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The future of wine criticism: through my magic crystal




Aug. 1, 2056

It may be hard for today’s younger generation to believe, but once upon a time, the evaluation of wine was determined by people, not smart machines.

Weird, no? But it’s true, and you don’t have to go very far back to arrive at such a strange era. Barely 50 years ago, there was a class of mavens, “wine critics,” who were held in high esteem, especially by the privileged classes. These people occupied a position in wine selection more or less an equivalent to that of priests and gurus in matters religious and spiritual. Their followers gave the highest credence to their pronouncements and proceeded to organize their lives worshipfully according to their edicts.

In retrospect, we can see that this curious phenomenon represented a last vestige of a dying epoch: the false belief in authority, which peaked during the Dark Ages, and began eroding with the advent of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, only to be completely undone by the Internet. Why it should have taken so long for the era of the wine critic to begin its slow demise, though, is problematic. For, even as the privileged classes became more highly educated and rational, their irrational dependency upon the edicts of “wine critics” became more strongly entrenched. I leave it to modern-day psychologists to explain this.

Whatever the reasons, we can be thankful that a bizarre period has come to a decisive end. That it took smart machines, powered by artificial intelligence, to administer the final coup de grace was inevitable. Look at all the wasteful human practices that have been eliminated by the widespread application of A.I. We no longer depend on fallible humans to raise or instruct our children, or even give birth to them. Smart cars, buses, trains and aircraft take us swiftly and safely to and fro on our rounds, without human interference. Our farms and factories are guided by robots; fires are put out by intelligent devices and criminals are apprehended by automated policemen; surgeries are performed, not by tired, irritable humans, but by the most exquisitely trained doc-bots. Bots walk our dogs and scoop up their waste; bots catch our seafood from the ocean and even lately have learned how to shuck oysters. And, of course, the President of the United States is a robot, non-partisan and completely objective. Humans no longer have to toil behind counters, on assembly lines, or imprisoned within cruel cubicles; artificial workers can perform those tasks far more efficiently, without fatigue, complaint or boredom. Artificial intelligence has liberated us from the drudgeries and indignities that plagued our ancestors; included among these is the task of adjudging the quality of the drinks we ingest, including wine.

J.A.I. caught up with one of most famous wine critics of the old time, although he is long since retired. Mr. Steve Heimoff is 147 years old, but his brain is still young and vibrant, kept alert and nourished by caretaker drones, in a sunny, plant-filled solarium along the California coast. Mr. Heimoff had a distinguished career in the late part of the 20th and early 21st centuries. One of the towering giants of wine criticism of that period, he has been referred to as the “Einstein of wine reviewing,” and compared to Alexander the Great, George Washington, Mother Teresa and The Beatles. A great Heimoff review, the Wall Street Journal once reported, could sell 500,000 cases overnight, while a bad one could, and all too often did, bankrupt a winery. Such was the power of Heimoff: autocratic, absolute, pitiless.

We asked Mr. Heimoff if he regretted the end of the human wine critic era, and he replied, through his intelligent translation device, that he welcomed it. Early in his career, he had believed passionately in the wine critic hierarchy; only it, he felt, could weed objectively through the forest of wines and brands to arm the consumer with knowledgeable, independent information.

But, Mr. Heimoff added, by the second decade of the current century, he began to have his doubts. The “clergy of wine theocracy,” as he called it, began to crumble; far from being an elite priesthood, it became “a sort of subway church of the masses,” wherein anybody and everybody could claim to be a wine critic, in much the same way as individuals can purchase online “certificates of divinity” and call themselves “Reverend. That’s when I knew,” Mr. Heimoff attests, “that the old ways were forever gone.”

Of course, not all human activities have been replaced by A.I. devices. We still have human restaurant critics; smart machines have so far simply proven unable to review the dining experience. And, of course, “the world’s oldest profession” continues to be practiced by real, flesh-and-blood people. But, with the recent death of the oldest surviving human wine critic,” 1 Wine Dude, who still was practicing as recently as last June’s Trump Day, the practice of wine criticism—not just in America, but from China to the Moon colonies—is now reserved to smart machines.

  1. It’s my belief that the death of the wine critic as a human life form began with the emergence of 1WineDoody, and so it is only right and fitting that his passing marks the very end of that life form.

  2. Funny until you realize that wine, as we know it, probably won’t exist in a commercially meaningful way in 2056. A few startups like these guys – – and large beverage (booze and non-booze) are barreling down the path of synthetic wine.

    If there’s anything to bemoan in future, it’s the death of wine, not wine criticism.

  3. Bob Henry says:


    Okay, you have me leaning forward:–1443049435–2197–news

    “They hand-bottle, hand-cork and hand-label the wine . . .”

    So tell me, how does Illahe flush the neck of the bottle with CO2 before hand-corking it?

    Enquiring minds want to know!

    ~~ Bob

  4. Nice Gabe! Looks like fun… essentially how home winemakers practice their craft.

  5. Hi Bob,

    The short answer is that we didn’t sparge the 1899 bottles before hand-corking them.

    The long answer is that there are a lot of winemaking techniques that we used at Illahe that we did not use for the 1899. We used a hand-crank destemmer, which crushed the fruit more then we wanted (and took forever), so we ended up using more whole-cluster. We used buckets to do “bucket-overs” instead of pump-overs. We did pigeage instead of punch-downs. We used a hand-pump, and eventually upgraded to a bicycle-pump, instead of racking with nitrogen. We skipped a bunch of lab tests.

    The whole point of the exercise was to create a wine that tasted like the wines from hundreds of years ago. I won’t say this method makes the wine taste better or worse, but it definitely tastes different.

    I left my position as Assistant Winemaker at Illahe in 2014 to pursue a position as a Head Winemaker for a new winery called Scenic Valley. But I loved working at Illahe, I think the wines are fantastic, and I highly recommend giving their wines a try.

  6. Michael,

    Very true. When we described what made the wine unique, we would often use the disclaimer of being the only “commercially available” wine made without electricity. Although I doubt many home winemakers are harvesting their grapes with a team of draft horses 😉

  7. Bob Henry says:


    Without the CO2 sparge, what is the shelf life of the bottle?

    Regarding pigeage à pied, how long were you feet/ankles/shins purple?

    ~~ Bob

  8. Bob Henry says:


    In your great-grandparents’s day, soda pop started out as a handmade fountain drink served up by “soda jerks” at the local pharmacy. (Because the flavor elements were concocted by the compounding pharmacist.)

    In your grandparents’ day, soda pop became an industrial product made from artificial ingredients, packaged in glass bottles and ubiquitously sold in grocery stores.

    In your parents’ day, soda pop was introduced in cans and plastic bottles.

    And in your day, the pendulum has swung in the other direction.

    “Craft” soda pop is the new trend. Sweetened with cane sugar, not sugar beets or high fructose corn syrup. Made from real spices, roots and natural flavors, not artificial flavors concocted by flavor chemists.

    The food movement is unmistakable: a return to simplicity and authenticity.

    Wines are going that route through organic/biodynamic farming.

    I don’t see the pendulum swinging in the direction of flavor chemist-concocted “wines.” Or consumers having 3D food printers at home formulating their own “wines.”

    If you think the European push back against American wines labeled Champagne and Chablis and Hearty Burgundy and Rhine is fierce, wait ’til you see the three-tier distribution system mount its formidable legislative assault against such artificial beverages calling themselves “wine.”

    Wine is an agricultural product. These ersatz beverages are test tube concoctions.

    ~~ Bob

  9. Bob,

    Tough to predict the ageability of any wine, especially this one. The sparge is the least of your worries. Since we couldn’t use a pH meter, we don’t have any way to measure the TA or pH of this wine. We did use chromatography, so we have some idea that there is a reasonable amount of acid in this wine, but there was no way to quantify it without using electricity. We also had a water-powered aspirator, so we did add a measured amount of sulfur (using a triple-beam scale, of course). But all I can tell you for sure is that this wine is as ageworthy as any fine wine made in the 1800’s.

  10. Bob Henry says:


    I “guess” if you fill the bottle to where the wine almost touches the cork, then the amount of atmospheric oxygen in the headspace is “negligible.” (Maybe even serves as a form of micro-oxygenation?)

    As for the notion of it being no less sound that those wines made in the 1800s . . . I hadn’t really thought of it that way. Good point.

    I have no experience tasting wines from that era.

    (Unlike folks like Michael Broadbent and Dr. Bipin Desai.)

    ~~ Bob

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