Robot Winemakers

“What if a robot could make wine?” my journalist friend asked me while we were having lunch.

The afternoon was hot. I wondered if she was having a sunstroke or maybe had started drinking earlier that day.

“What are you talking about? Robots can’t make wine,” I said.

She looked at me pityingly, as a mother might look at her naive child.

“Robots are now writing hundreds, no, thousands of the news articles that we read every day. It’s just a matter of time before they start making wine, too.”

She was referring to a few recent articles in the popular press exposing that many fact-heavy news articles, such as earnings reports, were now being generated by computers.

I pictured a sea of desks, each with a silver robot banging away at a keyboard.

“I think you mean computer programs are writing these things,” I said.

“Computers, robots, what’s the difference?” she said, and then she took a big sip of wine. Yep. She’d been drinking.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m sure these robots might be able to spit out an earnings report or two, but to write an article with any depth and personality, it has to come from a human.”

“No, you don’t get it,” she said. “These robots aren't just spitting out the basic stuff. Some have started to even write poetry.”

“They’re writing poetry?” I asked.

“Yes, they’re writing poetry,” she said, emphasizing the word to point out that I’d referred to computers or robots as “they.”

“But I’m sure I could tell the difference,” I wanted to say. I planned on winning this argument, but she interrupted my train of thought.

“You think you could tell if a poem or column were written by a robot?” she said and then laughed.

I was becoming irritated. We’d met for lunch to talk about the state of winemaking in Sonoma and Napa. My intent was to probe her for information on a few vineyard operations that had recently started using mechanical harvesters with optical sorters. These machines both harvested and sorted the grapes before the fruit was sent to the winery for processing, transforming what used to require many humans into a job that required only one or two operators and one enormous computerized contraption.

Around us, people sat and talked, most of them holding or fiddling with their smartphones, checking them occasionally for important messages or posting pictures of their lunch for friends and family. One young girl was taking a selfie with the waiter.

I looked down at the remnants of salad in front of me. A glass of a crisp, unoaked Chardonnay stood at the tip of my knife, the straw-colored liquid inside reflecting stabs of sunlight. I knew this wine and its producer. The grapes had been grown and tended by people, although the wine itself had been processed in a new computerized, temperature-controlled, stainless steel tank.

“A robot might be able to write a story or column, maybe even a poem,” I said, “but a robot could never make wine. Great wine comes from a place and an artistry that belongs only to human beings.”

She rolled her eyes.

I needed to convince her—convince myself—that I was right. But instead, all I could think of were automated procedures and computer tools that are becoming all the rage in winemaking. Want to know when to pick your grapes? Send a cluster off to the lab and see what profile they have. There are even some tools that will compare one grape’s profile with wines that have scored highly in the past.

My friend was watching me closely.

“OK, robot winemakers might be nearer than we think, but there will always be a group of humans,” I said, overemphasizing the word. “There will always be humans who value the creation of something unique from other humans.”

She was looking down at her plate and shaking her head slowly. After a minute, she lifted her steely blue eyes so they met mine. “I hope so,” she said, “but what does human-made wine even mean anymore?”

She was being relentless. I’d come to this lunch so that I could ask the questions. I wanted some answers, and here she was grilling me about some sort of science fiction nonsense. “‘Human’ means having the potential to be flawed, not some impersonal crap recreated in a lab,” I blurted out, my voice more angry than intended.

People around us stopped eating and looked in my direction. Her face softened. She knew she’d pushed too far. I shrugged my shoulders in apology.

“How about another glass of wine?” she asked and gestured to the waiter to bring back the wine list.

“Sure, I could use another one,” I said and then picked up my glass and drained its remaining contents. The wine was full of flavors of lemon rind and pineapple, and aromas of linden flower filled my senses as I lowered the glass.

Across from me, my friend scanned through the wine list on a computerized tablet. She swiped her finger on the screen until she excitedly turned it in my direction. “Just click here,” she said pointing to one of the featured wines. “There’s a video about the people who made this wine that you can watch. It’ll make you feel better.”

She smiled. We both laughed.

When our wine finally arrived at our table, my friend raised her glass in a toast, her face serious. “Bottled poetry,” she said. I shook my head.

“Bottled poetry,” I repeated, and then took a bigger sip than intended.


Originally published in the Northbay Biz, October 2015 issue