Is Webwine making us all Stupid?

Tuesday, 21 September, 2010
Neil Pendock
Neil Pendock asks whether the interweb is destroying wine reportage
The blog posting of Christian Eedes on last week's Amorim MCC Challenge is a model of brevity. It lists four winners without context, culture or comment. Blogged and tweeted around the global electronic spittoon, it is probably all most people will ever read about the competition.

Although not the first tweet to emerge, it was probably the most influential, as it emanated from the panel chairman and whizzed around the Mondovino at 180 000 Km/sec. Locked into a struggle (like CNA) to be first with the goodies, Christian presumably felt compelled to react after the edition of WINE magazine that spilt the Borlotti beans was available with the pasta fagioli at Pinelands favourite Magica Roma the day before the awards brunch. And a player understandably hates to be scooped on his own match.

But in the same way that few winemakers would attend a brunch at which they did not star, few consumers would bother to buy a magazine to find out the results of a competition if the result was a tweet away. But perhaps more importantly, the whole competition context was lost: the aesthetic struggle between two technical judges from Champagne against three local palates, the issue of acid versus fruit ripeness in MCC, the whole narrative of the tasting and the personal dramas which developed.

As the two line book reviews in Newsweek put it "we read the book so you don't have to." Twitter reduces an entire competition to 140 characters. Of course the baby was thrown out with the bathwater as in this case, the result is almost incidental to who the tasters were, what criteria were applied, who entered and what the bubblies tasted like.

Writing in Atlantic Magazine two years ago, Nicholas Carr posed the question "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" He has followed his provocative feature up with a book The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember (Atlantic Books, 2010). Carr calls the internet a giant distraction machine and while Jancis Robinson was burbling on again in the Weekend Financial Times last week about and how useful it is to track down an elusive icon and how comparative pricing keeps retailers honest, there is a definite downside to digital, as the Amorim MCC Challenge confirms.

Blogs and tweets are the literary analogue of screw caps: efficient and immediate, they remove centuries of tradition and pander to the great God Now. As Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan noted two generations ago "the medium is the message." In this case, technology transforms taste.

After reading The Shallows, James Harkin makes the point "spend all your time batting e-mails back and forth or surfing around on hypertext and you're going to be caught in the headlights of the perpetual present." Sure enough, the new displacement activity for attention deficient disorder sufferers is tweeting during tastings. Once iPads arrive in serious numbers, blog posts will surely appear within minutes of the last wine being poured. Out goes context, thoughtful consideration of implications and discussion, as nerds battle to feed the ravenous new media maw.

In the same way that handheld cell phones affected driving to such an extent they are now illegal, so too has technology transformed tastings. Even as Olde Worlde palate as Michael Fridjhon was seen tapping his notes into a nifty laptop at the recent controversial blind tasting of Cape Winemakers Guild Wines. Carr goes one step further and takes the extreme view that the internet changes the very way we think. Information is broken up into searchable chunks which are linked together via hyperlinks. Forget about computers learning how to think, humans are learning how to act like computers.

The Pixar chickens are coming home to roost with a vengeance. One side effect of treating wine like a commodity to be reduced to a number à la Robert Parker, is that computers, which thrive on digits, end up calling the shots. The tail wags the dog. Have wine writers, in their quest to be relevant and up-to- the-minute, painted themselves into a shrinking corner which will end with a brand name and a number. George Orwell would have had something deep to say about the matter.