

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Following yet another violent attack on the “bondage to rating systems” and so-called critics trying to “enhance their self-image as experts,” the U.S. Congress passed, and the President signed, legislation outlawing the 100-point system as well as “adjectival diarrhea” of the type that pollutes wine reviews.

From now on, in the President’s words, “No numbers, letters, puffs or symbols of any kind will be tolerated in wine reviews, nor will hifalutin phrases nobody can understand. They are un-American and have no place in our society.” However, numbers may still be applied to beer reviews.

Within hours after the new law went into effect, some well-known wine writers committed suicide. The first was Robert Parker, who received the news on his iPhone while at the top of Chateau Latour’s famous tower, from which he jumped to his death. Later that day, Wine Spectator’s James Laube was found slumped over a bottle of Marcassin. He allegedly left a note saying that “Life isn’t worth living if I can never give another 100-point rating to an undrinkable wine.”

Wine Enthusiast’s California reviewer, Steve Heimoff, told reporters that he had considered suicide but rejected it. “I’ve reinvented myself before and I can do it again,” he said, adding that he was considering a new career “in Cirque du Soleil, if they’ll have me, or possibly as a politician.”

Passage of the new law caused consternation in the infamous “Wall of Wine” aisles of major supermarkets. Mrs. Penny Waddlesworth, of Port St. Lucie, Florida, was weeping in the local Piggly-Wiggly. “I don’t know how to make a selection without an expert score to guide me,” she said, adding that her husband’s boss was coming to dinner “and I don’t want to embarrass myself by choosing a bad wine.”

Penrose P. Puffington, Ph.D., a clinical psychiatrist from Los Angeles who specializes in addiction and depression, said it is likely that psychotherapists will see an uptick in clients frustrated by their inability to choose wines. “It’s like suddenly taking heroin away from an addict. Millions of consumers have effectively been thrown into critical ‘cold turkey.’”

Roger Addlesworth, a spokesperson for Safeway, said the food chain giant was considering hiring temporary “wine buddies” to advise confused shoppers. Wilfred Wong, the eTasting Director at Beverages, & More!, said that the chain would respect the new law and stop using numerical ratings. “But our lawyers have advised us that the phrase ‘numbers, letters, puffs or symbols of any kind’ does not necessarily preclude subtle hints [that] alert customers to our real feelings about the wines we sell.” Wong refused to speculate about what those “subtle hints” might be.

Others celebrated the new law, stating it will enable bad wines to finally be able to compete with good ones. Elwood Nadir, the owner/winemaker at Beauty Ridge Vineyards, in Arkansas’s Cummingsworth Valley, noted that his wines had never scored above 62 points in the Wine Spectator. “That was really bad for business, but now that there are no more scores, we hope to be able to give Chateau Lafite a run for the money.” Nadir has engaged a top public relations firm to create a press kit, and also recently hired a Director of Social Media to reach out to Millennials and create “buzz.” “I don’t think those kids ever cared much for scores anyway,” he said.

He may be right. Arthur Azimuth, a media analyst for the Wine Institute who advises the San Francisco-based wine organization’s clients on how to Twitter and use Facebook, said that Millennials see scores “as so 20th century. The 100-point system was for your father, if not your grandfather. Young people today are all about peer advice and recommendations from friends.”

Napa Valley’s cult winemakers, however, are not amused. Said one, who did not wish to be identified due to the sensitivity of the subject, “We’ve depended on Parker-Spectator 95-plus scores for years to justify our $250 a bottle price. This new law is biased against me and people like me.” The winemaker said he is talking with some of his cult winery colleagues about challenging the law before the U.S. Supreme Court. “Our lawyers have advised us we have a good case,” he said.

A spokesman for the American Bar Association, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that the new law, like all laws, will be good for lawyers. “Whatever happens, lawyers end up the winners. I would give  this new law 100 points,” he said, smiling.


Who’s California’s hottest winemaker?

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We have wine competitions and restaurant competitions and wine list competitions and wine blog competitions and chef competitions and winemaker competitions and every kind of competition you can think of in the wine and food world. Now we have the U.S. Professional Wine Buyer’s Competition.

It’s a forum for marketers (wineries) to get their product, wine, “in front of top wine buyers from all over the nation,” which is the equivalent of giving a college pitching pheenom the chance to show his stuff to MLB scouts.

The winery pays the contest’s owners $75 per wine and gets to pour for buyers from the likes of PlumpJack (that’s Gavin Newsom’s company), the Ritz Carlton, Whole Foods and the Playboy Mansion. Landing a deal with any of them could be the difference, in this lousy economy, between making a profit or taking a loss.

Neat idea. I bet a ton of wineries will enter, thereby giving the competition’s owners a hefty profit. So I set about thinking, what segment of the wine and food industry doesn’t yet have a competition? Can I horn in on the competition bubble and grab my share of the booty? So my fertile little mind immediately comes up with an idea.

First, I figured, why not have a literal wine buyers’ competition? Take these frontline buyers and let ‘em do gladiatorial mortal combat with each other, maybe in a caged, UFC-style arena. After all, everybody always says that selling wine these days is a bloodbath. So let the actual buyers bash each other and draw blood!

But no. Not such a good idea. So herewith, I am announcing a new competition, of which I am sole owner and sponsor. Ladies and gents [drum roll], it’s….

America’s Hottest Winemaker Competition

in 2 divisons, male and female.

I don’t know if you realize, but there are some pretty good-looking winemakers out there. Think about it. Winemaking is a laborious job, physically-speaking, what with stomping through all those vineyards, dragging hoses, climbing ladders and scampering up to the top of a four-barrel pile to thief off a pour. Winemakers are forever driving their pickups into town to buy a clamp, and when they’re not making wine, they’re traveling all over the place selling it. As a result, many winemakers have lean, mean, muscled bodies (we’re talking about gals as well as guys). They’re tanned from time in the sun, with the ruddy look of farm kids. Which, actually, they are.

I never asked a good-looking winemaker if he/she was aware of his physical attractiveness and used it as a marketing plus, but, come on, can we talk? Happens all the time. I am envisioning a particular male winemaker right now whose face and body are used in print advertisements precisely because of his Hollywood good looks. We all know that good looks in politicians are almost a requirement. Mitt Romney tried to ride his square-jawed whiteboy cutsie-pie face all the way to the White House. Gavin Newsom was twice elected Mayor of San Francisco because he looks like a younger Mitt Romney (despite his addiction to hair gel). There is a certain female winemaker, also heavily used in print advertisements, who has one of the most toned bodies I’ve ever seen. It’s basic advertising 101: People would rather buy a product from someone who’s good-looking than from someone who’s ugly.

So let’s get to the bottom line: Who are the hottest winemakers out there? Inquiring minds wanna know.

Here are the contest rules:

– California only. As the competition grows, we’ll expand it to the West Coast, then the U.S., then the world!

– $1,000 per entry fee.

– Send a face and body picture (clothed, please) to me.

– I’ll line up some celebrity judges to give the thing buzz.

– We’ll put up a YouTube. If you don’t think we’ll get a billion views, you’re crazy. (And think of the P.R. for the winning winery!)

– There will be a talent portion and a swimsuit portion.

– The top twelve winners get to pose in the “Hottest Winemaker” calendar of 2011.

– No. 1 winners (male and female divisions) get the Mr./Ms. Hottie Trophy and the chance to audition for a leading T.V. series.

I’ll be posting updates, including deadlines, so keep watching this blog!


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