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A wine trip back east, to the D.C. metro area

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If you’ve been reading me for years, you know that I was arguing in 2009, 2010, 2011 that (a) print newspapers and magazines are NOT dead (as so many bloggers were predicting and hoping) and (b) social media was NOT the be-all and end all for wineries. Well, I was right on both scores! USA Today has an article out, “Why People and Companies Are Lining Up to Buy Newspapers” that explains how newspapers are hot-hot-hot, which is why the paper’s owner, Gannett, has offered to buy Tribune Publishing.

I’ve always subscribed to newspapers. I’m going on 30 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, and I’ll frequently pick up an Oakland paper and the New York Times as well. Yes, I’m a Boomer, and old habits die hard; everyone my age says they like to wake up in the morning and have their coffee and breakfast while reading the paper. But all those years when the bloggers were guaranteeing that “print journalism is dead, it’s all online now,” I was saying, Not so fast.

As for social media, I always had my doubts, especially about Twitter, which never appealed to me (although Lord knows I tried). I’m a huge Facebook fan, but Twitter’s abbreviated limits just didn’t allow me enough space to express what I want to say. Well, now we see the trouble Twitter’s in—and how fantastically well Facebook is doing. The same issue of USA Today has another article headlined “Facebook defies tech earnings gloom.”

Anyhow, I’m on an extended trip back east on behalf of Jackson Family Wines, and loving it. Washington D.C. is really one of the most beautiful cities in America, and yesterday I got an up-close-and-personal experience of Baltimore, a city I’d never been to but have read much about, particularly their downtown revitalization, and what a great sports town it is. Fantastic architecture: some of those buildings are showstoppers. We’ve been going to some great restaurants, and yesterday went to the Maryland Club, the kind of place that barely exists anymore: a private club for locals, where you have to be vetted to be admitted. There were some gray-hairs (like me) but also some Millennials, so the blood is being refreshed at this 1857-founded social institution. They are very serious about their wine, and we had a great seminar and tasting. I also have been meeting some of the most interesting people, including the leaders of the soon-to-be-opened Trump International Hotel, here in D.C., and a young guy, Jason Larkin, who is the wine expert for Secretary of State John Kerry, over at the Department of State. I hope to arrange a Q&A with Jason here on the blog, and to learn more about his fascinating job.

I am fascinated by Washington culture. I know little about it, except through movies and House of Cards and political thrillers. Coming from a very distinct culture myself (San Francisco and the Bay Area), I understand how easy it is for outsiders to have stereotyped views. As we walk and drive the streets of the District I look at all those other people and wonder what branch of government they work in and what secrets they hold. Probably they’re just normal people like everybody else. Someday, on my bucket list is to spend a week here in the nation’s capital and do all the usual sightseeing. Maybe next Spring.

Lots of rain today in D.C. but it isn’t dampening anyone’s spirits, especially mine. We have another big day and night planned. More tomorrow.


In the future, everyone will be a famous wine taster for 15 minutes

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Since by now it is obvious that anyone can write and publish a wine review via social media, we need to seriously address the issue of whether Anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”

That, at least, is the contention of Anna Harris-Noble, a Brit who runs a company called Taste Exchange. She rejects the notion that any special palate is required, arguing instead that Wine tasters are no different to [sic] anyone else, they’ve just had more training in identifying tastes and smells, so the good news is that anyone can become a wine taster with a little practice.”

Is this true, or does a real taster need special talent?

We’re all familiar with the concept of the “supertaster.” As developed by Linda Bartoshuk, it argues that some people perceive tastes more intensely, due probably to genetic factors; some famous critics, including Robert Parker and Ron Washam, might conceivably be supertasters.

But what is tasting ability, anyhow?

Whenever somebody reviews anything—movie, car, wine—and writes about it, the public inherently trusts that the person knows what he’s talking about. It’s human nature. “So-and-so wouldn’t be reviewing the thing, if he weren’t qualified.” This is particularly true if the review appears in a respected source, such as a well-known magazine or website, which almost guarantees credibility.

But the Internet and social media have begun eroding the trustworthiness of magazines in recent years; the public seems almost as likely to believe a self-published blog as a magazine with a circulation of hundreds of thousands.

Setting aside for the moment the question of “What is tasting ability?” we first encounter the reality of many people reviewing wine online. That is a fundamental truth: there may be upwards of 1,000 of wine blogs in the U.S. alone. They’re tasting wine, they’re writing about it, they are presumably thinking seriously about it, they are presumably being taken seriously by others. Therefore, from one point of view we have to assume that they have tasting ability because their behavior exhibits all the external parameters of a tasting professional.

But we think of tasting ability as more than the ability to publish a tasting note, right? So what is it? Is Harris-Noble right—wine tasters are no different than anyone else? Or do professional wine tasters have some sort of special gift that the rest of us don’t?

Harris-Noble suggests that it’s training and practice, not inherent ability, that makes for a professional taster. I think that begins to address the issue, but it’s only a beginning. Because, let’s face it, you don’t become a wine taster—a good one—solely because you get your hands on the occasional bottle of wine and write up some notes.

What else does it take?

I don’t think there are any absolutes, but if I were in charge, I’d want credible wine tasters to

  • Taste as widely and broadly as possible. You can’t taste everything, of course, but you can taste as much as you can.
  • Determine whether you will be a specialist or a generalist. A specialist focuses on a single country or region. I was a specialist. A generalist focuses on the world. Jancis Robinson is a generalist. One is not better than the other. You also should visit the places you’re writing about as often as you can.
  • Develop a certain craftsmanship in writing. The best tasters/writers consciously seek a personal style. Think of it as the terroir of your writing.
  • Read, study, learn. The knowledge of wine—its history, methodology, geography and so on—is a lifetime pursuit. Understanding, for example, the history of oak influence in Chablis wines will make you a better taster and writer.
  • Continuous self-evaluation, which depends on self-knowledge. If you’re not getting better as a wine taster all the time, then you’re getting worse. And you have to be honest with yourself about it.

By the way, I saw a news report the other day about a man born without arms who became a world-champion archer. He trained himself to use his legs and feet, and even invented a new type of bow. So can anyone at all be a good taster? Yes. But some have to work harder at it than others.


Content, schmontent and impact

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The subject of the impact of social media on the actual sale of wine, as opposed to merely creating some short-lived buzz, has long been considered in my blog, as well as throughout the greater Internet community.

The question always has been: What do all those page views and visits mean? Do they translate into moving cases—or are they merely feel-good statistics that, from an economic point of view, are meaningless?

Attempts have been made to measure the “metrics” of such statistics, and sometimes these analyses look very good and thorough. But behind the spreadsheets, graphs and pie charts has been a continuing mystery wrapped in an enigma: What’s the point of it all? It’s rather like that old Zen koan, “What if they created a site that had big numbers, and nobody ever bought anything?”

This is the topic of an important article two days ago in BuzzFeed. It quoted the company’s founder and CEO, Jonah Peretti: What matters most, and what all these metrics should try and point to is impact.”

Impact! Now we’re talking.

He asks pertinent questions: “Does [social media] have an impact on people’s actual lives, are people using the content, is it something that matters to them?” Because if the answers are no, no and no, then content, schmontent, none of it matters.

BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, illustrated the unimportance of fancy metrics by comparing them to “artworks hang[ing] on the wall.” They may be pretty to look at, they may make you feel good, but they don’t pay the bills.

Peretti and Smith don’t claim to have definitive answers for achieving impact as well as metrics. Too bad, because that’s the Holy Grail. But then, after all these years, we shouldn’t expect instant solutions. However, Peretti does offer some ideas, which he poses as questions:

Does the editorial asset work across platforms?

Does it help people connect with each other?

Does it help people improve their lives?

Does it inform the public and change institutions?

Does it make the world more open and diverse?

Now, if you’re thinking that these are pretty lofty ambitions for a winery, you’re right: Peretti is thinking in terms of his company, which is making a play to be a serious media outlet. BuzzFeed may worry about making the world more peaceful and diverse; a winery is more concerned about moving last year’s inventory before the new one comes piling in.

But what Peretti is onto, I think, is that successful social media campaigns—the ones with impact—somehow are more than just themselves. They are created with intelligence and passion, such that readers or viewers feel that connection to the winery. They are inclusionary: they make all people feel part of the story. They’re not just slammed out willy nilly, like auto parts on an assembly line, in order to fulfill today’s Twitter quota. Rather, they form a continuing narrative—sort of like a really good T.V. series—that people want to revisit, to see what happens.

You know, there’s been talk of the evolution of social media as a selling platform, and maybe, in some cases, that’s true. But, as a wise man once pointed out, “There isn’t a version two or three if there isn’t a great version one.” People involved in the creation of social media campaigns should keep this in mind, and that word “impact” at the forefront of their consciousness.


The fatal flaw at the heart of social media: Compromised information

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Investment banks, hedge funds and other for-profit speculators of the world’s money supply are “scooping up computer scientists, not economists and investment bankers with MBAs,” because “artificial intelligence” is now the Holy Grail of investment strategy, not old-fashioned gurus like Warren Buffett, who are increasingly viewed as “redundant” because their minds are not “super-fast.”

As reported by the Financial Times, the so-called “quantitative investment world” of Goldman Sachs and Bridgewater, et al. is “play[ing] down the prospect of machines supplanting human[s]”—at least for now. But since “the human mind has not become any better than it was 100 years ago,” while the complexity of investments has grown immeasurably more complicated and unpredictable due to phenomena like algorithmic trading and a worldwide marketplace that includes China, “Eventually the time will come that no human investment manager will be able to beat the computer.”

Enter artificial intelligence. “A machine-learning algorithm will autonomously evolve and search for new patterns,” in the same way a human mind does, but thousands, if not millions, of times faster, making the human mind irrelevant. Buffett-style “intuitive trading strategies” will look clumsy in comparison—like 1950s NBA players competing against the likes of Kobe Bryant and Steph Curry.

Well, perhaps, But consider that the notion of pure, real-time, disinterested, objectively neutral analytic devices, crunching only numbers and disinterested in any external agenda, and powered by artificial intelligence, is a fiction. That’s what we thought about computers: That they would bring about a million fold increase in the speed of calculations, a thousand fold decrease in cost, all this while scientists were ‘just beginning to explore these possibilities,’” as an idealistic 1962 prediction of the computer’s future had it. But other, more worried voices, were slowly emerging: this vast accumulation of data, an IBM analyst warned in the 1960s, “could be pooled, drawn on and used in ways for which they were not intended.”

Which brings us to viruses, bots, malware and the entire netherworld of awful stuff that crawls through and infects the world’s networks at the speed of light, seeking any and every unprotected nook and cranny. Last Thursday, a paper, published by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the branch of the U.S. military that has worked on everything from satellite technology to the Internet to driverless cars), published “The DARPA Twitter Bot Challenge.” Impressed and alarmed by rapidly spreading “influence bots— realistic, automated identities that illicitly shape discussion on sites like Twitter and Facebook”–the Challenge seeks to up the scientific community’s game at detecting and combating such bots. The relationship between “influence bots” and artificial intelligence was anticipated by British physicist Alan Turing (“The Imitation Game” movie), whose “Turing test” postulated a “machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.”

But the Turing test apparently did not anticipate a regime of outright deception and fraud on the computer side—a computer pretending to be a human that was controlled by a human pretending to be a computer. As this article, from the BBC, makes clear, bots, including influence bots, are already engaged in “automated deceit” that “can even trick the web-savvy.” The DARPA Twitter Bot Challenge was created because influence bots “pose a clear danger to freedom of expression”: If we don’t know whether the results our computers spit out are pure and objective and thus “real,” as opposed to malicious, agenda-driven and thus “unreal,” then we’re clearly capable of being led down a disastrous garden path.

(The DARPA paper cites examples of malicious influence bots by, for example, Russians engaging in a campaign of disinformation about its seizure of Ukraine, and ISIS spreading radicalism.)

The bankers and investment managers who are relying on artificial intelligence to replace “merely human” analysts mean well, but there is no guarantee that their findings may not be contaminated by bots and other forms of malware that purposefully distort conditions. Can they know that, for example, Chinese intelligence is not interfering in the analysis of oil prices over the next six months? Or that Russian mafia intelligence is not creating the impression that Chinese intelligence is the culprit? And on and on, through the looking glass. As the DARPA paper points out (and this is precisely the kind of stuff DARPA worries about), “Over the next few years, we can expect a proliferation of social media influence bots as advertisers, criminals, politicians, nation states, terrorists, and others try to influence populations.” The only protection against this menace, DARPA says, is “to significantly enhance the analytic tools that help analysts detect influence bots.” Unfortunately, the bad guys are in the race, too, busily developing software that thwarts bot-detection tools.

Which brings me to my headline. Re-read it. Influence bots mean that malicious coders may well influence the masses. Social media always has been over-hyped, but this news further undermines its early promise as the great leveler and democratizer of mankind. It turns out it may be anything but. How the world will deal with online information, including social media, that may be hopelessly compromised will keep “the good guys” busy for a long time, and could make an already anxious public more suspicious than ever of social media.


A wine review, and a Millennial take on wine snobbery

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King Estate 2006 Block 4D Clone 777 Pinot Noir. Originally $75. The appellation on the label is “Oregon.” Wine Enthusiast (I think it was Paul Gregutt) gave it 92 points back in 2009; oddly, they said nothing about its ageability. Spectator gave it only 89 points and recommended drinking it only through 2014. I think Enthusiast was more accurate about the score. It really is a very fine wine; I’d rate it 94 if I were scoring it now. Here we are in 2016 and it’s rocking with a good future. Loads of blackberry, boysenberry, cassis, and such nice, sweet toasty oak and vanilla. Great tannin structure, good acidity, lowish alcohol (13.5%) and a rich earthiness, like Portobello mushrooms and an umami tang, like prosciutto. At nine years of age, a wonderful, rewarding, silky wine that offers plenty of pleasure. Just what you want in a fine West Coast Pinot Noir, and I think that earthiness signals its Oregon origin.

*****

And now to some controversy. This post raises so many issues that it’s impossible to address them all in a single post, but let me just say that I sympathize with the sentiment expressed by the author, Maxwell Leer, who says he’s a sommelier. To some extent it’s a rant against the 1 percent but, hey, that’s fine with me: Maxwell had me when he compared Cristal to Prosecco and said “you can…be fucking happy, too” with the cheaper wine.

Now, Maxwell’s position is something that every wine writer has expressed since, well, forever. I know that the meme of post-Prohibition wine writers was “Wine snobs make wine sound too fussy” and probably there was someone running around ancient Rome saying the same thing. Every generation has to discover the same truths, so I cut Maxwell some slack. Still, that doesn’t take away from the force of Maxwell’s argument, which he expresses strongly and well.

It’s funny when he writes about pouring Kistler Chardonnay into a glass that was rinsed with bourbon. I bet that’s a seriously tasty sip! Maxwell seems to be saying, don’t worship the Kistler itself and think you have to experience it in all the profundity that has been lavished on it by wine critics—which is exactly what you’d think from reading the critics. You want to have a few drops of bourbon in there? Fine! (Hey makes you think of an American Kir, doesn’t it?) What wine is about, as Maxwell writes, is love, peace, love, unity, and respect.” As I pointed out in my post the other day about Premier Cru’s troubles, wine is not about snobbery or elitism or the fear that just because you can’t afford Petrus you’re missing out on the best. You’re not! Maxwell understands that and it’s a message we have to continue to get across. My generation did a horrible job of it, despite our best intentions. We perpetuated the myth of “cult wines” and while I do have some issues with Maxwell’s suggestion of “simplifying” wine, he’s onto something, especially for younger drinkers. He’s right when he says that “Wine culture needs to evolve like everything else.” That doesn’t mean we have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It doesn’t mean that you can’t trust anyone over thirty. It does mean that, as Maxwell says, “we have groups of people every day who come into the restaurant and literally say, ‘OK, show us what you got.’” They want interesting wines, wines with stories, wines that drink well with the foods they like. They don’t want to spend a fortune on them, and the good news is that they don’t have to.


Pffft! That’s the sound of the wine blog bubble bursting

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Kudos to Tom Wark—the original wine blogger—for doing research showing how interest in wine blogs has been waning now for a good six years …”.

Tom ran the numbers to prove his contention. And there it is, in his first graph: interest in wine blogs, as indicated by Google Trends, peaked in 2009, and has been falling steadily ever since.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. We live in an age of bubbles: Wine blogs had their own bubble, an era of super-popularity that seemed like it would continue to expand forever until wine blogs, like The Blob in the 1958 movie, would take over the world. Of course, nothing expands forever: that which expandeth eventually bursteth: That is the definition of a bubble. (Okay, enough with the old English word endings.)

When blogs were young, they were the hippest, sexiest thing in wine writing. That’s the main reason why I myself started blogging, in 2008. I saw the rocket ascending towards the heavens, and I wanted a front-row seat to go along for the ride.

But all the while, I doubted the glowing predictions on the part of many wine bloggers that wine blogs were the journalistic and reviewing wave of the future. I knew that was false. I said as much—and got body-slammed by the wine bloggers who didn’t like my message. Hey, hate the message, not the messenger!

And now here we are. It’s been evident to me for years now that wine blogs don’t have the energy or momentum they once did. A year or so ago, I considered giving up this one, until my readers persuaded me not to. I continue for them—for you–and also because it’s not that hard to crank out a blog everyday, and it gives me immense enjoyment.

Where I disagree with Tom Wark is in his contention that the reason for the diminution of interest in wine blogs is because those who had been showing interest in blogs, including wine blogs, have migrated to social media.” I don’t see any evidence of that. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think people feel they have to choose between reading wine blogs and participating in other forms of social media. It isn’t either/or: You can do both; they’re not mutually exclusive. If wine blogs offered wine consumers enough reason to keep on reading them, then consumers would continue to seek them out.

The problem, let’s face it, is that they don’t: most wine blogs are really boring. The ones that just spurt out reviews are unreadable, except by P.R. types who “Search” through the blog for their winery’s name. I mean, does anyone else besides a publicist care that some blogger somewhere reviewed their Cabernet?

I’ve thought from this blog’s inception that the only way to succeed to motivate viewers to click on it is to have creative writing that is interesting, and that’s what I’ve tried to do. I know there are blogs that are way more popular than mine. I can’t compete with them, nor do I want to. I want to continue to write about things that are on my mind, about issues of relevance to the wine industry, especially in California, and I want to continue to hear comments from my readers. Lots of those comments don’t appear on my actual blog. Many are on Facebook, which runs my daily blog, and quite a few people email me directly with their comments. So I know this blog is still reaching lots of minds. Tom referred to Julie Ann Kodmur’s theory that people today are “silo-ing” their blog reading; instead of looking at “a number of wine blogs, today they stick with and are loyal to only a few and perhaps even one wine blog.” I think that’s true.

A REVIEW

Zaca Mesa sent me this wine, so I’m reviewing it.

Zaca Mesa 2014 Estate Vineyard Viognier, Santa Ynez Valley, $18. I’m not a huge fan of California Viognier, which can be blowsy. The variety has a naturally strong flavor that makes it difficult to pair with food. This particular wine has potent apricot jam, peach pie, pineapple and honeysuckle flavors, with exotic hints around the edges: papayas, guavas, nectarines. It was aged in a little oak, not too much; in fact, all the barrels were more than eight years old. Just enough to soften and mellow the wine. The alcohol is a refreshing 14.1%; the acidity is okay, but the wine does feel a little soft. The blend includes a few drops of Grenache Blanc, which perhaps contributes a taste of tangerines. I can see drinking this wine next summer as a late afternoon aperitif, with little finger foods: egg rolls, chips and guacamole or hummus, prosciutto-wrapped asparagus spears, sliced watermelon, fried shrimp. It’s not terribly complex, but it is a nice sipper, and deserves a score of 89 points.


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