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A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Code

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness–
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

Quatrain XII, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam5th ed. (trans. Edward FitzGerald)

On the first Tuesday of every month, Victualler in Wapping hosts a wine tasting of organic, biodynamic wines.  Now, I must confess that as the majority of my drinking life to date has been framed by the universal postgraduate experience of trying to find the least unpalatable wine at every conference reception or department do, my palate isn’t overly concerned by the niceties of wine’s journey from field to table.  I just want something that tastes pleasing and won’t leave me next morning feeling like Athena is trying to escape my skull with a spear.

For £25, my friends Paul and Hannah found ourselves at a table replete with olives, cheese, locally made sourdough bread, and charcuterie (including Victualler’s homemade dried beef strips, a particular favourite of mine) as well as the six wines we sampled.  This must be one of the peak flavour experiences to be had in Wapping at the moment, if not in all London.

This month’s focus was that most famous of all wine regions, Bordeaux.  The wines were introduced by Victualler proprietor Daniil Vashchilov and by wine importer David Harvey.  Daniil focused mainly on the different flavor notes that could be found in each glass, also introducing some of the principles and techniques of biodynamism.  David’s introductions were much more wide-ranging: he covered everything from the history of early winemaking to the French concept of terroir to the current problems with the mainstream wine industry.

I was interested in what David had to say but I would have preferred to have those points presented in a more structured way.  Though clearly possessing deep knowledge of his field, David seemed to be in that condition which many experts find themselves in where they forget what it was like to be a novice in their field.  I can understand this: the things that interest and excite me now about my area of expertise in Egyptian dance and globalization are very different than those which drew me into the field in the first place.  But in order to draw new people into your specialist subject, in order to create a shared experience, it’s necessary to keep hold of the threads of what it was like when it was new to you.

In trying to explain some of the problems with modern winemaking, a process that has become increasingly industrialized as the growing market demands a more regulated, standardized wine drinking experience, David drew a comparison with computing.  He said something to the effect of “You can teach a computer to do anything, but it’ll never make poetry.”

I could feel myself smirking at this, because natural language processing (NLP) is all the rage right now.  There have been programs around for ages to create poetry based on formal verse (villanelles, sonnets, etc)–rigid forms like this are brilliant for a computer program, actually, because you can treat them as sets of precise instructions.  At heart this is what a computer program is: a series of very detailed iterative instructions.  It’s much harder to create a program that will give a naturalistic language output, though, because language is not precise–especially poetic language.

That hasn’t stopped people from trying, though, and there’s a great article over on The Verge detailing a variety of experiments with computer-generated poetry.  Okay, granted, the poems don’t always look like they were written by humans.  But let’s be fair: humans write some pretty bad poetry too.

I’m not trying to undermine David’s point: there is a big difference between wine that’s created to be standard production units which are always the same every time you buy them and wine that’s handcrafted to be an individual experience with every bottle–with every sip.  I feel fortunate that there is such a charming place to enjoy the latter right on my doorstep.  So by all means, go along to the next tasting, sip some excellent and interesting wine and debate the meaning of crafting things.  You’ll be glad you did.

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