We search in vain for a message on the bottle

The uselessness of wine labels.

This week’s column seemed so simple: just me, a fastapproaching deadline and a list of complaints about wine labels. I’ve moaned for years about the refusal of the French to tell me anything I might want to know on their bottles.
 
It’s like someone who’s introducing himself shrugging contemptuously and walking off after being asked what he does for a living. No grape names, no regional information – none that a novice could understand, anyway. A vintage, an appellation d’origine contrôlée (don’t know what that is? Tough) and probably an owner’s name, but no indication of whether that owner has been dead for 200 years and his inheritors have been bought out by a conglomerate.
 
Often, there is just one label. The French may have a word for the back label – une contre étiquette – but, as we have established, naming things is neither here nor there. Even when there is a second label, it usually has a lot of guff about expressing the authenticity of terroir and respecting nature. “Each year, our recompense is the harvest,” claims the back of my 2002 Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus. Maybe. That bottle is worth £75. Winemakers are legally obliged to tell you when their wine contains sulphites. These hugely useful words are the only English on the label, apart from “Produce of France”. 
 
But let’s not limit ourselves to picking on the French. My 2004 Sassicaia tells me neither the owner of the vineyard nor that this wine was one of the first of the so-called Super Tuscans that made this part of Italy nearly as dribbled over by high-end wine lovers as Bordeaux. (Sassicaia contains two of the same grapes as Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. No, you won’t get that from the label.) The back of the bottle is disturbed only by a label that tells me it “contains sulphites”, in 20 languages. Of all the things I’d like to learn from the outside of a bottle of great wine, how to convey in Magyar that someone has added a preservative is pretty low down the list.
 
It is the New World that has changed this. The Penfolds Magill Estate gives so much information about the handpicked grapes, vineyard, fermentation process and need for decanting that I could probably make a bottle myself. Better yet, with a wine called 2000 Magill Estate Shiraz, it’s not much of a mystery which grapes have been used.
 
“What is wrong with the Europeans?” I wondered, as I examined a bottle of Bolney Estate rosé at its Sussex winery, searching in vain for enlightenment about what I’d be consuming if I chose to drink it. If I buy a top, the label tells me about the materials – and none of my outfits has yet entered my digestive system. A marketing failure of this kind won’t make Bolney’s wines taste as good as top Burgundy or Sassicaia – or Magill Estate, come to that. You’re supposed to copy the innovators, not the old farts. It’s called progress.
 
The reason why this column is not the simple matter it was supposed to be is that, while researching it, I discovered that some labels are not marketing failures at all, even if they are the luxury-goods equivalent of an information blackout. Back in the 1940s, Château Mouton Rothschild began asking artists to decorate its bottles and the practice continues: the list includes Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol and Marc Chagall. You don’t want to cloud up a Chagall with words and you probably want to buy it, if you can afford it, whatever it’s on.
 
There have been wine labels for more than 3,000 years and most have not catered to the literalist whims of wine populists. Many have been worse than reticent: Bordeaux used to be known for selling a lot more wine than it produced and, as recent forgery scandals demonstrate, Appellation Outright Porky is still flying off the shelves. Nonetheless, I believe that experimental winebuying should be encouraged. And a little basic information, handily situated, would surely harm the punter a lot less than any number of sulphites.
 
Next week: Ruth Padel on nature
Ignorance isn't bliss; winemakers should take a less laid-back approach to keeping us informed. Photograph: Joss McKinley/Gallery Stock.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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