The future of wine criticism: through my magic crystal

 

JOURNAL OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

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.

Behold: Steve Heimoff, M.S.!!!!!

 

I’m not big on blowing my own horn, but hey, if you don’t beat your own bush and shine a light on your own accomplishments, then who will? So, with these awkwardly mixed metaphors, I’m proud to announce that I have just been awarded the prestigious title of Master Sommelier!

I didn’t reveal to anyone that I was actually “going for it” because I feared it would be too embarrassing if I didn’t win. You know how it is with some people—they tell you how successful they are and how everybody else is a loser, and then, when they themselves lose, they have to eat some serious crow. Well, I’ve never been a fan of crow, serious or otherwise. But guess what, you losers and ugly people: I WON! Hahahaha. Or is it Bwahahaha?

It was hard going. First I had to qualify for the WSA, then the WSAT, then the WSIP and the WSIP-level II, then the WSOP and ASAP and FSOP, and after that the Beta-san Phlibit and the notorious Wackomole-46. The latter was particularly grueling as it included living for four months in Ughistan where I was sommelier in a restaurant frequented by the Russian mafia and recovering phlebotomists. Then when I passed my Beta-san Phlibit the Court of Master Sommeliers made me take the Service part of the exam standing on my head for 11 months while reciting Michael Broadbent’s Great Vintage Wine Book chapter and verse backwards and being molested by ardent butterflies. That was hard, no less because they wouldn’t let me bathe, and every six weeks Fred Dame came in to tickle me. If you think being tickled by Fred Dame is pure gastronomic pleasure then you’ve never been on a force-fed diet of wormwood and pflugets, which is all I had to eat.

Fortunately I survived the Service part and then it was onto Blind Tusting. This isn’t the same as Blind Tasting, which I passed easily, especially after paying off the examiner. Blind Tusting is hard, because you don’t know what you’re Tusting, and you don’t even really know the definition of Tusting, so it’s quite difficult to do it correctly. All I knew was that every once in a while somebody would yell at me “Bad Tust!” and then lights would flash and horrible sounds erupted and the hounds began to howl. But then I would do something and somebody would say “Good Tust” and I felt all, like, calm and secure, and then Fred Dame would come in and massage my feet. I got my Introductory Tuster certification, then from there went on to Certified Tuster, Advanced Tuster, Advanced Tuster II, Semi-Professional Advanced Tuster levels III, IV and V, and Super-Duper Nirvanic Tuster, which took me 15 years but I did it, gosh darn it, proving again that I Am Special.

But don’t think for a minute the Blind Tust test was the end, because it wasn’t! Far from it, my friends, far from it! There was the Evocation Schmevocation, the Allurid Vowels Competition and the Wine and Psychosis Pairing, where they lock you in a tea party ward for six years and you have to match the wackadoodles with wines from Bulgaria, Inkadinkadooland and West Bumfuck, and if you get it wrong, they turn off the power, take your clothes off and leave you at the tender mercies of….well, let’s just say Hieronymous Bosch would have painted it if he weren’t dead. Which is pretty much how I felt when the Court told me I was now qualified for the finals: The Feiroreticals.

OMG how I studied for that!!! Rainfall charts for the last thousand years in Rwanda, the pH of the soils in Brooklyn, the number of wigs Donald Trump owns, the typos in One Wine Dude’s posts…they even made me memorize every glass of wine Leslie Sbrocco ever described as “cheerful.” You enjoy watching old episodes of Check Please! ? Be my guest! Fortunately, I was told by an oldtimer that the Court no longer requires applicants to pass the Gary Vaynerchuk test, which apparently involves anti-emetics…I don’t know, and I don’t think I want to know.

On April 19, 2016, at 11:06 a.m. on a Friday morning, as Gus was dreaming (his little paws were twitching), I got the phone call from Fred Dame himself. “You’ve passed!”

Finally, after all this time! I thought, “Now, Fred will invite me to the Court,” which I imagined as a magical mystical castle, like in Disneyland, with Master Sommeliers flying like monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, and fountains of vintage Petrus, and servants (failed and embittered M.W. candidates) carrying platters of charcuterie and chocolate truffles. Like the Playboy Mansion, the Court in my fervid fantasies was a heavenly place of indulgence, hedonism and endless sexual pleasure.

It was disillusioning enough to find out that there is no actual “Court,” just a post office box in Napa. But even more disconcerting has been my discovery that job offers are not exactly pouring down from Heaven. I had thought that, now that I can add those sweet letters M.S. after my name, I could name my price and work for whomever I wanted. No such luck. It turns out that, with some 17,000 Master Somms in the U.S. and thousands more expected to be churned out of the pipeline in coming months, competition is intense. So I’ve been forced to take such work as is available. I can now tell you that, starting on Monday, I will be the Senior Intern at the Hosemaster’s blog. It’s not what I foresaw myself doing at my age…the money isn’t what I had hoped…I’m working out of a dumpster…but Washam is a kind man and supposedly not a mean boss. It’s a start.

If it’s expensive it must be better. Right…?

 

Rule #1 about pricing: If you charge a ton of money for a food or beverage, people will assume it’s worth the price.

What aspect of human nature does this illustrate? I’m not enough of a psychologist, sociologist or anthropologist to say, but I know it’s true. They assume that Petrus is better than any other Bordeaux because it costs so much. They assume that Mast Brothers Chocolate is the best in the world because one Sea Salt Chocolate bar costs $10 at Dean and DeLuca.

And now, apparently, they’re assuming that a cup of coffee from Finca Sophia must be better than any other coffee in the world because it costs $15. Yes, a cup.

I haven’t tried it yet, but really, how good can it be? I consider myself something of a coffee connoisseur. I’ve had a ton of coffee, everything from Kona to Kopi Luwak, brewed in every conceivable way, and I have to tell you, there’s no way a cup is worth $15 unless what you’re enjoying has nothing to do with the coffee itself and everything to do with what’s happening in your brain, the seat of expectations, fantasy and self-delusion.

But buzz—the perception that you’re not hip unless you’ve done or had a particular thing–works. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Finca Sophia’s coffee is “already sold out” at the company’s Equator Coffee location, on 986 Market Street in San Francisco. Who would be buying it? Well, that part of Market Street is a little off the tourist path, but it’s not far from Blue Bottle Coffee, behind the Old Mint, a haven for local coders (and the people who love them), so I suspect Equator attracts the same crowd. And Twitter is located just a few blocks west, at 1355 Market. This stretch of mid-Market is, as all San Franciscans know, one of the hottest real estate areas in the city and a new mecca for young Millennials able and willing to buy $1.5 million studio condos or pay $6,500 a month rent for a one-bedroom flat.

Should we simply assume that coders all make $135,000 a year right out of college, are single and so have the discretionary income to spend on $10 chocolate bars and $15 cups of coffee? Not to mention $18 mojitos, $20 bars of soap, and whatever the going rate is for Pliny the Younger? It’s my impression that coders, who are after all just our era’s yuppies, feel like they might not even be alive in 10 or 20 years so they might as well carpe the old diem and spend all their money having fun today.

I went to @FincaSophia on twitter to see what the hip young caffeine-istas are talking about and couldn’t help pick up on the sense that the fascination has as much to do with wanting to keep up with the latest Big Thing. “Can’t wait [to try it],” tweeted somebody. “I found out about it too late,” tweeted another, who, apparently heart-broken, heard about Equator after they sold out. (They now say they’ve since received another shipment.) Tempting yuppies with Finca Sophia is like waving a red flag in front of a bull: you know they’re going to want the thing and will do anything they have to in order to get it.

And for what? I can’t believe that even a yuppie oozing discretionary income would spend that much for coffee on an everyday basis. Fine to try it once…it’s something to chat about. The convo might go like this:

Hey dude, y’know what I tried?

Enlighten me, dude.

Finca Sophia.

That super-expensive coffee in the Chronicle? Far out, dude. So…?

Awesome, dude.

Wow. Can’t wait to try it.

And so it goes.