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Am I a machine, or am I real?


In wine reviewing, do you want a machine, or someone who actually has an opinion?

More on this later, but first, consider this story that somebody invented a machine that “can identify different types of cava wine, the champagne-like sparkling wine from Spain” potentially more accurately than a person can.

Obviously, nobody would want a piece of laboratory equipment that spat out a chemical analysis of a wine in preference to a well-written, thoughtful opinion of a wine. This is relevant because lately there’s something of of a rift between the “letters after their name” types (MWs, MSs, SWE people) and “ordinary” wine writers—those of us without letters after our names. In a typical gathering of both, the lettered elite, especially MWs, will stick to their own kind, rather like the Canada geese that live in the park across from my house and waddle together. Ordinary wine writers, on the other hand, are the crows of the wine writing community, solo flyers who have no peer group to impress, and so go our own way. This penchant for—what should we call it?—eccentricity makes the ordinary, unaffiliated wine writer distinct. No group pressure to conform to, no norms, rules, association expectations. Just a struggle to find our voice.

So back to machine tasters, If the goal of someone who aspires to letters after her name is to identify different cavas blind—that’s the kind of thing they do, right?—well, if that can be done better by a machine, then what’s the point? The better you get at that sort of thing, the more machine like you are, the less human. But if the goal of wine is to communicate, which is the most human of activities, then why would a wine writer want to get less human, more like a machine?

This is the tension between the writer-as-machine and the ordinary writer. There are of course exceptions. Jancis Robinson is an MW but she is a very humanistic writer. Maybe machine-like accuracy wasn’t all that important back when Jancis became an MW. Then, wine knowledge was perceived as a kind of exotic art, of the most human, and humane, tradition. George Saintsbury’s books show that, as do the works of Harry Waugh. Even Michael Broadbent—aloof, austere, with the waspishness of a boarding school master—retains some of that humanity. Contrast that with today’s tired, ambitious parade of wannabe machines, lining up for letters after their names so they can work for an airline, restaurant group or corporation. They seem so antithetical to the amateur (in the truest sense) tradition, in which wine writers once sought, and acquired, knowledge for its own sake—not to get a high paying job, but for love, sheer love. It makes me glad to be a writer whose last name will never be followed by letters, except R.I.P.

  1. Okay so while I completely agree with you about having letters behind my name, (and that could be because I always tested poorly in school and am still scarred) have no intent or interest as I don’t see the point, and so many of the cats I’ve met that are lettered or studying to letter….well they wouldn’t know passion if it climbed on their face and wiggled. Haven’t met all of them of course but dang. That being said, as the sparkling wine buyer for our store, I wouldn’t mind having a machine taste Cava for me…so much of that stuff is simply awful!

  2. People like to have the letters because it tells people they are legit. The other way to become legit – which includes but is not limited to: traveling, drinking lots of wine, shaking lots of hands, getting muddy in vineyards, talking to interesting people, talking to boring people, talking to egomaniacs, talking to the brilliant, study, work, work, work, and then some more work, reading a lot, thinking, and then meeting more people who actually make the wine – takes a lot of effort and time.

    So one could do all those other things for years upon years and slowly earn respect, or they could study hard for a few months. I am not disparaging the later, I get why one would go for the letters and heck, if it gets them doing something they love, why not?

    Wayne, LEED GA

  3. I thought the whole point of a “good” wine critic and review was to take a mostly subjective exercise and make it as objective as possible. Who (or what) better to do that than a machine?

    I know one MW. He is a very, very smart man, and I mean that in a general sense. Regarding wine, he is highly experienced, insightful, and passionate beyond belief. Just like anything there are people who get it and those that don’t so don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

  4. I didn’t know there was a rift there. Wouldn’t an MW snubbing an established wine reviewer be a bit like Michael Chiarello snubbing Thomas Keller because Chiarello went to culinary school and Keller didn’t?

  5. Hmmm.

    Well, I know a handful of MWs now and Master Somms. None of them are robotic, or egotistical, or boring. Sh*t, I was rocking out to Iron Maiden, drinking, and talking about Chilean winemakers with one MS just in the last couple of weeks – that was not in any way what I’d describe as tired, though I was for sure very, very tired the next day! 🙂

  6. Opinions are like anuses. Everyone has one. Some stink more than others.
    What I want is an accurate description so I can make *my* decision.
    It’s not what the the taster *thinks* they perceive that matters, it’s their ability to correctly, accurately and consistently identify sensory components of a wine.
    I am not looking to emulate your preferences, I *am* looking for you to be a conduit of the wine’s intrinsic essence.
    If a reviewer/evaluator cannot do this, there are two options:
    1) training or 2) retirement.

  7. I had no idea that it was a ” tired, ambitious, wannabe machine…with letters after their name” that picked out the wines on my last airline flight.

    Judging by the choices, I coulda swore it was the baggage handler.

  8. Patrick (PhD) says:

    Because drinking wine is a primarily sensory and sensuous thing to do, I want a wine writer who can still be seduced. Whether they have letters after their name or not.

  9. Patrick Ph.D, I hope my wine writing will seduce you (and everybody else).

  10. SUAMW: Couldn’t agree more!

  11. Brian: Yes.

  12. What is really needed is the machine that finds out what the buyer really does like. Now, that would be a pairing whether by machine, letters, sellers or scribes.

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