When it comes to cheap gifts for hobbyists that are some blend of superfluous, ill-designed or just plain pointless, the alcohol industry has always been fertile ground for the selling of unnecessary accessories and doodads. Anyone who is a vocal fan of spirits, craft beer or wine is likely to know this—as soon as relatives assign you the title of “alcohol expert” in their brains, one can typically expect a solid decade of kitschy, alcohol-related Christmas gifts to follow, especially if they’re products that can easily fit in a stocking.
This is how, for instance, an entire generation of consumers curious about American whiskey were conned into buying “whiskey stones” for themselves or others—those cubic little rocks in a pouch that one is theoretically supposed to keep in the freezer and use to “chill whiskey without diluting it.” Setting aside the fact that a whiskey enthusiast probably doesn’t want to chill their spirit in the first place for the sake of its flavor, and could easily chill it much more easily and effectively in myriad other ways, whiskey stones were a masterclass in selling a product that not only solves a nonexistent problem, but doesn’t even do what it’s meant to do effectively. Suffice to say, a basic scientific understanding of how chilling happens will educate one as to why whiskey stones don’t work,. while actually using the things was so inconvenient and impractical that most consumers would probably give up after the first attempt—right about the time when the rocks roll forward in your glass and crack you in the teeth.
Wine, however, really might be king when it comes to the market for pointless doodads, perhaps because the subculture/stereotype of “wine geek as poser fool with disposable income” has been around considerably longer than the whiskey world’s equivalent. As a result, there’s always been a booming market for the selling of “helpful” little devices and accessories to wine drinkers—devices meant to make opening bottles easier, or storing them more easy or effective, or the countless devices that claim to most effectively aerate your bottle. You could buy 100 different doodads as stocking stuffers for 100 different wine geeks. With most of these devices, though, one could at least theoretically continue using them for years, if you actually find them effective. Few have had such a concrete expiration date as Wine Enthusiast’s ill-fated WineMaster, rendering a small electronic toy into essentially a brick of functionless plastic in hilarious fashion, passed over by quickly evolving technology pretty much immediately after its release.
Until this weekend, I had understandably never heard of or seen the WineMaster. But while browsing a small-town antique store, I ran across the following package on the shelf, offered up for the rock bottom sum of $8.
Now what have we here? Promoted and branded by Wine Enthusiast, the influential wine magazine that has been covering the industry since 1979, the WineMaster is a pocket-sized tool—naturally shaped like a wine bottle, because what else—that was seemingly released in 2003, some 20 years ago. Made by “Excalibur Electronics,” it was meant to be a pocket-sized compendium of Wine Enthusiast ratings and reviews, which you would presumably bring with you when you went to the liquor store, to be able to easily call up wine ratings in seconds. The helpful screen would then give you the information … roughly 3 to 6 words at a time. This was the WineMaster “Special Edition,” although it also came in a “Deluxe” edition that was instead shaped like a little notebook. It is unclear which of these editions was supposed to be the superior product. Both allowed the user to store an incredible 25 ratings of their own for future reference. We’re talking some serious hardware here, folks. Naturally, it was made in China.
Even at the moment that this device came out, it must have already seemed antiquated on some level. In particular, the low-pixel LCD screen can display a pathetically small amount of information—it looks like a cross between the TI-83 graphing calculator you used in high school math, and a Tiger Electronics handheld poker game you’d find caked in dust at your grandmother’s house. Imagine trying to enter a wine vintage into this thing, and then standing there in a liquor store aisle with your little plastic wine bottle, reading the subsequent review five words at a time. But how else would you know what Robert Parker thinks?!?
The true joy of the WineMaster’s obsolescence, though, is that there was no way to update its registry of wines after they were initially programmed into this piece of plastic, meaning that its manufacture effectively started an immediate ticking clock to the time when the wines it rated would no longer be available on the shelf. What’s that? You bought a WineMaster for someone two years after it was first produced? Well, have fun with 50% of its entries no longer existing in the wild!
What we have here is a relic of a very specific moment in our own technological history, when such a handy-dandy little handheld device could be cheaply mass produced, but internet-capable handheld devices hadn’t yet entered the mainstream. There were indeed internet-equipped phones out there in 2003, but they weren’t yet being used by rank and file consumers. The first iPhone was still a couple years away, and junk like the WineMaster was there to briefly fill the void—a highly specific device whose function would soon be obliterated by near universal access to the World Wide Web in the palm of our hands. Today, anyone in the wine aisle can look up a plethora of up-to-date rankings, reviews or tastings of any product, which obviously means that even a fully functional and updated product in the style of the WineMaster would be totally pointless now. And thus we find these things today, still somehow sitting on the shelves of antique shops and thrift stores, waiting on the day that some senior citizen will come along and not consider the practicality of 20-year-old wine information before they hand over their $8.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, no mention of the WineMaster can be found via the Wine Enthusiast website today, despite the fact that the selling of wine-related tchotchkes is very much the site’s main purpose. As for Excalibur Electronics, the brains behind the WineMaster’s construction, they appear to be long since defunct—the website listed on the back of the WineMaster packaging now redirects to an electrician or repair company also called Excalibur, while the listed office space in Miami is now home to a medical device incubator. In fact, it looks like my “video poker” comparison was a good one, because the only other old products from Excalibur Electronics I can find online are equally crappy plastic entertainment devices, with names like “9 in 1 Casino.”
Despite—or because—of its general and apparent crappiness, there’s something irresistibly interesting to me about the nostalgia that a product like the WineMaster represents, as an icon of an earlier era when information for hobbyists was more of a challenge to access. In the era of the WineMaster, we didn’t carry around the collected knowledge of every human scientist, professor and philosopher in the pockets of our jeans on a daily basis. You wanted to do more research about a particular vineyard, or brewery, or distillery? You might be forced to consult an actual book or magazine, or make some phone calls if you didn’t have ready access to the World Wide Web. That kind of inquisitiveness, and the challenge of hunting for information is somewhat lost on us today, but it was the impetus for who knows how many aunts or grandmothers to purchase WineMasters for that special “alcohol expert” in their lives. Who knows how many are still gathering dust in basements or junk drawers? One thing is for sure: Ebay is absolutely full of the things, so if you want to experience the wine scene of 20 years ago, in an era when the iPod was still new, it’s there for the taking.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.