Friday, August 24, 2012

Wines of the The Uncanny Valley

For those of you uninitiated in general geekdom, the uncanny valley is (wikipedia): when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The "valley" refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level of humans as a function of a robot's human likeness.

In other words, it's so close, but you know something's not right. You may even be able to analyze the robot or humanoid (or rinoplasty patient), and decide that everything individually looks right, but there's something off.  For more on this ability, check out Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, pretty great read.

As humans, we are trained our entire lives to notice this weird quirk in other humanoids, because we spend our entire lives looking at millions of other specimens making silent, involuntary notes about behaviors, expressions, movements, etc.

I propose that there is now an uncanny valley of wine. This is a theory that I've vetted amongst a handful of wine theoreticians (is there such a thing?). The consensus seems to be that, after you really refine your palate, you begin to notice, not necessarily flaws, but seams in wine. Having never made or aspired to make wine, I can't tell you what the tricks may be to cover shortcomings of wine. I know you can add a ton of ingredients to wine to fix color, acid, etc. I've seen wines I know have been watered back that have this weird quality. Sometimes, and seemingly more often as of late, I'll taste a wine, and it almost creeps me out. It's not flawed, nor does it possess anything out of whack, it just doesn't seem right. The closer it gets to being like actual wine (made from generally natural processes), the stranger it feels.

It would seem that this is not readily identifiable to the vast majority of the population. I would also suggest that I see this most often with larger producers from the U.S..This sensitivity, at least in my world, probably stems from 2 things-a) I have tended to gravitate towards Old world wines produced somewhat naturally as well as the domestic wines in the similar style b) my seeming addiction from ages 8-14 to Ferrara Pan Candy, which calibrated my palate to artificial flavors, and am now hyper sensitive to.

So, now we live in an age where even bad wine is still pretty drinkable for most, but for me, that is an uncanny valley red flag. Better drinking through chemistry? Maybe. It's not for me to say whether this is a good thing or not, but I definitely get the heebie-jeebies from these concoctions.


  1. Adam:

    I'm not sure exactly what qualities in a wine you are referring to that make you squeamish. Can you be a bit more specific?

  2. Hi Tom-

    Thanks for commenting-

    That's the thing, it's hard to define. It acts and tastes like wine, but something is decidedly "not of this Earth". The most common quality I see from these wines is that confectioner sugar quality. Not the sweetness, but the chemical bitterness, if that makes sense.

  3. Great post Adam. I, too, feel this way. I was distressed enough the first time I came across it that I remember it all too well: in 2002 I tasted a Carignan-Syrah from Roussillon grown on schist (a soil-type that yields an undeniably specific character) that I would have sworn was from California--valley floor of Napa actually. It not only tasted wrong, but like you said, it felt wrong, not unlike boy band music or hearing the passive voice used....

    The Frankenwines have only proliferated since then, though I suspect they've been around much longer than the first time I noticed. I am convinced that producers of such wines do not wish to celebrate "sense of place" (vin de terroir) because there is a profile they seek to express, and it takes work to do this (vin d'effort). The chemistry involved is extraordinary (or so a winemaker friend has told me), but the idea seems to be to make a wine with consistent flavors and expressiveness, vintage vagaries be damned. It's not unlike the idea behind NV champagnes from the large négociants in Champagne--the basic NVs are supposed to taste the same through the years no matter what. This bugs the bejeezus out of me, because one of the most ingratiating things about wine for me is the mystery each vintage can provide.

    There's a bright spot I would like to believe in: the new trend towards traditional winemaking that has arisen among some of the new, small producers in California. Combine this with guys like Patrick Campbell, Randall Grahm, Paul Draper, et al., who set examples with splendid, deliciously drinkable wines of terroir (and either eschew or ignore pundit approval of their wines), and perhaps two generations of standard bearers can be a potent influence for the future.

    However, I'm not going to hold my breath that the large producers and the "points chasers" are ever going to change as long as they can make money using the methods they employ now. The broader wine-drinking public will need to decide this is an important issue before real change happens there, I fear.

  4. I think of it like "auto-tune" in music. It is a voice hitting the notes, but the huge computer intervention has removed what was human from the tone.
    Wines from "Uncanny Valley" are like that. They hit the right 'notes' but any connection to the earth or the grape variety has disappeared.

  5. I'm studying the uncanny valley from a psychological perspective and there has been some debate as to whether the effect occurs with some entities because they straddle the boundary between different categories: human and not human, alive and dead, safe and not safe. The more you know about something, the more you can detect the tiny imperfections that push it from - in your case - wine to not-wine.

    (I must admit to a little flight of fancy when reading the title of your post - I wondered if someone was planning to market a brand of wine purporting to come from the uncanny valley, grown on almost-vines and harvested by nearly-human robots! With a suitable unsettling label, of course...)