Wine democracy, part II: Crowd-sourcing

If one way to make wine more democratic is to make wine writing more “accessible,” another is crowd-sourcing, asking “the consumer” what they want and finding ways to make it for them. Washington State’s Columbia Crest billed the “Crowdsourced Cabernet” it released in June of this year as “the first wine to be crowdsourced all the way from the vineyard to the bottle” via community input solicited online and, of course, filtered through one of their staff winemakers. I’ve yet to find one of the resulting 12,000 bottles in Edinburgh and can’t comment on the result, though there’s only so far you can go wrong with a $30 Horse Heaven Hills cabernet.

Taking crowdsourcing in a different direction, Brock University and Ontario Grape and Wine Research announced a new initiative this past summer to increase Ontario red wine sales by monitoring tannins to help winemakers produce the “rich and robust” reds that “the consumer” wants.

I have to put “the consumer” in quotes for the same reason that I, as a responsible scholar of science communication, have to put “the public” in quotes. In both cases, there’s no such thing. There are multiple publics, and multiple consumers, and anyone talking about them in singular form is either imagining a more specific group of people or being horribly vague.

That problem – the problem that “the public” consists of all manner of different people – is at the heart of the problem with crowd-sourcing. Crowd-sourcing calls on averages: the strategy takes a whole bunch of individual views and homogenizes them into a single outcome. Crowd-sourcing makes “the consumer” into a single group that votes to produce a single outcome that is then supposed to make most people happy enough most of the time. Crowd-sourcing imagines that the customer is always right, displaces passion, and erases diversity.

The customer is always right is wrong: That appears to be fairly common business knowledge, at least in the post-Jobsian era in which we’ve all been deeply saturated with i-products we never knew we wanted. Customers don’t always know what they want. For starters, their professional expertise doesn’t lie in arriving at new commercially viable solutions to daily problems. And customers certainly don’t know what manner of new and previously unimagined product they’ll buy when presented with the option to do so. Being asked a question about what you would like is different than being asked whether you do like something actually in a glass in front of you.

Passion is what makes wine: Passion is one of my least favorite words. It crops up on resumes in unlikely places, has been co-opted by business jargon in the service of banal and insulting sales pitches, and is pulled into service as a catch-all for people who haven’t thought deeply enough about what motivates them. Passion is also an enormous part of what makes wine, though I could just as easily call it pigheadedness. One person or a few people in collusion have an idea of something they’d really like to see happen because it would make them happy. They pursue it in the interest of making themselves happy and – lo and behold – other people are made happy by some of the same things, and that kind of satisfaction is contagious. Replace one person’s idiosyncratic passion-driven pipe dream with too much market research and a game of averages and you end up in a world of desk jobs. Most of us did not become interested in wine because we were looking for more desk jobs.

Diversity is a good thing: Consumers want “ripe, rich, rounded red wines?” I’m certain that some of them do. Heck, sometimes I enjoy the robustness of a big Horse Heaven Hills cabernet alongside the great diversity of other red wines I can find in eastern Washington. Crowd-sourcing as a fun marketing tool is one thing for an individual big-brand winery like Columbia Crest. It’s another thing to apply a general idea of what “the consumer” wants as a tool to guide the production of an entire region. Do we really want to encourage wine production to be less diverse, even if doing so increases sales? It’s an open question with many possible answers. But I’m skeptical that anyone, even the large producers making inoffensively homogeneous wine, wins by making wine more the same.

All of that said, I’m skeptical, but not worried. The best thing about the wine community isn’t that it’s democratic so much as that it’s a free state. Wine crowdsourcers can do their thing; plenty of more interesting wine will still be around for those of us who’d rather not follow the crowd.

Is wine writing becoming better?

Is wine writing improving? Someone or other asks me this question fairly often. My short answer is “no.” Here’s my longer answer.

To judge whether or not something is becoming better, you have to know what improvement is. Much of what we (popular media, wine writers, academics) say about “progress” isn’t of much use for this reason.

So let’s think about the purposes wine writing can serve:

  • Accurately describe wine – only useful if we define what “accurately” means, which means creating a hierarchy of wine values with one way of judging at the top.
  • Make wine seem appealing
  • Entertain
  • Sell more wine (allowing that wines that consumers think sound exciting and wines that consumers want to buy are two different categories)
  • Create a sense of community —  by inviting you to share the writer’s experience. If a tasting note is written in a way that lets the reader identify with the experience of tasting — to think that she could be there tasting this, too — she becomes part of a “we” group with the writer, which builds a sense of identifying with wine and wine people. Researchers call this a “wine identity,” and both that identity and that idea of creating “we” groups is the subject of a fair bit of research.
  • Judge wine quality

A tasting note might beautifully describe, but do a terrible job of judging quality by creating a comparison with other wines. A tasting note might make a wine sound appealing without inviting a reader into the tasting experience. We can ask whether wine writing is becoming better at any one of these possible goals, and we could have a good conversation about that, but we’ll be talking about part of what wine writing does, not about whether wine writing is better.

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The long, slow end (or, I finished my PhD today!)

I submitted my PhD today! Two and a half years and three days after I began, I carried four copies of my dissertation – all 96,866 words of it – to the University of Otago graduate school and walked away with a chocolate-covered marshmallow fish and a smile. I owe my very sincerest thanks to everyone who’s so generously helped me along the way, including folks in the Washington State and New Zealand wine industries and readers here who’ve poked and prodded and asked good questions. 

My thesis is titled “Through the grapevine: In search of a rhetoric of industry-oriented science communication.” It’s gist is, briefly, that people study scholarly science writing amongst scientists, and popular science writing for general audiences, but pay a lot less attention to science writing for professional audiences (like winemakers and growers) who might use scientific information in some way and who also know a lot about the subjects of scientific research. Industry-oriented science communication should make industry knowledge a real part of the conversation and communicate science as local knowledge in context – one kind of knowledge, alongside industry knowledge as another kind. By writing about science in context, acknowledging industry knowledge as real and valid knowledge, and making connections between science and industry locations, I’m arguing that the way we write about scientific research can invite better research-industry collaborations and help make research more relevant to practice.

You can find more detailed explanations of parts of the project under the publications tab on this website. If you’d like to know more, send me an email. I’ll be happy to have a conversation, send you all or part of the thesis, or try to point you in the direction of other resources.

Don’t call me Dr. Szymanski yet. In the United States, PhD studies finish with an oral defense with your committee. Assuming that you pass, that defense ends with your advisor shaking your hand and congratulating Dr. Szymanski, and there you go, plus a regalia-clad graduation sometime thereafter. The New Zealand process is different, so today was only the beginning of the end. The graduate school will send soft-bound copies of my thesis off to three anonymous examiners chosen by my advisor. Those scholars will read my work, make comments about things they want me to change, and recommend a grade: pass with minor revisions, pass with major revisions, revise and resubmit (i.e. we fail you, but we think you can pass on a second try), or fail (i.e. we don’t think you can save this ship). Those comments get sent back to me and I have a month or three to make whatever changes those examiners have requested. I send it back. At least one of the examiners takes a look at my changes and, if everyone’s satisfied, the graduate school confers my degree, and I’m finally – after about six months – Dr. Szymanski. I can then do the regalia-clad graduation thing some months thereafter, but I won’t, because I’ll be in Scotland by then.

I’ll be in Scotland by then! As of the beginning of May, I take up a post-doctoral research position at the University of Edinburgh. I’ll be joining the Engineering Life team to study sociopolitical/cultural sides of the Synthetic Yeast project, a massive effort to create the first working, laboratory-created eurkaryotic genome — of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, naturally. (I wrote about the project in some detail a few months ago). The project has obvious implications for the wine industry, is fascinating in terms of the trajectory of human-yeast coevolution, and plays into changes in how we see the relationships between life and engineering. The team I’ll be joining at the University of Edinburgh is outstanding. I’m looking forward to being in the center of the science and technology studies world, on an island with some of the best wine availability in the world, and within weekend skipping distance of many of Europe’s great wine regions.

Again, I owe my very sincerest thanks to everyone who has contributed their time, knowledge, and good will to my doctoral studies. And I look forward to getting to know the UK wine scene. If you’re in or near Edinburgh, send me a note!