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Some execs are “worried,” but really, there’s nothing to worry about wine’s future

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Nobody asked, but here’s my two cents on “top Golden State vintners [express] concern about the future of the $23.1 billion industry, especially among the discerning millennial market.”

That’s from Tuesday’s Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which reported on “a UC Davis survey of 26 senior executives” in the state, and found that “Everyone was a little bit worried.” Those execs included Joseph Gallo, from you know who, Jay Wright (Constellation) and my own boss, several levels up, Rick Tigner.

Seems the chief worry is “the intrusion into the wine category of spirits and craft beers,” according to the guy who conducted the survey, the well-known emeritus of Davis’s Graduate School of Management, Robert Smiley (who I had the pleasure of interviewing numerous times during my magazine days).

What do the execs base their impressions on? One of them said more “people are starting out with craft beers and then as dinner goes they switch over to wine.” I suppose this does “rob” the industry of that extra glass of sold wine. I like to start the evening out with a cold IPA, especially when the weather is warm, but that doesn’t stop me from consuming my share of wine. Still, I can see that if the theoretical consumer used to drink three glasses of wine at night, and is now drinking just two, with a bottle of beer making up the difference, that represents a 33% decrease in consumption.

Another exec wrote that he and his wife “have been having more cocktails than we’ve ever had in the past…”. That too, the exec speculated, “is maybe taking a little bit of the wine-by-the-glass business away.”

Then there’s the liquor store owner who said,“Ten years ago we were about 70 percent wine. Now we are down in the 60s.” Even with increased wine sales in the U.S., the execs are troubled by this nibbling away at the margins.

I have several reactions. One is that, after following this industry for more than 30 years, I’ve seen multiple times when winery execs were afraid that the sky was falling. It never did. Here in California, we’re coming off several boom production years (despite the drought) and quality has never been higher. Profits seem to be up everywhere at well-run companies, the mood is optimistic among employees, and with all the bashing California wine gets from certain quarters, it remains the best seller in America. Prices continue to rise, and where wineries are holding the line, they’re feeling pressure to increase—if only slightly—the cost of cases. That wouldn’t be happening if wineries felt truly threatened.

It is true that beer and spirits consumption is on the rise, but my feeling is that we’re becoming more of an alcohol-drinking country, so a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s also true, as I’ve insisted for years, that wine is fundamentally different from beer and spirits. Wine signifies aspiration. Beer never did; it signified only getting drunk. Neither did spirits signify anything, except a quick buzz at the end of the work day. Now, that is changing, because the craft beer and spirits producers have stolen from wine the concepts of lifestyle and aspiration that have always fueled wine. It is now possible to drink (as I do) great craft beer and spirits and appreciate them, not only for alcoholic punch, but for complexity, deliciousness and even (dare I say it?) intellectual interest. But I still believe aspiration goes along more with wine than any other drink. And America is an aspirational country.

What then for the wine industry? It can’t become complacent. It has to continue to appeal to its existing consumers, and not alienate them, as it learns how to reach out to younger Millennials. The messages and the products therefore must be extremely well-thought out and crafted with precision. But successful wine companies know how to do that. Believe me, they’re working overtime figuring this stuff out. If I were a betting man, which I’m not, I’d put my chips on the wine industry. Spirits seem to come and go in America; their fundamental problem is that they’re simply too strong for millions of people to drink on a regular basis, throughout the meal, for the rest of their lives. Beer always stays popular, but it’s craft beer that’s got all the excitement now, and craft breweries are small; they do not, I think, represent a threat to the wine industry in the long run, although some stores are giving them increased shelf space.

Wine, by contrast, has staying power. There’s a reason it’s been top beverage in the western world all these centuries, and is now becoming top beverage in the developing world, too. Human nature doesn’t change; wine is more consonant with human nature’s aspirational elements than either beer or spirits. It’s the Goldilocks of alcoholic beverages: not too strong, not too weak, just right. Am I an admitted booster? You bet. But that doesn’t make me wrong.


Lessons Mayacamas and Inglenook (may) teach us

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I must admit that I find the ongoing industry-wide conversation about ripeness levels to be the most confounding I’ve been involved in, lo these many years.

Where did it start, anyway? I suppose it’s been going on for decades, in one form or another. Even before the launch of In Pursuit of Balance, which seems concerned mainly with Pinot Noir, there were hints of this brouhaha all the way back in the Seventies, with Cabernet and Chardonnay. It’s actually a question of style, not just alcohol level: and questions of style are never fully arbitrated.

A recent interesting example is in David Darlington’s (well written) story of the reinventions of both Inglenook and Mayacamas, in the June issue of Wine & Spirits. (“Napa’s New Old School”) The story teaser suggests that David “digs deep into the question,” hinting at some resolution for those of us who are scratching our heads at what’s going on. But there is no resolution to be had, only more wonderment, which is not David’s fault at all. The problem is the setting up of artificial sets of parameters, with an expectation that one set is correct and the other wrong, and the corresponding assumption that simple changes and fixes will solve the “problem” of overripeness.

Were it only that simple.

It is naive to the point of foolishness to think it’s all a matter of picking the grapes “less ripe or more ripe.” In interviews, both Francis Coppola and Charles Banks confess as much, although not in so many words. As any writer would, David tries his hardest to get them to come out and say something definitive, like Charles saying, “Bob Travers picked the grapes when they were still green. We’re going to let them get riper.” Or Francis saying, “Scott McLeod picked the grapes too ripe, so we’re going to pick them leaner.” No such luck.

That’s because neither Charles Banks nor Francis Coppola knows what to tell their new winemakers to do—and their new winemakers (Andy Erickson and Phllippe Bascaules, respectively) also don’t really know what to do. How could they? It takes an estate decades if not centuries to find its way. Although Mayacamas dates to the 1940s (or the 1960s depending on which ownership you choose to start the count at), the assumption in the critical industry is that Mayacamas lost its way under Bob Travers, a good man who just didn’t have enough money to turn things around, and so lost traction. The other assumption, concerning Inglenook, which dates to the 1800s, is conceded by Francis Coppola: that although he was making 90 point-plus wines, Rubicon never achieved the status of First Growth of Napa, according to the critics. So while Francis says he disdains point scores, his shakeup at Rubicon/Inglenook suggests that he really doesn’t.

Myself? I had more respect than love for Mayacamas; in this business, you have to take your hat off to a winery that’s been around for so long—and has done things so consistently honestly. I did like Rubicon, quite a bit—enough to buy a case of the 2002, which I rated 98 points. But other critics didn’t seem to care for it as much as I did, so Francis turned to Philippe, whom he got from Margaux, in hopes of a shakeup. (At least, by his own recounting, he didn’t hire Michel Rolland.)

Philippe confesses he had “no data” when he arrived at Inglenook (he now has three vintages under his belt), and is trying to steer a middle course between overripeness (he says he finds too many Napa Cabs “taste like Port”—an IPOB-style criticism). His goal is “to reduce alcohol levels,” but he is frank enough to state he doesn’t really know how to go about it; and it sounds like he certainly doesn’t want to do it with technology. You can’t just pick at 23 degrees Brix, the way Inglenook did in the old days, because everything—rootstocks, density, trellising, perhaps even the climate—is different. “I don’t want to do exactly what Inglenook did in the 40s and 50s,” Philippe says. Precisely: he couldn’t, even if he wanted. This is why Coppola, his employer, peers far into the future and concludes, “I don’t necessarily expect to give full blossom to Inglenook in my lifetime.” The critics will just have to wait.

As for Mayacamas, Charles Banks echoes Coppola. “We’re not doing this for short-term gain.” What is this “this” to which he refers? Will the team pick the grapes riper than Bob Travers did? If lean, underripe wines used to be the problem, the solution should be obvious. But Banks hedges his answer. “I am [as] opposed to pruney, stemmy wines as others are to herbaceousness. At the same time, I don’t want green, harsh, underripe tannins.” Well, who would? The Mayacamas team may be crossing their fingers in hopes that other modernizations—replanting with closer spacing, newer clones, tinkering with trellising regimes, extensive winery investment—will help them avoid having their hands forced regarding picking decisions. But the answer, as at Inglenook, will not be known for a long time.

The good thing about these conversations about ripeness levels is that we’re having them. The bad news is that we’re having them—at least, with such passionate irresolution. The game is largely driven by critics, whom proprietors and winemakers privately say they loathe; yet nobody dares to ignore them. The result is a kind of navel-gazing, similar to the wine blogging world, where content-poor wine bloggers blog about—wine blogging.

Everybody (well, almost everybody) complains about California wine tasting “like port,” but nobody wants to make a Cabernet that tastes like a boiled bell pepper. Nor do people necessarily want to hold onto their wine for twenty years. Everybody talks about finding the sweet spot, but nobody seems to know exactly where it is, or even how to recognize it if they were knee-deep into it. (And variable vintages don’t help them find it.) The discussion has turned into an echo chamber, where everybody has taken a side, and listens only to people who speak their language—like cable T.V. news shows, there’s a lot of cacophony and very little harmony.

There’s no way to turn the conversation off. Now that it’s started, we’ll have to let it run its course, like a storm, and hope it doesn’t do too much damage.


Wednesday wraparound: Fred Franzia, more post-WBC14 opinionating, and “the tipping point”

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Not sayin’ that Fred Franzia is on the same enlightened level as the Dalai Lama, but it seems to me that HuffPo’s Chris Knox came down on him a little strong—even for a medium (the blog) that’s known for snark.

“Trash-mouthed, unapologetic [and] downright crude”? Well, I don’t think Fred ever graduated from charm school, but he’s not as bad as all that. I’ve known him—not well, but some—over the years, and I’ve managed to find affection for him, even though he’s done one or two crummy things to me. But I’ve done crummy things to people, too, so as usual, the Golden Rule applies. Fred, like it or not, is a product of his time and place—besides, someone once said that people who swear a lot are more honest, and there’s a lot of truth to that.

More important is Chris Knox’s j’accuse! against Two Buck Chuck. Now, I can’t say I have any idea if the wines contain (as Chris alleges), “animal blood and parts” (I should think the FDA, or whoever the relevant government agency is, would be up on that). But I can say that I respect Fred, and Bronco, his company, for making wine that anybody can afford to drink—and varietal wines, at that. I think we all agree that the most important thing for the wine industry is to get more people drinking. Two Buck Chuck does that; Petrus doesn’t. So kudos to Fred, from my point of view.

* * *

Kudos, too, to Joe Roberts AKA 1WineDude, for telling it like it is yesterday on his blog. I was kind of at Ground Zero of all the post-WBC14 grousing and blather, and I really wasn’t in the mood to put my [strong] thoughts into words, so I refrained, except in a few private exchanges. But Joe, bless his heart, who perhaps has garnered some credibility in the world of Millennial bloggers, let ‘er rip. The comments on his blog—104 and counting, as I write this—make for fascinating reading on their own. My fave: did the panelists (those accomplished online/print writers that happened to be middle-aged white dudes) miss an opportunity, or, did we bloggers miss the opportunity?” Joe deserves credit for his courageous, truthful expression of the facts.

* * *

Some of us were talking the other day about how a new winery/brand reaches “the tipping point,” in terms of popularity and success. One suggestion was that, to a certain extent, this can be stage-managed, through smart, creative marketing, promotional and sales efforts—although admittedly, that can be expensive. Another point of view is that tipping points occur serendipitously. You can’t make them happen, no matter how much money you spend (as any number of billionaires who have run for California governor over the years, and embarrassingly lost, well know). All that the expenditure of money (on media events, etc.) can do is increase the winery’s chances of being noticed by “the right people.” That is indeed important—but beyond that, there’s still the element of magic. Moreover, a winery can “hit it” for a brief period of time—Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame—but staying relevant is a lot harder. If there was a formula, or template, for reaching “the tipping point,” everyone would know it. But there isn’t.

* * *

Finally, a link to another blog, today’s edition of “Juicy Tales by Jo Diaz,” in which she expresses points of view I pretty much agree with. And with that, I’ll wish you all a good day!


If there’s a “new wine style,” what is it?

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“A shift in the consumer base,” fueled by “a new wave of innovation in global wine styles”: that’s what Rabobank, one of the the nation’s biggest lenders to wineries, is talking about, in their latest report on the wine industry.

And when Rabobank talks, wineries listen. Every winery in the country—certainly every winery I know in California—is obsessed with predicting the future, for if there is indeed “a new wave…in global wine styles,” wineries want to know about it. What is this “new wave”? What is the shift going to consist of? Most importantly, what new “wine styles” are consumers going to be looking for?

To begin to understand the future, it’s necessary to know the past, for nothing happens without lots of things that have already happened making it happen. So let’s take a look at the past, to see if it helps us comprehend the future.

We know what “wine styles” the consumer likes now, for the consumer votes with his wallet. You might loosely call it “Californian.” People like ripe, fruity wines, red and white. They like varietal wines (notwithstanding this current gaga about red blends). And, here in America, they like wines from California.

But it hasn’t always been so. The last time there was a true “shift in wine styles” was more than a generation ago. That’s when Americans started drinking more dry wine than sweet (those silly Sauternes and Rhine wines). It’s also when they decided that varietal wines were more upscale. Since California led the nation in the production of dry varietal wines, it’s no wonder that consumers gravitated toward California wine.

Let’s go further back in history. Before the era I just described (some call it the boutique winery era), America had been mired, for another 30 or 40 years, in that sweet wine era (if they drank wine at all, which not many did). Prohibition was, of course, the dead hand that had interrupted the country’s vinous progression. So what was happening before that? Again, not many people drank wine—but those who did drank good wine, from Europe and from California. It may not have had varietal names, but in many cases it was made from proper vitis vinifera varieties.

So we’re had three distinct eras since the 19th century: one, when a few Americans drank good wine; a second, when more Americans drank bad wine; and a third, the current, when lots of Americans are drinking good wine again, mostly from California, but in reality from all over the world. So if we’re in for a global shift in wine styles, what could it be?

Well, first, the timing is right: America seems to change its preferences every 30 o4 40 years, so, if you date the current era to the boutiques of the 1960s, we’re ripe for a change, maybe even a little overdue. If things do change, then today’s preference—remember, it’s for ripe, fruity wines from California—will have to change to something else. But what could that be?

We’re not going back to a liking for sweet wines, believe me (although a great off-dry Riesling, a sweet late harvest white wine or a red Port are earthly delights!). Therefore, consumer preference is likely to remain with dry wines. What, then, about fruitiness? I can’t see that changing either, for at least three reasons: one, fruitiness is an ingrained taste: not only humans like fruitiness, but birds and animals, too. Two, the world palate has shifted away from lean, angular wines to riper, rounder wines, and no matter how many articles get written about the low alcohol fad, that’s not going to change. Third, if we are indeed in a time of global warming (as indeed the Bordelais themselves believe, and as seems to be an increasingly credible belief in Napa Valley), then it will be awfully hard to produce wines of the type of old-style Bordeaux, when alcohol levels barely exceeded 12 percent, tannins were gigantic, and the wines took decades to come around.

So what options do we have? Precious few. Dry, fruity wines are what seems likely to remain. Of course, we could turn away from wine altogether: America could become a cocktail drinking country, a beer drinking country, or—heaven forbid!—a dry country. But none of those options is likely. Wine has been at the center of western culture for millennia; it’s now becoming so in Asian culture; wine is not going anywhere.

So the Rabobank prediction has to be taken with a certain latitude. There won’t be any major “new wave of innovation on wine style.” That’s bank-study language: the people who write this stuff have to come up with sexy sound bites in order to make headlines. What’s more likely is that the trend of the last three-plus centuries will continue. The world’s love of noble varieties—Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Syrah—will continue, despite short-term shifts, every few decades, in the particulars. A few oddballs will succeed at the margins—Muscat is the classic example—but they don’t have staying power. The major varieties Americans love won’t change. Zinfandel will go in and out of style, as the press dictates—but the great producers always will be in demand among the cognoscenti. Beyond that, I just can’t see any huge new intrusions of other varieties.

It looks to me like, far from Rabobank’s prediction of “a new wave of innovation in global wine styles,” we’re looking at a continuation of what is. What will determine who makes it, and who doesn’t, isn’t so much a question of style, as of marketing, communications, consistency, value, consumer engagement, distribution, success in direct-to-consumer, sales expertise—in other words, the fundamentals of good business practice. There is, indeed, “a new wave of innovation,” but it’s not a stylistic one, it’s innovation in the way wineries interact with, and respect, the consumer.


Pssst: Wanna buy a restaurant reservation?

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Ever get frustrated about not being able to get a restaurant reservation when you actually want one?

Happens to me a fair amount. My go-to restos tend to be in Oakland, since that’s where I live: Ozumo, Pican, Bocanova, Lungomare, among others. But so popular are these places that you really need to make your reservations far in advance—unless you’re willing to dine before 6 or after 9, which for the most part I am not. I like eating dinner at the normal hours of 7-8 p.m., but so does everyone else: hence, the difficulty. (The problem is worse in San Francisco. Try getting a 7:30 table at Boulevard. Good luck!)

Of course, I can always go to a non-reservation restaurant. We have some nice ones in my neighborhood: Boot & Shoe Service, the new Captain & Corset, and Hawker Fare. But that presents its own problems, namely, lines! I pretty much have a firm policy of not standing in line waiting for a table to open up.

Dining should be a pleasant experience; we should be able to eat where and when we want to. But that’s not reality. So some entrepreneurial types have discovered a new way to make money in the San Francisco Bay Area: they get reservations at in-demand restaurants, and then sell them online.

I first heard about this practice a while ago, when I read this article about reservationhop.com, a startup that makes reservations at San Francisco’s most popular restaurants and then sells them back to the public ‘for as little as $5’”, according to the S.F. Chronicle. But reservationhop is hardly the only new business trying its hand at the reservation-selling game. Table8 also is doing it: when I went to their website yesterday, they were selling reservations for such ultrachic places as Acquerello, Foreign Cinema, Waterbar, The Slanted Door and, yes, Boulevard (for up to $25 a shot!). The online S.F. site, Eater, quotes Table8’s founders as claiming “their offering actually levels the playing field for ‘normal’ people, allowing them the chance to get into a hot restaurant without advance planning.” That is true, I suppose; but you have to be a fairly well-to-do “normal person” to be able to afford to eat at one of these places plus pay a double-digit fee! (I don’t suppose you have to factor the reservation fee into the tip, do you?)

As you’d expect in a contentious town like San Francisco, there’s been some blowback against the reservation sellers that’s reminiscent of the complaints about Uber and Airbnb. One person who’s not so happy with the situation is a restaurant owner himself: Ryan Cole, whose Stones Throw is on Russian Hill. “I feel sick to my stomach to think that restaurants of such high pedigree and prestige would agree to participate in something so fundamentally against the principles of hospitality,” he wrote recently, in an open letter published in the Chronicle’s Inside Scoop online edition. He likened it to the old practice of slipping the doorman a $100 bill and skipping the wait for your table.” (Actually, it’s also rather the way StubHub works.) Ryan feels there’s something vaguely immoral about selling reservations. “Just because you can charge the premium doesn’t mean you should.”

I myself am neutral on all this. “It is what it is,” goes the current slogan, and besides, even if reservation selling is a horrible degradation of traditional restauranting, it’s here to stay. People want to be able to eat at top restaurants at their preferred times, and if they have to pay an extra $25 for the privilege, so be it! (I just hope they don’t make up for it by skimping on the wine.) But I personally won’t indulge in any of it. For every nice restaurant that’s next to impossible to book a table, there are dozens that aren’t. Let’s not forget that.


Goodbye to the era of the Big Critic

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We entered it as stealthily as we seem to be exiting it: the era of the Big Critic, which began, roughly speaking, around 1980 with the rise of Wine Spectator and its cadre of writers, and then really burst into prominence with the emergence of The Wine Advocate and its owner, Robert M. Parker.

That was 34 years ago—three and a half decades in which America gradually got used to the idea of a handful of (mostly white male) wine critics who were the Promethean equivalent of the faces on Mount Rushmore:

Rushmore

Stupendous, larger-than-life names, known to everybody who cared about wine, legends in their own time, whose opinions could elevate a winery to heavenly heights, or crush it mercilessly.

For thirty-four years this lopsided culture presided. It changed the face of the wine industry, especially in California but even in France, and its influence shaped the evolution of everything from winemaking style to marketing and even the kinds of foods we eat. That this handful of Big Critics was anointed to almost holy status was not their own fault, or their plan, and perhaps not even their desire: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, which is why the description you heard most often of the personality of the Big Critics was “humble,” as if people were surprised they weren’t the height of arrogance. The Big Critics were aware of the incongruity of themselves being accorded all this power, and seemed almost embarrassed by it.

So, it was not their own fault. Whose, then? Maybe “fault” is the wrong word; there was nothing wrong with this crazy new system, it just happened. Like Athena springing full-blown from the head of Zeus,

 

Athena

the Big Critic was forged into being by the Zeitgeist of a Boomer nation suddenly all grown up and responsible for itself. America found herself in thrall to this handful of super-beings, half-man, half-deity–big fish in a small pond, perhaps, but no less awesome for that.

And yet there always seemed something “faulty” about it, didn’t there? One heard, from the recesses of the wine community, sounds of concern that “it’s come to this,” that such a handful of men could cause entire segments of the business to sway or topple. It was heard in whispers, over drinks at the bar: “I can’t believe the influence he has,” although nobody seemed truly to mind too much because, after all, almost everyone stood to gain from the phenomenon: producers, for whom a high score would be a bonanza; merchants, who needed no longer to form their own judgments but could simply shelf-talk someone else’s; other critics, who could gaze up at Rushmore and fantasize “There might be I, someday…”…

We will look back at these 34 years someday as a sort of fever-haze we went through, a national delirium. Someday, someone will ask her grandfather, “Is it really true your generation wouldn’t buy a wine unless a Big Critic told you to?” and Grandpa will smile ruefully and admit that, Yes, that’s the way it was, but you have to understand the times, the context…We were a young wine-drinking country, we needed help and guidance, we didn’t realize at the time how slavish the whole thing was, and besides, everybody else was doing it, we were all in it together, how could we have known it was only a fever-dream?

Why do I say the 34 years is over? Well, maybe it’s not. It could turn out to be 36 years, or 41 years, but by 2025 I can’t see the Big Critic thing remaining in any form, except memory, or perhaps in the mind of someone who fancies himself a Big Critic but isn’t really. The death knell came, of course, with the rise of the Internet and social media, which formed the basis for what is called “citizen journalism,” a lofty-sounding phrase that means, simply, that anybody can write anything and launch it into the universe, forever, with a keystroke. This is “publishing,” of a sort; it is words on a page (or screen), read by people who are interested in such things. And, occasionally, it does rise to the rigorous standards according to which modern journalism has been practiced for 100 years.

But the very universality of the Internet has proven to be the undoing of the era of the Big Critic. It’s not an either-or situation—I mean, we can have 1,000 citizen journalist wine bloggers co-existing with an aging cadre of Big Critics for a certain amount of time. But it’s an unwieldy tension; it can’t go on for much longer, because it’s inherently unbalanced: 5 or 6 Big Critics on one side of the seesaw, 1,000 and counting citizen journalists on the other side, there is no longer equilibrium, the center cannot hold. Somebody wins in such an unequal contest. The Big Critics lose, or fall off the seesaw; the citizen journalists are the victors.

And that changes everything. America changed when the populace that was not originally given the right to vote by the Founders—women, slaves, non-landowners, 18 year olds—eventually obtained that right. That tectonic shift in the weight of the voting population radically impacted the course of our country’s history: we became more “democratic” (with a small “d”), a nation in which—in theory—everyone’s voice was counted as equal. (Whether it really worked that way or not is another story…)

I for one will not regret the passing of the torch. The era of the Big Critic was fun, it was interesting, I personally benefited from it, but everything must pass. Life marches on and stops for nothing. “Eras” happen more frequently these days than they used to, and they last for a shorter time, too. The Paleozoic Era lasted for hundreds of millions of years; the Victorian Era for 64 years; we now measure eras in months (the current time has been referred to as the Era of the Selfie). It may be that future eras will be measured in microseconds.

If the Big Critic is gone (or going) then of course we are now entering the era of the Small Critic. When anyone can be a critic then everyone can be a critic: the ultimate democratization of wine criticism results in claims like this:

New app can turn even the most clueless of wine drinkers into an instant connoisseur.

From clueless to connoisseur in an instant. Welcome to the Internet! Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know. But it does seem to be related to everything else in the world that’s falling apart.


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