Tag Archives: wine rants

The Hosemaster of Wine, Riedel, and the new censorship


Hosemaster of Wine Riedel

Aug. 10, 2015 update: Riedel and the publisher of the British wine website that ran Washam’s post have come to a compromise, reports the drinks business trade magazine. No details were announced, but the publisher, Tim Atkin, and Riedel announced “the matter was settled.” The report also includes a ringing endorsement of free speech by Georg Riedel: “I am a true advocate of free speech and that is something I would never try to suppress.” I assume this was not sarcasm given the nature of the dispute.

Earlier this year, the Champagne trade group sued the Australian wine writer Champagne Jayne because the trade group said she wasn’t entitled to use the word Champagne. The wine business, and especially my writing colleagues, could have cared less. Maybe it was because it was in Australia. Maybe it was because they didn’t understand the danger. Or maybe they just didn’t care, because they were too busy doing business with the wine business.

This week, though, they should be paying attention. That’s when attorneys for Riedel, the wine glass company, sent a cease and desist letter to Ron Washam, who writes the Hosemaster of Wine blog. Washam, a former sommelier, writes wine-based satire that makes my rants look like a Sunday school Bible class. A recent target was Riedel, in which he called its glasses a fraud and its patriarch, Georg Riedel, a sexist flim flam man. The lawyer letter, claiming the piece wasn’t satire, that Washam had defamed Riedel, and that a retraction was required, quickly followed.

That Riedel would threaten to sue over something so silly speaks to how the wine business thinks it can control what goes on as wine writing leaves the print world. If Eric Asimov had written this in the New York Times, Riedel, company and man, would have blustered and foamed and forgotten about it. They certainly weren’t going to sue the Times, which actually has a landmark libel case named after it.

But Washam? He, like Champagne Jayne, is a different story. Asimov and most print writers are seen as separate and distinct by the wine business, because it understands print and it knows better than to mess with it. That’s not the case with Washam and those of us who aren’t print. We’re considered part of the wine business, and I get reminded of this every day. We who write about wine on the Internet don’t exist for consumers; we exist to sell product, and we’d better damn not forget it. Otherwise, lawyers send letters.

That Washam, Champagne Jayne, and everyone else who writes about wine are part of the media and deserve the same protections as “real” journalists is inconceivable to the wine business. Much of this is our own fault, given how so many of us are happy and fat shilling for wine companies. The last thing these wine writers want is to be tarred with the journalist brush and to be forced to offer honest evaluations about the products they tout. But that doesn’t absolve them of their responsibility to their readers or to their consciences. 

I wrote this in February, and I’ll write it again. Big Business, under the guise of intellectual property law, sees an opportunity to silence its critics and censor what is written about its products. The first step in stopping this from continuing in wine is for everyone — from the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate on down — to denounce the practice and to refuse to be part of it. Otherwise, the lawyers will send more letters, and eventually we’ll end up with wine writing where all the wines get 92 points and where we’re told we need to buy every wine accessory that’s advertised.

That will be a lot of fun, won’t it?

Let the computer write the wine reviews

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


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.

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