Thursday, September 6, 2007

Are they worth it? Part 3: Beppi Crosariol's “Wine Butler” in the Globe and Mail

If, like me, you find the Globe and Mail too depressing a read to buy the newsprint edition, yet you still start your day with the online version, you may have caught a glimpse of a new feature currently being promoted in the left-hand sidebar to the front page. It's called the 'Wine Butler', and it's being pushed as a sort of consumer treasury of Globe wine writer Beppi Crosariol's collected sniffs and gulps from years past, gathered together in a searchable database. As such, it represents the Globe's first tentative foray into the kind of online data treasury currently occupied by heavy enological hitters like Jancis Robinson and Robert Parker, both of whom have pay sites promising unlimited access to their private notes to give you a leg up on fellow wine-fanciers competing for the good stuff at your local wine retailer. Unfortunately, if early shakedown runs are anything to go by, it's pretty clear that if this wine butler actually was a flesh and blood creature at your service, you'd have handed him his walking papers by now.

I suppose we could have seen it coming: such a project must be really attractive to a critic with ten years worth of tasting notes that have been publicly viewed just once, and have since faded from view like the tannins in a big Aussie Cabernet. Here's a chance for the man to turn his knowledge into searchable cyber-wisdom; his life-experience into a database. How could anyone resist?

The trouble is, as a useful consumer tool the Wine Butler's a bust; worse yet, as a means of putting Crosariol's wine-writing on display (a sort of 'Beppi's Greatest Hits') it's so flawed as to prove a mere annoyance to anybody seeking either a glimpse of his personality or a whiff of his intelligence. As a database, it doesn't give you the information you want; and as a sampler of wine writing, it's an exercise in frustration to browse.

Even the most cursory search---either by wine type or by wine name---reveals that the database is woefully short on useful data. To take just one example, Wine Butler lists no Bordeaux between $15 and $25, which is preposterous: Even in B.C. Liquor Stores there are a dozen examples available; at the LCBO even more. Or, a search for a Burgundy priced between $15 and $25 missed several in current release, and instead listed two which were not available any more---one of which was incorrectly priced to boot. And when you do squeeze out a hit searching by type, as often as not you are steered to an older review of a vintage that was never available except at a small circle of LCBO Vintages stores for two days in 2005.

As a guide to wines that actually are out there, Wine Butler falls down even more badly. As a thought experiment, I tried typing in the names of all the bottles in the last couple of cases I hauled home from the LCBO, with nary a hit. (The no-shows included: Domaine de la Solitude; Tommasi anything; Clos du Bois anything; Mouton anything; Kenwood Pinot Noir; Domaine Monoertuis; Chateau Gaillat; Chanson Bourgogne; Chateau Saint Auriol Corbieres; Marchand Fixin; Drouhin Morey St Denis; and Chateau du Pavillon. As far as I know, they're all still out there on LCBO shelves.)

As well, Wine Butler offers up promises to the nose that just aren't followed up on the palate; what on the surface appear to be user-friendly and useful little touches but turn out empty---like the little “match with food” toggle, which requires even more raw data to be effective. (Find me the best $25 Bordeaux to go with a chicken pie? Why not something genuinely useful, like overcooked squash?)

All in all, at this stage of its evolution, Wine Butler is pretty much a corked bottle: There is potential for a site like this---it's always useful to have access to any accumulated wisdom; but the potential it holds out to the reader is as a library. The Globe is courting horselaughs by parading it in front of the public as a tool.

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