Ep. 138: Good Vibrations from AI Robots

Brutal news from Abruzzo. Winemakers call for cuts thanks to a glut of grapes. AI robots are bringing sexy back. A vintage wine estate seems to be falling apart at the seams. This is the Four Top, and these are the stories we're following this week.

[00:00:00] Ruby Welkovich: . Alright guys, I have some really big news for you.


[00:00:04] Katherine Cole: Oh yeah?


[00:00:05] Ruby Welkovich: Yeah, Salt Bae is back.


[00:00:08] Nick Toole: Oh man, this is, this is why I got off Instagram, to avoid this man in particular.


[00:00:13] Ruby Welkovich: Well, he’s back, and at least in a small way, he’s, uh, stirring up controversy.


[00:00:18] Katherine Cole: All right, I’m already confused. I’m googling this guy. What is his name? Salt Bay? Okay, so it’s not like a bay of water or a bay leaf, but bay, B A E, like someone’s like salty boyfriend? Who is this guy?


[00:00:31] Nick Toole: Honestly, we’d need more time than we have right now, but just know that he’s a, like a Turkish butcher turned restaurateur who became internet famous a few years ago for his novel way of adding salt to food that involved the salt touching way too much of his bare skin. Well,


[00:00:52] Katherine Cole: Okay, so, I’m continuing to Google him as we’re talking here, and this guy is famous for, quote, slapping and stroking meat? Ew! Gross. And just to clarify, by meat, we’re talking about, you know, shanks and rumps and oh my god, never mind. This is just awful. This is disgusting. I feel like I need to brush my teeth just talking about this guy.


[00:01:11] Ruby Welkovich: Well, he’s back, and in latest Salt Bae news, he stirred up a minor controversy in the wine world for charging $53,900 for two bottles of Petrus 2009 and $17,700 for one bottle of Petrus 2011. Oh, and $7,500 for five glasses of Louis XIII Cognac by Remy Martin at his Dubai restaurant. And this is great timing because last week we asked on Instagram about the poor state of the wine industry and what’s been creating the slump in sales. A few people called out the astronomical prices of everything, wine included.


[00:01:51] Katherine Cole: Thank you for being our instagram goddess, Ruby. Uh, yeah, this is shocking and I know Dubai is where the ultra wealthy go to blow cash, but those are some serious markups. I mean Petrus…I’m looking it up. Petrus from 09 or 11 goes for between looks like about $5k to $8k a bottle And this dude is charging $27k for a bottle. This is nuts. And you know, the celebration of these astronomical prices, it’s just not good for the public perception of the wine industry.


[00:02:20] Nick Toole: It does make the $130 tab for the four pornstar martinis seem pretty reasonable.


[00:02:27] Katherine Cole: I…


[00:02:28] Ruby Welkovich: I don’t even know what is in a porn star martini.


[00:02:31] Nick Toole: I think between last week’s episode and this week’s episode, we’re really showing our hand when it comes to cocktails because we don’t really seem to know much about them.


[00:02:39] Katherine Cole: I was alarmed too, but I did look up porn star martinis. , and they actually look sort of tasty, with passion fruit, vanilla. Okay, maybe a little too sweet. Some champagne, I don’t know.


[00:02:50] Ruby Welkovich: I do love passion fruit. I would try it.


[00:02:53] Nick Toole: I’d try one if it was handed to me.


[00:02:55] Ruby Welkovich: All right. Well, there you go.


[00:02:57] Katherine Cole: I would drink one with a Petrus floater. Paid for by someone else.


[00:03:02] Nick Toole: That would, that would make it $30,000.


[00:03:04] Katherine Cole: Yeah. Brutal news from Abruzzo. Winemakers call for cuts thanks to a glut of grapes, AI robots are bringing sexy back, and Vintage Wine Estates seems to be falling apart at the seams. This is the Four Top, and these are the four wine stories we’re following this week. I’m Katherine Cole, joined by Ruby Welkovich and Nick Toole.


[00:03:35] Ruby Welkovich: Well, it appears that a wine conglomerate is completely melting down. And once again, we turn to W. Blake Gray’s reporting for Wine-Searcher to get the full story.


[00:03:46] Katherine Cole: Yeah, this is a bummer. The Vintage Wine Estates beverage portfolio, which at last count encompassed, I believe more than 30 wine and cider brands seems to be completely imploding.


[00:03:57] Nick Toole: Yeah. Vintage Wine Estates or VWE went public back in 2021. And according to Gray, its stock has been in freefall ever since then.


[00:04:09] Katherine Cole: Yeah. Just over a week ago, Vintage Wine Estates announced it would be focusing on quote, “priority brands.” And it was implied that it would be dumping brands, you know, well known and beloved brands like Clos Pegase, uh, Viansa, Qupé, Owen Roe, Cosentino, Swanson, and Cameron Hughes.


[00:04:28] Nick Toole: And this week, VWE announced at least 92 layoffs, mostly in sales and marketing, and hitting the tasting room staff particularly hard. And just last week, we were talking about efficiencies, and I was like, “Oh, I hope they don’t find efficiencies when it comes to their staff.” But here we are. Wine-Searcher actually received a copy of an anonymous letter, and we gotta be clear here, this is hearsay at this point, but this letter stated that the company has been violating its use permits in three locations. Like, you know, hiring out their wineries for weddings when they only hold educational or production permits.


[00:05:03] Katherine Cole: This is so interesting because, you know, for the past decade or so, I’ve been watching as these small winemaker brands, really beloved brands, have been selling out to these larger holding companies. And in most cases, it’s kind of like, okay, great. This is a way that, you know, a wine brand that many of us have been following can stay alive and continue, even though the founder has decided it’s time to retire and move on.


[00:05:25] Ruby Welkovich: Yeah, it’s a bummer that most of the jobs that are being cut seem to be in marketing and sales because those are the people spinning the magic, right? The people in the tasting rooms and the storytellers behind the scenes are the ones that build brand equity and create that emotional connection with the consumer.


[00:05:39] Katherine Cole: Yeah. I mean, these storytellers. These are the ones who are kind of continuing to, as you said, Ruby, spin that magic. And they’re, they’re continuing to tell those stories that the founder would have told and create that really personal connection with the consumer. And I think sometimes it’s forgotten that, you know, a wine purchase typically is not a rational decision. It’s 85 percent made on emotional grounds. And so, when you’re selling wine, you need to be making those deep personal emotional connections. And you need your marketing team to do that if you don’t have, you know, a charismatic founder going around pouring wine all over the country.


[00:06:13] Nick Toole: Not to contradict you, Katherine, but I would argue that my weekly jug of Carlo Rossi is indeed a rational decision.


[00:06:21] Katherine Cole: I think you need to kind of take a little look at your life choices if that’s a rational decision for you.


[00:06:27] Nick Toole: I need to get out of the house.


[00:06:31] Katherine Cole: Um, okay guys, uh, mature content warning. As your employer, this is super awkward, but here goes. I think it’s time to talk about sexual confusion.


[00:06:43] Ruby Welkovich: Oh, gosh, Katherine, you and I have been talking about the horror of the dating apps recently. And I’m not sure I’m ready to take this on the mic, but yeah, it’s been, uh, it’s been a confusing time.


[00:06:55] Katherine Cole: I shouldn’t laugh.


[00:06:58] Nick Toole: Jesus. Can we talk about baseline confusion? Because, I’m confused, you know? Uh, okay. I’m looking at the show notes that I was supposed to look at before we started recording. Okay, so this isn’t just about your dating lives, I’m picking up what Katherine is putting down. We’re talking about insect sexual confusion. Alright, so this is aimed at caterpillars, aka future moths, which is a much cooler name for caterpillars, who might be thinking about reproducing and having their babies eat grapes.


[00:07:28] Katherine Cole: Yes, we’re talking about insect sexual confusion, not Ruby’s and my horrible dating app experiences. Um, but yeah, getting back to insect sexual confusion, this is a really cool way to avoid using pesticides. I’ve seen it quite a bit in European vineyards and no, I don’t mean like, weird stink bugs hitting on me.


[00:07:48] Ruby Welkovich: Those creeps.


[00:07:49] Katherine Cole: I mean, these are these pheromone capsules that you see hanging. They just look like these plastic tags that are hanging from the vine rows.


[00:07:57] Ruby Welkovich: Yeah, but they are sending out this confusing pheromone scent. So the male caterpillars can’t find the females.


[00:08:02] Nick Toole: Well, move aside smells. We dug into some articles from Olivia Nolan at Wine Spectator and Jess Burns at Oregon Public Broadcasting. And it seems that some scientists in Oregon have set their sights beyond moths and caterpillars. And instead of using pheromones, they’re using audio.


[00:08:19] Ruby Welkovich: All right, Nick, hit us with the birds and the bees. Quite literally.


[00:08:23] Nick Toole: Okay, so a lot of bugs communicate with vibrations instead of sound.


[00:08:28] Katherine Cole: Oh yeah, I have some new age-y friends who talk about that. They say that humans can communicate through vibrations as well.


[00:08:35] Nick Toole: Yeah, yeah, amber is the color of my energy. Anyway, uh, technically sounds are vibrations, but in a bug’s life they are…yes, excellent movie, okay, in a bug’s life, or in a bug’s world, it’s all about the vibrations through solid surfaces, like leaves, twigs, branches, your grapevines, unfortunately, that’s how they communicate. They’re like, hey, there’s some food over here, buzz buzz buzz, or hey, wanna hook up? Buzz buzz buzz. So, scientists at Oregon State University have created a device called the Pied Piper that will record the vibrations of insect pests like treehoppers and stink bugs, specifically looking for those mating vibrations. The Pied Piper can then replay that vibration to coax male insects out of hiding, looking for that female that doesn’t really exist. This is great because half of the battle of pest control is knowing that the pests are there. The Pied Piper snaps a pic of the bug, and then the vineyard owners can start making a game plan for pest control.


[00:09:34] Katherine Cole: Yeah, and it even goes beyond that. The folks at OSU, hey, shout out to OSU here in Oregon, are hoping that they can use those mimicked vibrations also to confuse the female stink bugs and keep them from mating with their males, reducing the reproductive capacity by 50 to 90%. Of course, this is a little confusing because I just, just this past weekend saw this 2011 movie Hysteria. And according to that movie, vibrations actually turn the ladies on.


[00:10:04] Ruby Welkovich: No, no, no. It’s a great movie, but we’re not talking about the Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal vibrations. We’re talking like construction zone vibrations. They compared the pied piper vibrations to loud music at a bar. You can’t have a conversation, you can’t get a number, and you’re going home alone. It’s like super early birth control.


[00:10:21] Katherine Cole: Okay, so like heavy metal, loud vibrations, are like birth control. But getting back to my new age-y friends, I also know some new agey winemakers who play like really soft, beautiful music to their vines in their vineyards, and now I’m wondering if they’ve been inadvertently encouraging insect sex by playing Puccini.


[00:10:41] Ruby Welkovich: Oh gosh, I hope not.


[00:10:47] Nick Toole: Well, listeners, we check all the world’s news headlines, so you don’t have to, And according to the Italian news source La Repubblica, the wine situation in Abruzzo is pretty brutal. Now, if only we had a robot that could manage downy mildew in addition to insects.


[00:11:03] Ruby Welkovich: What do you mean by downy mildew?


[00:11:05] Katherine Cole: Yeah, this is so sad. So yeah, downy mildew is a fungal disease that affects the vines after excessive rainfall and it’s not good. I’m pretty sure the term comes from this gross white fur that grows on the leaves and also on the fruit. The fruit can like shrivel up and turn white. Definitely, you cannot make wine out of that.


[00:11:24] Nick Toole: No, apparently too, 70 percent of the Abruzzo harvest was lost in 2023 due to downy mildew. That’s insane. And some vineyards lost 90 percent of their crop. That’s, that’s just devastating.


[00:11:37] Katherine Cole: I know, this is just heartbreaking, and personally, as a rosé enthusiast, I am a die hard lover of Cerasuolo d’Abruzzo, which is this lovely, kind of a light red rosé style from Abruzzo, and I’m just really sad to be reading this, because also, I think Abruzzo is one of the most beautiful places on the planet, so hey, please folks, buy wines from Abruzzo, and you know, send out some love to our friends there on the east coast of Italia.


[00:12:06] Ruby Welkovich: So what’s happening in Abruzzo is sort of a forced reduction in production, but our final news story is about cutting back on production voluntarily. In case you’ve been living under a barrel, you know that things are a little tough in the wine industry right now, and one way to right the ship is to reduce supply.


[00:12:21] Katherine Cole: Yeah, I’ve been reading a lot about how production cuts are coming and some, uh, some countries like France are calling for production cuts. But now we’re finally seeing wineries themselves say, hey, you know what? It’s time to cut production. And Kirana Todorov writes for Wine Business this week that Allied Grape Growers, the cooperative association in California that represents more than 500 wineries, is urging its members to pull up about 30, 000 acres of vines.


[00:12:49] Nick Toole: They really seem to mean business. The president of Allied Grape Growers, Jeff Bitter, he should be working in beer by the way with a name like that, he was pretty forceful when he spoke about this at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium last week. One great line out of that was, “are we going to quit sucking our thumbs and actually do something about our problem?”

[00:13:08] Katherine Cole: Wait, Nick. I, I, I demand your Soprano’s accent. I want to, I want you to say that one more time, but soprano style, soprano style.


[00:13:16] Nick Toole: All right. All right. Only ‘cause you cut the checks. Okay. Are we going to quit sucking our thumbs and actually do something about our problem?


[00:13:23] Katherine Cole: Much better.

[00:13:24] Nick Toole: I, I hope no one I know listens to that.


[00:13:27] Ruby Welkovich: Well, anyway, back to the story. It’s interesting to see how granular they get. AGG is saying that acreage needs to shrink across the board. For example, they suggest pulling 2,000 acres of Chardonnay in Mendocino, Monterey, and Santa Barbara, 1,000 acres of Zinfandel in places like Paso Robles, and 5,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in the Central Coast.


[00:13:49] Katherine Cole: Yeah. Those are all like high quality grapes in really high quality regions. So this is a little bit alarming to read, but probably necessary. And you know, it’s not just California either. According to the most recent annual ProWein business report, which came out a couple of weeks ago, 63 percent of wine producers, and I believe these are all over the world, that were surveyed by the University of Geisenheim in Germany. They’re all in favor of production cuts to rebalance the industry. There’s just this surplus of supply, and that is just driving prices for grapes down.


[00:14:22] Ruby Welkovich: Yup, it’s all about supply and demand.


[00:14:27] Katherine Cole: And now it’s time for our dessert course, and Nick, I believe it’s your turn.


[00:14:32] Nick Toole: Yes, my turn. Alright, so I’m gonna engage in a little bit of nepotism here.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I have a very good friend who owns a cidery slash winery here in Maine called Absolem Cider Company, and they just got written up a little mention in Wine Enthusiast. They wrote an article called A Wine Lovers Guide to Maine, and they got mentioned, which was great. So if you’re in Maine, central Maine, in particular in Winthrop, it’s definitely worth checking out Absolem. They just have some incredible, incredible wines and ciders and wine-cider hybrids and, their space is gorgeous. So that’s my, my slightly nepotismal, uh, shout out to Absolem.


[00:15:12] Ruby Welkovich: It’s really beautiful. I’m looking at the pictures now, and I see that on their, on their Instagram page, they have some cider cocktails. So I feel like Nick, you should

maybe make a cider cocktail this weekend and show the world.


[00:15:23] Nick Toole: uh, maybe I will. I, I went to an event there, uh, where they did all milk-based cocktails. And…


[00:15:29] Katherine Cole: Ooh.


[00:15:30] Nick Toole: Let’s just say I got home safe. Uh, so…

[00:15:35] Katherine Cole: And I bet it’s delicious with lob-stah.


[00:15:38] Nick Toole: All right. All right. I’m quitting.


[00:15:41] Katherine Cole: Well, this has been The Four Top podcast. I am your executive producer, Katherine Cole.


[00:15:47] Nick Toole: I am your producer, I guess we’re saying your now, Nick Toole. 


[00:15:50] Katherine Cole: I don’t know.

[00:15:51] Ruby Welkovich: I’m media and design manager, Ruby Welkovich.


[00:15:54] Katherine Cole: Kielen King is our sound supervisor and the composer and performer of our wonderful theme music. Please visit our website, thefourtop.org to learn more about us and listen to back episodes. And if you have not already subscribed to the four top on iTunes or Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform, please do so, and please leave us a big, huge rating. Ginormous.


[00:16:17] Nick Toole: Seven out of five, but seriously, this is important because ratings help feed that, that algorithm you’re always hearing about and it helps people find The Four Top. 


[00:16:25] Katherine Cole: Absolutely. Well, from the all-natural indigenous yeast fueled Willamette Valley, this is Katherine signing out.


[00:16:32] Nick Toole: From the snow dampened coast of Southern Maine, This is Nick Toole signing out.


[00:16:37] Ruby Welkovich: And from the land of cannoli, Brooklyn, New York, without the Sopranos accent, this is Ruby signing out, stay safe out there. And thanks for listening.


[00:16:45] Katherine Cole: Bye bye. 


Sources & Citations

Citations reference first appearance, without repeating for subsequent usage:

[00:01:14] Le Figaro: Bouteilles de Petrus et cognac Louis XIII : l’addition surréaliste dévoilée par Salt Bae dans son restaurant

[00:03:42] Wine-Searcher: Axe Falls Again at Vintage Wine Estates

[00:08:06] Wine Spectator: Robots in the Vineyards: Could AI Be a Green Winemaking Ally?

[00:08:08] Oregon Public Broadcasting: A new ‘Pied Piper’ robot protects Oregon’s vineyards from pests with some good vibes

[00:10:52] la Repucbblica: Vino, via libera del Masaf allo stato di crisi in Abruzzo. Il Consorzio: “Servono subito 80 milioni”

[00:12:35] Wine Business: Allied Grape Growers President Urges California Industry to Remove 30,000 Acres of Vineyards

[00:13:59] La Semana Vitivinícola: A majority of producers are in favor of reducing the global supply of wine to rebalance the market