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Introducing the robot wine critic

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In the next five years, when you call customer service or technical support for help with your checking account, internet connection or credit card, you’re likely to speak—not to a real human being—but to a robot.

“Hello,” it might say, in its weird, Stephen Hawking-like drone, “my name is Robbie, and I’m here to assist you.”

In fact, “Robots already are starting to displace some humans from low-end tasks,” reports the Wall Street Journal, and “within five years” they’ll be “smart enough to replace the human phone operators who do jobs like fielding calls from bank clients or helping people reset their modems.”

Given Moore’s law and the advances in artificial intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before human wine critics are also replaced by machines. It’s not hard to imagine how this might work. Say you’re in the wine aisle at the supermarket wondering which wine to buy. You’ll take your smart phone, ask Siri about it, and be connected instantly to a cloud-based “wine taster” who will tell you everything you want to know about the wine. This wine taster will be as human as anyone “real” you could talk to. It will ask you questions to establish your personal preferences (which, of course, it will remember, the way iTunes does), and will be able to tell you if you can find a better deal down the street. Eventually, it will even have an emotional component, possessing the ability to get excited about certain wines and, if you wish, to rate them on a numerical basis. It will be tireless, able to review thousands of wines a day, and its reviews will be utterly consistent—unlike those of human tasters, who are subject to frailty and fallibility. And there never will be any suspicion of ulterior motives (such as advertising) in a robotic review. Like the Mentats in Dune, robot reviewers will be objective and truthful to a fault.

Looking out even further, it’s entirely possible that your smart device will be able to let you actually taste a wine you’re interested in. There’s already talk of “food-focused virtual reality”; meanwhile, Fast Company reports on a “simulate[d]…sensation of taste digitally,” whereby “a new methodology” can “deliver and control primary taste sensations electronically on the human tongue” that “trick” taste sensors “into thinking they are experiencing food-related sensations…”. Throw in a virtual reality headset, and you have what Britain’s Sky News calls an “immersive [wine] tasting experience.”

Looked at from this perspective, what we now call “wine critics” will someday be as antiquated as streetlamp lighters or rotary phone operators.

Geraldine

But wait a minute, could there be a fly in the ointment? There could indeed. Who will pay for all this gimmickry? It won’t happen for free. Moreover, how would you prevent a nefarious influence from hacking into the system? At the first sign of untoward activity, the system’s credibility would be compromised, as Yelp’s has been. There will still be millions of people who will believe in their robot wine reviews, but eventually a small cadre of wine lovers who think of themselves as special will revolt against the machine. They will find their own gurus—human, not automated—and anoint them to exalted status. This is precisely what happened in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of Parker, Wine Spectator and the others. It seems likely to have been a process that will replicate itself.

I’m off to Oregon tomorrow and will try to blog from there. Salud, and stay safe.


Six Steven Kent wines

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Many years ago, I wrote a column in Wine Enthusiast (sadly, I no longer have it), in which I lamented the lack of excitement in the wines of the Livermore Valley AVA, which, if you look at a map, is one of the jewels in the bracelet of appellations surrounding San Francisco Bay, including Sonoma County, Napa Valley and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I got some flack for that but it was true: Livermore was historically under-performing. Now, I have to admit upfront that it has been quite a while since I last paid attention to Livermore Valley, and things may well have improved. I certainly hope so. But even before I left the employ of Wine Enthusiast, there was one Livermore winery that turned me on, Steven Kent. He showed me what Livermore was capable of—why it had achieved its historic reputation for Bordeaux-style red wines in the first place.

Well, Steven has sent me his latest batch, and I must say the wines are as impressive as ever. Here are six reviews.

96 Steven Kent 2011 Lineage Red Wine (Livermore Valley); $165. As far as I know, this is Kent’s most expensive wine ever, and also the most expensive to come out of Livermore Valley. I imagine his motive to go in this direction—the ’11 Lineage is his fifth under that proprietary name–after the many critical plaudits he was receiving for his Cabernets, was to make a low-production reserve-of-reserves (production was about 300 cases). The wine is 62% Cabernet Sauvignon; the rest is Merlot, Cab Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. The alcohol is 14.1%. I mention that because, as superbly ripe as the wine is, it is in no way hot or heavy. It is an absolute pleasure to drink now, offering waves of blackberry compote, cassis liqueur, dark chocolate shavings, black licorice, violet petals and smoky, toasted oak, leading to a long finish of black pepper, cinnamon and star anise. The texture is as fine as any Cab I’ve ever had. Remarkably smooth, complex tannins, set off by lively acidity. This is really a beautiful wine, all the more impressive for the challenging vintage conditions. Steven Kent says how hard he and his team worked on assembling the final blend after “scores of mock blends” were tried out. They succeeded. I would drink this beauty over the next six years.

94 Steven Kent 2013 Ghielmetti Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. The wine is distinctive for an anise note, but otherwise, it’s not radically different from Kent’s Smith and Home Ranch Cabs. Like them, it’s dry, fairly tannic in youth and complex. It is, however, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, and I think that gives it the edge. Shows good acidity framing complex blackberry, cassis, plum, pencil shaving, violet and dark chocolate notes, accented with plenty of new French oak. It is clearly a vin de garde, a wine to age. The stuffing is there, and so is the overall balance. There’s a yummy factor already despite its youth, a mouthwateringly sweet, umami taste, but you really do not want to pop the cork too soon. I’d give it another six years, at a minimum. Steven Kent himself suggests 15-20 years, which sounds good to me. This is another great accounting for Livermore Valley Cabernet from this winery.

93 Steven Kent 2012 Lineage Red Wine (Livermore Valley); $155. The big question in my mind was which Lineage I would prefer, the ’11 or the ’12. I tasted the ’11 first and was blown away. Then the ’12. My first impression was, if I had to pick, I’d easily go with the ’11. The ’12 is thick in primary fruit, oak and tannins. It’s clearly a well-grown, well-made wine, but is currently lacking the elegance and finesse of its older sister, being rather jammy and heavy, with a leathery chewiness. It also tastes oakier. Why would this be? Importantly, the ’12 is a year younger; that extra year can have a dramatic effect. It also has significantly more Cabernet Sauvignon (72% vs. 62%). It’s true that the official alcohol is lower on the ’12 (13.9% vs. 14.1%), although it doesn’t feel lighter in the mouth. The usual approach to these sorts of twin vintages is to say, Drink the ’11 soon, and wait for the ’12 to come around, which could be a long time. I have no doubt there’s a great wine in there, but not now, and maybe not before 2020 (eight years is not old for this kind of wine). In fact, I’d love to follow its evolution over the next twenty years. But for now, it’s just too heavy.

93 Steven Kent 2013 Home Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. I don’t know why Kent’s Home Ranch is so much more rewarding than the Smith Ranch. The latter is quite good, but the Home is really good, so packed with flavor and wonderfully structured that it’s irresistible. That makes it sound like a simple pleasure, and it is; but it’s also a very complex wine. Tiers of ripe blackberries, cassis, blueberries and chocolate cascade over the palate, with hints of anise liqueur, toasted French oak barrels and exotic baking spices. The mouthfeel is all velvet and silk, with soft acids providing just enough balance. This is the kind of Cabernet with which Steven Kent established his reputation as lifting Livermore Valley to a whole new level. As good as the wine is, I agree with his advice that the wine should evolve beautifully over the next 10-15 years.

91 Steven Kent 2013 Smith Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Livermore Valley); $65. There’s an olivaceous note that grounds the elaborate blackberry and cassis fruit, giving it an earthy, herbal complexity. The mouthfeel is profoundly smooth. And the alcohol is a refreshingly modest 14.1%. Wonderful finesse, so fine and elegant in the mouth, although it’s just a bit lacking in body. The finish is entirely dry. A real beauty to drink now and for the next several years.

91 Steven Kent 2013 BDX Collection Cabernet Franc (Livermore Valley); $48. The first duty of Cabernet Franc is to not be Cabernet Sauvignon, to be different enough to justify a separate varietal bottling. This one succeeds. It’s about tart red fruits—cranberries, just-ripe cherries, pomegranates. Might almost be a Pinot Noir, except for the body and the tannins. There’s also a complexing white tobacco note, and something I’d describe as edamame, which may be because I recently went to a Japanese restaurant, but there it is, an earthy, funky, green herbaceousness. Aged for 20 months in 20% new French oak, it has a smoky edge. Feeling fine and smooth in the mouth, this is quite a distinctive wine to drink over the next few years.


Into the tall weeds of the critic: Kramer and being “captious”

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If Matt Kramer thinks that wine drinkers become “captious” (hypercritically argumentative) when comparing notes, he should overhear some of the conversations in California between Hillary people and Bernie people!

That is captiousness on steroids!

Matt rolled out that rarely used word, “captious,” in his Drinking Out Loud op-ed piece, in the June 7 online Wine Spectator. He spells out his view of the critic’s duty: They should not be captious, not just a weighing and sifting, but also a willing availability to others’ views, to perspectives different from your own. Above all, being a critic means thinking not of your own needs but that of your readers or listeners. Simply put, you exist to serve, not merely to opine.”

This is largely true, but it does tend to under-value, IMHO, the “opining” nature of the critic’s role. We critics (I still consider myself one) are critics by virtue of an expertise we have developed over the course of years of tasting and studying. I like the democratic [small “d”] nature of Matt’s definition, which has a Kumbaya-like can’t-we-all-get-along hippieness: calm heads prevailing, sharing views and opinions, not insisting on one’s own point of view. But, let’s face it, if a “critic” is “critiquing” a wine, he is telling the world (or, at least, his readers) that he knows what’s going on with the wine, and if they don’t agree with him, well, they’re entitled to their own opinion—but they’re wrong!

I mean, that is the essence of criticism, isn’t it? Matt no doubt has been to unpleasant situations where pompous idiots who think they know about wine get all angry and bullying; “they always denigrate; they always polarize,” he writes. Yes, we’ve all known them. I can see them coming from a mile away, and generally will go out of my way to avoid them, because who needs some useless and draining argument about whether a wine is reduced, or how many hectares the DRC has? Not me, especially in a social setting. But these are not “critics.” They’re poseurs.

I don’t think that being a critic, with self-confidence and strongly-held views, means that you “never [have] any humor, never even any false modesty.” When I pronounce on a wine, I honestly believe what I’m saying, because I wouldn’t say anything about a wine unless I’d thoroughly tasted it and thought carefully about it. I am, of course, happy to listen to other people’s views, if they also have thoroughly tasted the wine and thought carefully about it. And I do have an open-enough mind that I can be persuaded by a compelling argument.

For example, in my tasting of Oregon Pinot Noirs the other day, as I wrote, I initially did not pick up on bretty smells in one of the wines. But after everyone else in my tasting group did, I went back to the wine and, lo and behold, there it was. How could I have missed it the first time around?

Okay, so you could argue that I let myself get influenced by peer pressure, because I didn’t want to be the outlier in the group. But that discounts the many, many times when I was happy to be the outlier. You have to be willing to be the outlier in the critic’s game: herd instincts need not apply. This illustrates the point Matt is trying to make: That even if you’re a great taster, you have to listen to the views of qualified others. We all have blind spots.

One thing Matt is entirely correct about—and this reflects his magazine background—is that “being a critic means thinking not of your own needs but that of your readers or listeners.” This point comes up a lot. When you come from a magazine background, as I do, you are always, constantly thinking of the end-user of your review, the customer. That man or woman who buys that glass or bottle of wine-they’re the ones who make the entire world go round. Without their money, none of us would have jobs.

This message was drummed into me early in my wine magazine-writing career, and it exists undimmed to this day. I write, or speak, for that end-user, the consumer. I don’t write or speak because I enjoy it (although I do), or to hear myself pontificate, but for one reason only: to help that consumer see things the way I see them. In that way—and in this intensely political election season, I guess I’m thinking politically—critics are rather like politicians running for office. You have to talk, talk, talk to convince people to listen to you and believe in your views. It is helpful if you’re already a well-known critic who’s established a certain degree of credibility. I think I was, and so I could commit my reviews to words, and know that they would largely be accepted because I had established that basis of trust with my readers. This is why beginning critics have a harder time of it: without reputations or much of a resume, they have a steeper hill to climb to establish credibility. Of course, everyone has to start someplace. That’s important to keep in mind; it helps you with that “modesty” Matt wrote about.

So another great, thought-provoking column from the inimitable Matt Kramer!


Pit bulls and Pinot Noir, or how IPOB changed the way I think

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That old saying “It changed the conversation” needs explanation. Not everybody in America is talking about the same things at the same time. We say Donald Trump has changed the conversation but there are lots of people who couldn’t care less about him. We say Ellen DeGeneres changed the conversation about gays when she came out on T.V. but there were millions of people who didn’t know that and wouldn’t have cared if they had. We say mounting evidence of massive, manmade climate change has changed the conversation, but we all know there are still so many Americans who refuse to believe even the basic science. So we have to be careful when we talk about conversation changers.

Now consider In Pursuit of Balance. It too is said to have changed the conversation, specifically about Pinot Noir, and more specifically, about West Coast (California and Oregon) Pinot Noir. Did it? I can speak from my own experience: Yes, it did. I’ve been a staunch defender of Pinot Noir for years and battled against what I perceived as IPOB’s irrational stance towards alcohol levels. I will yield to no critic for having done more to protect Pinot Noir from assault. I have the scars to prove it. I maintained from the get-go that just because a Pinot Noir was below 14% didn’t automatically make it “balanced” and just because a Pinot Noir approached 15% didn’t make it unbalanced. I consistently argued that if the wine tastes good, who cares what the alcohol is?

But slowly I’ve been looking at things differently. This has been evolving over the past two years. It actually began with my tasting Raj Parr’s 2012s from Domaine de la Côte. Those wines were quite low in alcohol (Bloom’s Field is 12.5%, La Côte is 13%), and while I was prepared to dislike them, after Raj’s execrable 2011s, they actually blew me away, and I began to think that maybe there was something to this low-alcohol thing after all.

Since then I’ve been finding more and more Pinot Noirs excessively heavy. These are mainly the 2013s: celebrated as a near-perfect vintage, it did result in grapes that were intensely fruity, but in many instances I’ve thought it was more successful for Cabernet Sauvignon than Pinot Noir, because Cabernet’s bigger tannins and structure can carry more fruity weight and oak. Pinots that are super-ripe (and oaky) can be heavy, hot and monolithic, lacking the delicacy and cerebral complexity that the wines should possess.

Every once in a while I’ll taste such a West Coast Pinot Noir and think, Wow, this really needs steak or something to balance it out. When the wines are that dark, tannic, ripe to the point of raisins, hot and oaky, they can be hard to appreciate; but rich, fatty fare will take care of that, right? Of course, as a former critic, I’m aware that when we taste wine, it’s without food: you’re sampling the wine in and of itself, without ameliorating factors. Maybe that’s unfair. Probably it is. Normal human beings don’t drink wine (especially red wine) without food. Wine is made to be drunk with food. Still, you need to have consistent rules about wine tasting, and you can’t taste every wine with food. So we taste without food.

But if I think, “Wow, this Pinot is so heavy, it needs beefy fat to balance it out,” isn’t that making excuses for the wine? It’s like a pit bull that snarls and lunges at you on the street, scaring you, but the owner insists “Oh, Molly is a goofball, you should see her with little kids.” You think, “If I had little kids I wouldn’t let them anywhere near Molly,” and you think that Molly’s mommy is making excuses for her out-of-control dog: She doesn’t even realize that Molly is a ticking time bomb. So when I taste a big, thick, heavy Pinot and think “Steak!”, am I Molly’s mommy, making excuses for my pit bull of a wine?

Would I have been thinking along these lines had it not been for IPOB? It’s a hypothetical, but I think the answer is that, as harshly as I criticized IPOB for being ideological, they have changed my way of thinking about Pinot Noir. For the better.


The wine critic as “god”

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“Proof by ethos” is a term from Artistotle, referring to a method of persuasion, by appealing to a speaker’s authority and credibility. In science, according to a recent paper [more on this later], it refers to a situation in which “a scientist’s status in the community is so high that everybody else takes this person’s calculations or results for granted. In other words, nobody questions the validity of that scientist’s claim because of the particular ethos that is associated with that person.”

It is thus more or less identical to the more familiar Latin term, argumentum ad verecundiam, or “argument from authority,” which is often cited as a major potential fallacy in argument: One cites an “authority” to prove one’s position, but in that particular case the so-called “authority” is wrong, so the person citing him also is wrong.

Both concepts—“proof by ethos” and “argument from authority”—are natural to humans. None of us can know everything; we need to trust others to inform us about things we don’t know, or don’t understand sufficiently. It is, in fact, one of the glories of humankind that we are social and trusting enough to turn to the advice of others, sometimes for things that impact our very lives, on the very fragile basis of belief. So“proof by ethos” and “argument from authority” are not bad in themselves. But they must be taken in context: if the “high status authority” we listen to is mistaken, or deliberately misleading, all kinds of bad consequences may ensue.

The recent scientific paper I referred to, concerning the age of the Earth, points out how easy it is even for trained academicians to succumb to the perils of “proof by ethos.” The famous Nobel laureate, Richard Feynman, once postulated, in a lecture that was transcribed, that the center of the Earth must be younger than the Earth’s surface by “one or two days” due to the relativistic effects of gravitational time dilation.

(Read the paper yourself. You can skip over the mathematical formulae and pass from the Introduction to the Discussion and Conclusion. Fascinating, paradoxical stuff.)

However, the paper’s authors discovered, through simple back-of-the-envelope calculations, that “years” should have been substituted for “days.” The center of the Earth, that is, is one or two years younger than its surface, not one or two days. “[E]ither the lecturer [Feynman] or the transcribers had it wrong,” the authors concluded. Feynman died in 1988.

The paper’s authors decided that any of Feyman’s colleagues or even his grad students could easily have discerned Feynman’s mistake (if, indeed, it was his and not the transcribers’). That they did not, and for so many years, is a prime example of the danger of “proof by ethos.” Nobody realized that the “days” citation was wrong, because everybody implicitly trusted Feynman so much that it seemed silly to second-guess his conclusion.

We see, in wine reviewing, much this same “proof by ethos” or “argument from authority.” Substitute the words “wine critic” for “scientist” and the opening quote in this post becomes “a wine critic‘s status in the community is so high that everybody else takes this person’s [reviews] for granted.”

That’s how it works, isn’t it. We’ve reached a situation in which we—the collective “we” of the wine industry and marketplace—largely accept the “truths” of the critics because, after all, “they”—the critics—possess an “ethos” that places them beyond doubt. So haloed are the critics in the glow of their own infallibility (or the infallibility we impute to them) that their pronouncements have the power of the edicts of a shaman. It is the particular quality of humans that we elevate a select few from our own midst to this priesthood. Unsure of ourselves, irresolute in how to negotiate the world, we confer high status upon them, and then lay our belief at their feet. Only humans need gods. I’ve been that wizard behind the curtain, though, and I can assure you that even the critics, the high and mighty, have feet of clay, and will remain “gods” only so long as “we” so elect them.


Can you entirely eliminate subjective factors in wine tasting?

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If you’re one person, No. A single taster will always be tasting within the parameters of his limitations, e.g. he may be more or less sensitive to TCA than other tasters. He may wince at the smell of pyrazines, or find the heat from alcohol unbearable, or feel that a totally dry wine is too severe.

But how about a group? Can the dynamics of consensus solve the subjectivity dilemma?

Objective tasting has been the unicorn of the wine industry for centuries. A long time ago, it was assumed that an epicure, like Thomas Jefferson, was correct in anything he said about wine. Nowadays, in our era of mistrust of authorities, we no longer take it for granted that anyone can be the supreme expert. “Galloni might not like it, but I do,” the reasoning goes—as it should.

But sometimes, it’s important to understand exactly what you’re dealing with in a wine. Is it really balanced? Is it really dry? Is it reduced? What do we mean by “creamy” or “rich” or “spicy”? These are the kinds of things two tasters can easily disagree about, sometimes violently; but if you have a group, you can more easily arrive at a consensus. Or so the theory goes.

My own approach to these matters has been based on my experience as a wine critic. I’ve said for years that, if you’re a consumer interested in wine, then find an expert you trust, and stick with him. (And it doesn’t have to be a critic. It can be a merchant, or your sister-in-law.) In other words, find someone whose palate you relate to, and trust.

But there is something to be said for a group consensus. We’re all part of a group: the human race, and moreover, of a sub-group within it: American wine consumers. Group influence, AKA peer pressure, can be strong, especially when people are as unsure of wine as most people are. And—just to underline my point—everyone is unsure of his or her palate: not just ordinary consumers, but critics, winemakers, even, dare I say it, Master Sommeliers. Everyone seeks refuge within the safe harbor of a peer group. It’s the herd instinct that makes, for example, impalas cluster together when lions stalk the perimeter.

Whether you go with group consensus or individual reviews, is up to you. It depends on your purpose. But I do think that, if you go with the group, you should make sure your group knows what the heck they’re talking about. These crowd-sourced reviews, where anyone can weigh in no matter what their professional qualifications, are questionable to me. Does that sound anti-democratic? Pro-elitist? I guess it does. But I do think reviewers need to bring credentials to the table.

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While I am affiliated with Jackson Family Wines, the postings on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the postings, strategies or opinions of Jackson Family Wines.


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