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The next great wine critic: Human, or machine?

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No one, not even an omnivorous reader like myself, can possibly see everything that’s published in the world of wine, so it was that I missed “the news [that] traveled around the Internet so quickly it was seemingly everywhere,” in the words of Cyril Penn’s Wine Business Monthly. (Oh, well, better late than never.)

That “news” was the launch of a new app, from a company called Next Glass, “touted,” in the article’s words, “as the app that scientifically chooses your next wine or beer” by “understand[ing] the flavor profile of a drinker” and then “tell[ing] the consumer (on a 100 percent compatibility or ‘enjoyability’ scale) how likely they are to love it…”.

The idea originated with the company’s CEO, who had dinner with friends a few years back. “The diners were having trouble selecting a bottle [and] a suggestion from the waiter didn’t go over well,” so the CEO “realized that science could be used to make accurate and reliable recommendations.” The “science,” in Next Glass’s case, includes mass spectrometers, chemical analyzers and algorithms, all of overseen by a Ph.D. The company’s COO says Next Glass goes beyond crowd-sourced platforms like Yelp and Trip Advisor because it can tell the consumer whether or not he or she will enjoy the specific wine chosen, and not just what other people thought about it.

Well, this is obviously controversial stuff. Penn wrote, in an introduction, that the announcement from Next Glass “prompted one of the world’s greatest wine essayists to pen a piece…saying, ‘You think an algorithm can replace a wine critic? Think again.’” Penn didn’t identify the wine essayist, but Google did: None other than Matt Kramer. I was not surprised, because Matt really is one of the world’s greatest wine essayists and is always worth reading.

You can guess as to the substance of Matt’s argument: he summarized his opinion with, “It’s individual critics who are the real app…”. Now, you can say that Matt is hardly objective; he writes for a magazine whose strength is its bench of famous wine critics. But I think to dismiss Matt’s position based on that is not valid. Too often, we look for conspiracies and ulterior motives in critics, when really, there are none; and Matt’s credibility quotient is among the highest in the field. Matt is correct when he writes that critics offer authentic thought and insight rather than data sifting with a ‘skin’ that makes it seem individualized and personal.”

I don’t doubt that Next Glass will have some success. They certainly got a lot of free media: coverage ranged from business publications to the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN and the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ.DLive, an online digital conference.

People, especially younger people, like apps; they seem to fit in with today’s fast-paced, iPhone-connected world. As one of my tattoo artist friends explained to me, “If you’re the guy at the table with the app, you’re looking cool.” And Next Glass, in particular, appears to be “scientific” in a way that might appeal to folks who resent being told what to do and think by others, particularly older men and women whose lives bear little resemblance to their own.

Far be it from me to suggest that wine critics are the end-all and be-all of wine recommending. But I was one myself, for a long time, and I know that world pretty well; and some voice inside me, which I have learned to trust because it’s usually right, is telling me that the individual wine critic, with all his flaws and virtues, is going to continue to be important, because–let’s face it–everything that purports to replace it isn’t as good. When a Gen Y’er uses Next Glass to buy her next glass or bottle of wine—and doesn’t particularly like it, or finds her friends don’t like it—Next Glass’s limitations will be clear.


Einstein, wine quality and a great San Francisco day

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After 1918, when the General Theory of Relativity made headlines all over the world, and Albert Einstein was the most famous scientist in history, the theory became the basis, in the popular mind, for a singular misconception.

“The phrase ‘everything is relative’ became very popular. It was thought to mean that nothing is better than anything else,” writes Robert Cwiklik, in his little volume, Albert Einstein and the Theory of Relativity.

Under this misunderstanding of what the theory actually meant, people assumed that no opinion, idea, style or solution to any problem was better than any other. This certainly had nothing to do with Einstein’s own beliefs—he always stuck to his view of fixed, immutable truths in the Universe, and spent his life, futilely at the end, searching for them. But it did enable the masses to argue that, since everything is relative, one’s own views were as valid as those of any expert.

This strain of thinking has always been nascent in humans—it is the basis of the anti-intellectualism that runs through American history–but it has acquired particular force in the age of the Internet and social media. This is because anyone can, indeed, formulate an opinion and then promulgate it, instantaneously and universally, with the push of a keystroke. This had led to the notion that expertise is no longer valid—is, in fact, elitist—a notion that has particular traction in wine reviewing, which has always been viewed skeptically and even hostilely by certain segments of the public.

However, as Einstein would be the first to aver, this is simply not the case. As one who has repeatedly suggested that people drink what they want, with whatever they want, I defer to no one in my democratic [small “d”] beliefs. But the fact is, there is such a thing as quality in wine. Some wines simply are better than others, and this is always due to two factors: the excellence of the vineyard, and the diligence of the winemaking team.

Have I said anything earthshaking, or that you didn’t know? No. But I’m reading the Einstein book, and that quote led me to these thoughts, which you’re reading now. Of more pertinence, perhaps, to me anyhow, was my day in San Francisco. A picture-postcard day, Spring-like and sunny, with the beauty that S.F. is famous for. Maxine, Keith and I had planned to have oysters at Waterbar during Christmas week, but the flu hit all three of us, hard, and we had to postpone. Marilyn joined us at the last minute, largely because after Waterbar, we planned to walk over to Trou Normand, in the old Pacific Telephone Building,

PacTel

South of Market. Marilyn worked there, long ago, as a secretary, and wanted to reminisce. Besides, Trou Normand was just chosen as one of Michael Bauer’s top ten new restaurants of 2014, and one of the chefs, Seth, is married to my friend Danielle, who’s the receptionist at Old Crow Tattoo. Trou Normand specializes in charcuterie—who could say no to that, except a vegan?—and, rare for downtown, they’re open all afternoon. So we had our oysters (a dozen each) at beautiful Waterbar, with a bottle of Domaine Chandon L’Etoile (a great wine), then walked over to Trou Normand and gorged on charcuterie and salumi. Here’s a photo essay.

downtownSF

It was clear and blue-skied downtown

FerryBldg

The Ferry Building gleamed white

BayBridge

And the water was blue beneath the Bay Bridge

MrGull

Mr. Gull was relaxing on an old piling

 WaterBar

Waterbar looked warm and inviting

WaterBarPatio

with its outdoor area by the bridge

 Shellfish

The shellfish beckoned

Then it was off to Trou Normand

Normand

Located in a high-ceilinged former lobby of the telephone building

NormandInside

I wanted everything on the menu

 NormandMenu

Charcuterie

Our server was very helpful!


Crowd-based reviews? A consideration

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I’m not certain I agree that, in large, multi-judge competitions, “the best wines tend to rise to the top,” as Andy Perdue says in his column in Pacific NW Magazine says.

Andy’s contention is based on the fact that a big competition represents “a consensus of the judges who are tasting the wines” and, thus, this crowd-sourced opinion is more free of “biases” than would be the judgment of an individual taster.

This is a sort of “50 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong” analysis. (That slogan comes from a Broadway play of 1929 that contrasted the socially-liberal attitudes of 1920s Paris with the censorship and alcohol Prohibition then in effect in the U.S. Its usual meaning is, “Hey, if so many people like it, there must be something to it.”)

There is indeed something to be said about consensus among large groups when it comes to decision-making. Our elections are based on consensus. Just as we would not want a single individual to pick our political leaders, but prefer to leave that up to the collective will of the voters, so too the consensual approach to wine judging suggests it somehow arrives at findings that are more true and real and thus of greater lasting value.

However, Andy himself acknowledges that you can unearth new and exciting wines in at least five ways,” namely, wine competitions, wine critics, wine merchants, wineries/wine festivals and friend recommendations. The question is not, “Which is best?,” because each way obviously has its own special appeals. The question is, “Which of these five ways is on the increase and which is losing steam?”

We’re certainly familiar with the contention that the Big Critics are losing sway, and I think that’s true, in the sense that the more famous of them are aging out. But what does this mean for the template? Not much. The New York Yankees, much less Major League Baseball, didn’t phase away with Derek Jeter’s retirement, because talented younger players—Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig, Mike Trout—are constantly coming up. In the same way, it’s becoming fashionable to predict the demise of the individual critic, but we’ve seen the stunning rise and success of Antonio Galloni’s Vinous, with its super-stable of critics, and other leading publications (including The Wine Advocate, which isn’t going anywhere), remain hugely influential. So it does not seem to me that wine critics are an especially endangered species.

The question, though, of individual judgment versus consensus-driven judgment remains interesting, albeit probably unresolvable. Having participated in huge tastings (although the last one was years ago), I came to the personal conclusion that there were too many people involved, too many egos, too much confusion and, at any rate, too much alcohol imbibed in too short a time, at least for my tastes. (Perhaps things have changed in the interim.) Then too, consensus usually means that outlier wines, at both the top and the bottom, are eliminated, resulting in a shift toward the median, or average. That’s not to say that a winner at a big competition is not a fine, even a great wine, but it does stand to reason that it will be a wine that offends the least number of people, while appealing to the greater esthetic. One could argue that such a wine would be more ordinary than special. But I’m acutely aware that every single one of my arguments could be turned on its head, and used to prove the opposite.

Another limitation of big competitions is that not all the top wineries even bother to enter them. In fact, many top wineries don’t, for the simple reason that they have more to lose than to gain, by getting a lower score than, say, a supermarket wine. This raises a fundamental limitation of any method of critical appraisal: no competition, no individual judge can possibly review all the wines out there. Even I, as a working critic who tasted thousands of wines each year, could barely keep up—and there were some wines I never tasted at all.

I will admit there’s a certain allure to a double gold winner from a big competition. I think to myself, “It certainly can’t be a bad wine, and it might even be a very special one.” It’s kind of the way I feel about Yelp: for all its well-publicized problems, Yelp does provide a kind of base-of-the-pyramid generalization of the conclusions of many people. If the majority of 40 reviews of a restaurant are positive, I’m more inclined to check it out. But—and this is just me—I still prefer the review of a single, trusted critic, like Michael Bauer, to that of the crowd.


No such thing as the “best” wine

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It’s interesting how different media outlets described the wines that were recently stolen from the French Laundry.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s headline reads “Wine thief with nose for best reaps huge haul from French Laundry.”

Calling the Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Screaming Eagle the “best” grants the highest esteem to these wines, suggesting to readers that no other wines in the world can approach them in quality. KRON Channel 4, one of the Bay Area’s leading news outlets, took a more cautious approach, calling the purloined wines “high-end,” which carries vastly different connotations than “best”: ‘high-end” implies a certain rare desirability that gives the wines prestige, but does not elevate them to the highest category of perfection. The Contra Costa Times took a decidedly neutral approach: They called the wines merely “expensive,” a just-the-facts-ma’am description of reality, for in truth, those bottles certainly are among the most costly in the world. Still, they are not “priceless,” as USA Today trumpeted in a flashy headline.

This may all seem trivial, but for students of the media, who wish to understand how news is actually communicated in this country, it underscores the importance of optics—perceptions that become fixed ideas among the public. Now, the job of the headline writer is different from that of the reporter. Usually, reporters don’t write their own headlines; that is considered a special art and is reserved to editors. But no matter who writes the headline, it can achieve a life of its own. When a criminal killed a bar owner and then forced a hostage to decapitate him in New York City back in 1983, the New York Post certainly was correct to give it full front page coverage. They could have headlined, as the New York Times discretely did, “Owner of a bar shot to death; subject is held,” and then relegated the gory details of the “head in a box” to the fourth paragraph. But that headline never achieved anywhere close to the immortality of the Post’s “Headless body in topless bar,”

 headless

which has become one of the most famous headlines in the history of American journalism. (Its author, Vinnie Musetto, excelled at eye-catching headers. He also penned the Post’s “Khadafy Goes Daffy,” about the former Libyan strongman’s antics.)

Long before there was an Internet or social media, headlines like these went viral: they were repeated in many media outlets, proving that a great headline is at least as important, in terms of popularity, as what is actually contained in the article itself. This is where, however, a sort of Continental drift between the headline and the actual news can open seismic chasms. In the story about the French Laundry theft, it is only natural that some headline writers would decide that the word “best” sounds stronger than “high-end” or “expensive.” High-end, expensive stuff is stolen all the time, but when “the best” is taken, people pay attention.

However, the fact is that Romanée-Conti and Screaming Eagle are not “the best” wines in the world. There are no “best wines” in the world. Any critic will tell you so. What these wines are, indisputably, are among the most expensive wines in the world. But there’s a big, huge difference, and to call these wines “the best” only reinforces the public’s perception that they can’t get really great wine unless they pay really high prices. That’s the biggest myth in all of wine.


My thoughts on the S.F. Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014

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Of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Wines of 2014,

  • 9 of the 12 Chardonnays have alcohol below 14%
  • 13 of 16 Other Whites have alcohol below 14%
  • 8 of 9 Sparkling Wine, Rose and Others have alcohol below 14%
  • 18 of 23 Pinot Noirs have alcohol below 14%

Did these wines make the cut because they really are the “top” wines of the vintage, or because the alcohol is low, which is where Wine Editor Jon Bonné prefers it to be?

Jon did select numerous Cabernet Sauvignons, red Rhone-style wines, Zinfandels and Other Reds that have well above 14% alcohol, but I suppose that’s because he had to include those varieties on his list, and for the most part, those grapes just don’t make good wine unless the brix is elevated enough to produce wines in the 14%s and even approaching if not exceeding 15%.

I’m simply puzzled. There are so many great Pinots and Chardonnays out there that don’t fit Jon’s restricted mold. And what’s up with that Calera 2012 Central Coast Pinot that made the list? At 14.6%, it’s easily the highest-alcohol Pinot of Jon’s bunch, but it certainly isn’t a Top 100 Wine of the year. I reviewed it last March 1, just a week before leaving my job at Wine Enthusiast, and gave it 86 points. It’s just what you’d expect: Not Josh Jensen’s top Pinot, not anywhere close to it, but his least expensive ($26), a nice everyday sipper that’s a blend of multiple vineyards along the Central Coast. (I think Josh must be praising the Gods of Caprice for that one!)

Haven’t we ridden this low-alcohol train about as far as it can usefully take us? There’s something fundamentally mashugana about it. I use the word “mashugana,” which is of Yiddish origin, deliberately, for in my version of street parlance, it means, not just “crazy,” but nonsensical. For it’s nonsensical to demand that California wine be picked underripe, just to satisfy the intellectual inclinations of a small band of adherents.

Jon himself seems not to sense the inconsistencies in his approach. In his introduction to the Top 100 article (after mentioning he’d hung out recently with Steven Spurrier), he tells us that, back in 1976, California wine “was as good as French” (a fact obvious to anyone after Cali wine swept the Paris Tasting). Then he adds that, whilst in London, “Our [i.e. California’s] wine promise was again unmistakable.” In fact, repeating a theme he’s held for some years, he trumpets “This is a golden moment for American wine,” which presumably means California wine, or certainly West Coast wine, “which is the scope of our annual Top 100 Wines.”

Well, if California wine was great 38 years ago, and has been in a “golden moment” for the few years that Jon’s been praising it, are we then to assume that between 1977 and 2008 or 2009, California wine was bad, unbalanced, irregular? I don’t think any credible person could claim that. Certainly our wines are wonderful now (the best really are world class), but they were wonderful in the 1970s and 1980s (when I started paying attention to them) and they were wonderful in the 1990s and 2000s (when I was paid to review them). They were wonderful through the second week of March of this year, when I left my old job, and they’re wonderful now, although I will confess I no longer taste as widely as I used to nor as broadly as Jon. But how much can have changed since last March? I would say California is in a golden century, not just a moment.

It takes, I think, a special form of mental jujitsu to dismiss higher-alcohol California wine, as Jon does, and then to come out with a statement like “Eight years ago, it would have been hard to imagine a wine like the 2013 Lo-Fi Cabernet Franc,” a wine that made Jon’s list. Well, it took me all of 40 seconds to go to my database and find Jonata’s 2007 El Alma de Jonata Red, a wine that is largely Cabernet Franc. I gave it 96 points, and while I don’t know precisely what the alcohol was, I really don’t care, either. And how about Lang & Reed? Great Cab Franc house, and has been for years. I could also mention Merryvale, Pride Mountain, Jarvis (both the estate grown and Will Jarvis’ Science Project), Peju, Constant and La Jota. All great Cab Francs. There was a Niebaum-Coppola 2002 Cabernet Franc that was so good, I still remember it. But perhaps Jon never tried it; he only arrived at the Chronicle in 2006.

I don’t mean to pick on Jon or anybody else. Shortly after he came to the Chronicle, I invited him to dinner, because I thought we Bay Area geeks should all be friends. He’s a perfectly nice guy. But I just don’t get this addiction to below 14% wines. Blind tasting clearly is the way to figure out what’s really going on—just ask Raj Parr and Adam Lee, if you know what I mean and I think most of you do. (Hint: World of Pinot Noir, 2011.)

If the Chron’s tasting panel really were tasting blind, their list wouldn’t be so heavy on the under-14% wines. It’s just not fair to be so harsh against all the others. I thought critics weren’t supposed to let their personal preferences affect their reviews. Have times changed?


On critics, criticism and bad reviews

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I think it’s perfectly fine for the restaurants and pubs in Dallas to band together and try to stop the Dallas Morning News’ restaurant critic from having access to them.

It’s a free country, right? Leslie Brenner, the DMN’s critic, has the right to publicly trash the restos in her column, and they have the right to collectively be pissed off and try to bring her column down.

This minor brouhaha would be of interest only to Dallas folks, if it didn’t touch upon some larger issues. Here’s the nugget of the case: The restaurants “are organizing to confront the major daily’s critic, whose position of influence has historically silenced, or at least intimidated, those who might question his or her authority.” Leslie is a “tough critic” whose negative reviews can be damaging to those she targets (as can bad reviews in any city, including in San Francisco, where Michael Bauer holds sway). The restaurateurs are calling for a “more nuanced system,” whatever that means. Until and if they get one, they can’t stop Leslie from visiting their venues—but they can refuse to accept her payment, and they can stop cooperating with the DMN’s photographers.

The practice is not unknown among wineries. Several of the country’s most famous critics are routinely not sent the wines from certain wineries who believe that they (the critics) are somehow prejudiced against those wines. I, myself, suffered this fate (not that it bothered me), and many winemakers have told me over the years they don’t bother sending their wines to the nation’s leading wine magazine because they don’t think they get fair treatment.

So this situation in Dallas is neither new nor particularly egregious. What I do find interesting is the particular gripe the restaurateurs have with respect to Leslie Brenner: “[T]hey’re confronting a self-described tough critic whose five-star system, they say, cannot differentiate between a self-service three-star barbecue joint with minimal decor and a full-service three-star restaurant with a hip, rustic interior. They’re lobbying for a more nuanced system that includes separate ratings for food, service and décor.”

“A more nuanced system.”. Hmm. That sounds an awful lot like what critics of the 100-point system say. They, too, argue that you can’t summarize wine by a numerical score. I don’t happen to agree, particularly because the point score is usually accompanied by a review in text (if anyone bothers to read it). But the truth is, there’s no system of critical reviewing that would ever make the critic and those she criticizes BFFs. Critiquing is inherently an act of defiance; nobody likes to see their product, whether it be food or wine, savaged in the pages of a metropolitan area’s leading daily newspaper (although they love it when the critic gives them a good review).

A good critic takes no satisfaction in a negative review. I certainly didn’t, and it was never fun when an angry winemaker called me up to complain, which happened on a fairly regular basis. But I do want to say this: A critic has to be fair and speak her mind, but there’s no reason for judgment to turn to acrimony. There’s a way to give a mediocre review that’s constructive, and doesn’t roil the waters with animosity and snark. There were many times when I loathed a wine so much, I want to write something like “The winemaker should be banished to a desert island and forced to drink this swill for the rest of his life.” But I always desisted from such colorful attacks, which may make for more interesting reading, but doesn’t advance the civility that should mark our relationships.


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