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Tag Archives: wine rants

Let the computer write the wine reviews

artificialintelligence
computer-generated wine reviews

How am I supposed to know if there’s too much oak?

Could artificial intelligence make writers obsolete? Because I’m not the only one who wonders. Barbara Ehrenreich, writing in the New York Times, firmly believes that “the business of book reviewing could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers.”

So why not wine writing — computer-generated wine reviews?

This would solve any number of problems, not the least of which is that winemakers wouldn’t have to deal with people like me. I had a brief email discussion recently with an annoyed producer who insisted that her wines didn’t taste the way I described them; she certainly would have been better off with WineNet than what Ehrenreich calls a “wet, carbon-based thinking apparatus” with self-awareness and a sense of obligation to its readers.

The last time I wrote about this, a company called Narrative Science had made significant inroads in taking disparate facts and turning them into a readable narrative. Unfortunately, it seems to have veered elsewhere, developing a product that “creates new revenue opportunities by transforming data into engaging content that can be productized and monetized.” This approach has little to do with writing, since there is money involved.

Still, much work has been done. TechCrunch reported last month that robot writers are all the rage in Silicon Valley, while a data scientist named Tony Fischetti has written that Markov chains can be used to simulate what he calls the “exercise in pretentiousness” that is a wine review. The concept of a Markov chain, which deals with probability, is far beyond my math skills, but Fischetti used 9,000 reviews from the Wine Spectator to write a program that came up with tasting notes that are no worse than most, including: “Quite rich, but stopping short of opulent, this white sports peach and apricot, yet a little in finesse” and “this stylish Australian Cabernet is dark, deep and complex, ending with a polished mouthful of spicy fruit and plenty of personality.”

Meanwhile, a wine producer in France, using N-Gram analysis (also beyond my math skills, but apparently related to word order) also thinks it’s possible to generate wine reviews without a wine writer. Both approaches seem to jive with what I wrote last time, that an artificial intelligence, working with a wine term database and the proper algorithm, could scrape together effective reviews. Probably even scores, too.

I just hope, if and when this puts me out of business, that someone will remember that I saw it coming. Maybe I can monetize the blog that way.

Image courtesy of Techbrarian, using a Creative Commons license

 

Money magazine’s not very cheap cheap wine story

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cheap wineOne would think, after almost a decade of writing about cheap wine, winning awards, writing a critically-acclaimed book, and seeing the blog annually ranked as one of the most influential wine sites on the Internet, that the Wine Curmudgeon would have made an impression on the wine world. Apparently not, if this week’s Money magazine cheap wine story is any indication.

Mark Edward Harris asked four experts to list their “favorite bottle bargains,” and the results were so depressing that I almost gave up wine writing on the spot. The selections, save for those from “Wine for Dummies” impresario Mary Ewing-Mulligan (who I know and have judged with), reinforced every wine stereotype I have been fighting against for years. It’s as if the cheap wine revolution that has given us better wine for less money never happened, and it’s still 1999.

This is not to denigrate the other three experts, all of whom are immensely qualified and probably know infinitely more about their specialties than I could ever imagine knowing. But they don’t know more about cheap wine than I do, and their selections showed that. Among the problems with the recommendations that weren’t Ewing-Mulligan’s:

• Almost half of the other 42 wines cost $20 or more, ignoring that 95 percent of us will never spend more than $20 for a bottle of wine. Granted, Money’s readers may well be in that five percent, but if you’re looking for bargains, shouldn’t the editors know what a bargain is?

• The implication that wine that doesn’t cost more than $20 isn’t worth drinking. I’ll offer the writer, his editors, and the other three experts the same challenge I always make when I see something like this: Let’s taste the best cheap wines blind against more expensive wines, and you see if you can tell which is which.

• One rose, and a three-year-old rose that is apparently not in any U.S. retail stores, if Wine Searcher is to be believed. How a list of bargain wines could leave out rose, the greatest bargain in wine, is astounding.

• The usual wine geek choices that only wine geeks know about and that most of us can’t buy, including three Austrian wines and a Greek. I live in the ninth largest city in the country, with terrific retailers locked in death grip competition, and none of those four wines are available here.

• Almost half of the other 42 selections came from France and California, ignoring what has happened in South America, Australia, Oregon, Washington, Spain, and southern Italy over the past two decades.

And I wasn’t the only one who was upset. The New York Times’ Eric Asimov, hardly a champion of cheap wine, didn’t like it, either. And, for some reason, one of the experts was allowed to recommend a wine made by the winery that he works for. Has a major U.S. publication sunk so far that no one at Money sees that as a conflict of interest? Or is it OK to do it because it’s only wine?

Want a real list of bargain wines? Then check out the 2015 $10 Hall of Fame or the story I wrote for the Bottom Line Personal magazine. Or, since I don’t like to criticize without offering an alternative, my list of 10 bargain wines, $12 or less, that Money should have included. It’s a PDF, so you can print it and take it the next time you go wine shopping.

Restaurant wine prices in Europe

rests

restaurant wine prices in EuropeThe email from my friend visiting Spain not only waxed poetic about the wine, but about the prices: “Talk about cheap wine. Beautiful wine for €12, and the most expensive bottle was €24.” In other words, restaurant wine prices in Europe were U.S. retail prices — which is unheard of in the States.

This is not unusual. When my brother was in Sicily, he marveled at both the quality and the prices in restaurants, drinking Cusumano for more or less what I pay for it at a Dallas liquor store. I’ve seen the same thing when I’ve traveled to Europe; as one sommelier at a very high-end restaurant owned by a famous Spanish chef told me: “Why would we want to charge as much as you do in the States? Then people won’t order as much wine.”

How is this possible? After all, talk to most restaurateurs in the U.S., and they make it sound as if they’ll go out of business if they don’t charge $30 for a wine that cost them $8:

• Europe’s on-gong recession, and especially in southern Europe. If there is 25 percent unemployment, it doesn’t make much economic sense to overcharge for wine.

• The idea that wine is part of dinner, which is the way Europeans have always seen wine, and not something in addition to dinner, the way Americans — and especially American restaurateurs — have always seen wine.

• Better wine list sensibilities, where the restaurant sells wine to drink and not to impress high-dollar patrons or wine snobs. Or, as Jacques Pepin told me, why would anyone want to pay for Bordeaux when you can drink the local wine, usually of high quality, and spend less money?

• No three-tier system, which may be the most important reason. In Europe, there isn’t a distributor getting its cut, which can add as much as 20 percent to the cost of wine. The restaurant can order directly from the producer, who is often local, and enjoys supply chain efficiencies that we can only dream about here.

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