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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Have we domesticated yeast? Yes.

Common sense says that winemakers – and beer brewers, and bread bakers – were developing specialized Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeasts a good long while before Red Star marketed its first dried and packaged commercial product to the industry in 1965. Winemakers weren’t inoculating ferments with an aluminum foil packet they bought at the store, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t inoculating, maybe with a little bit of an already-active ferment, maybe just by having a conducive winery environment where the right kinds of yeast were happy to make a home. Either way, the yeast you’d find in any given winery or brewery weren’t the same as the yeast you’d pick up off the street, or the same as what you’d find in the next alcoholic beverage factory down the road.

Plenty of evidence, old and new, supports that story. But did those yeast become different simply because they were isolated from each other, like Darwin’s famous Galapagos finches? Or did they change because they became domesticated, because brewers and winemakers cultivated and selected them? In other words, what kind of difference did the humans make to the yeasts’ evolution?

The theory basically goes like this. If yeast populations developed in different ways just because they were physically separated, then their genomes should look like what you expect from “wild” yeast. If humans domesticated them, they should be less genetically fit, because they’ve grown accustomed to being specially cared for and protected by humans and have lost some of their capacity to live on their own.

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