Vinum ex machina: Technology and wine

Lucy Britner

Lucy Britner

15 May 2020

From preservation systems to pricing apps and Instagram brags, Lucy Britner investigates the impact of technology on the world of wine service

We live in a world where taxis arrive at the touch of an app, drones can take wedding photos and a bracelet can tell us how well we slept. Tech continues to change the way we do just about everything – and it’s no different when it comes to wine service. Preservation systems have revolutionised wine lists, apps have given consumers access to an unprecedented amount of information and social media has provided a global shop window for bars and restaurants alike.

These advances in technology have shaped wine service over the past decade – and will continue to do so. And while hologram sommeliers and Chianti in pill form might still be a way off , there is plenty for the on-trade to get acquainted with.

Preservation sensation

Clement Roberts, wine buyer and group head sommelier at Caprice Holdings, explains that preservation systems allow for the possibility and confidence to serve older and more expensive wines by the glass, by limiting and reducing wastage caused by oxidation. ‘From a revenue perspective it is also a superb and easy upsell,’ he adds. Wine preservation systems also play into wider consumer trends as people look to drink alcohol less often – but of better quality. ‘Having the possibility to drink an amazing glass of wine without the pressure of ordering more than the equivalent of one glass is revolutionary,’ Roberts says.

Social media boosts the wine programme but also exposes it to the competition

Clement Roberts

When it comes to thinking about consumer habits, Roka UK’s head sommelier and wine buyer Laura Blanchett says that drinkers who try something expensive by the glass will not necessarily always go on to spend more on wine in general. However, she does say that ‘some people will taste, understand and will perhaps be comfortable in investing a little bit more than they did previously’.

There are such developments in this area, with systems from Coravin to vacuum pumps aiming to revolutionise the way we keep wine that Imbibe conducted an experiment to see which are the best performers. Check out the results of news editor Jacopo Mazzeo’s year-long project (part I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII).

Keeping it social

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person in possession of an Instagram account must have posted a food pic. Social media, says Roka’s Blanchett, has had a ‘moderate to strong’ influence on wine service. ‘It has been very useful for us to understand what consumers like,’ she says. ‘A lot of people post what they think looks good on Instagram, whether that’s a cocktail
or a bottle of champagne. People who follow those influencers, or brands, will often say they have seen a post
and ask for that dish or product – especially with food.’

The chief use of social media for somms, though, appears to lie more in furthering their own knowledge – as well as keeping an eye on the competition. ‘We use social media to increase interest in our wines, events and special offers,’ says Michael Raebel, head sommelier at Rosewood London. ‘All of this is to educate the public and spread the love and passion we have for wine.’ Social media has evened out competition between restaurants, believes Caprice’s Roberts. ‘It is easy to check what makes a wine programme popular by looking at consumer posts on specific restaurants, same goes with sommelier posts or special bottles of wine being open on a specific night which attract attention,’ he says. ‘Being very dynamic on social media boosts the wine programme but also exposes it to the competition instantly.’ He believes this is a major contributing factor to the ‘impressive quality of wine lists across most good restaurants in London’.

For Blanchett, though, social media has not changed how she puts together wine lists per se. She focuses more on overall trends. For example, she says New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc has had its day. ‘It’s still a staple but it’s not as strong a staple,’ she tells Imbibe. ‘Consumer tastes seem to go around in 5-8 year cycles.’

App yours

Besides social media, there are apps for just about everything – including checking the price and vintage information of wine. ‘Wine apps like Vivino are used by guests more and more to compare prices and check the quality of wines and wine lists,’ says Rosewood London’s Raebel. ‘The sommelier must know their facts very well and hopefully provide more than just numbers and tasting notes to the guest.’ Blanchett says customers have even ‘Vivino-ed’ wines while she has been standing at the table. Industry observers have said Vivino’s pricing has sometimes been a tough pill to swallow for the on-trade, as it reflects retail pricing. But there is no question that apps like this one have created greater overall transparency.

‘We need to embrace every kind of information available to guests: it shows that guests are interested in what they drink and how much they feel they should pay,’ says Roberts. ‘It forces restaurants to be competitive and to be transparent in regards to their pricing, which is something at Caprice we are certainly putting tremendous effort into.’

On a practical note, Roger Jones, co-owner of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn (which is due to close this March) says he uses wine apps to check his own pricing. ‘Especially as we aged our wines sometimes for more than a decade and we bought many wines direct from source so we needed to check retail prices’, he says.

Forward thinking

Apps are, of course, set to be a part of the future of wine service and Roberts touts Wine Picker as one to watch. He says the app helps consumers choose wine according to their food selection, acting as a virtual sommelier. ‘I think it’s great, many guests are shy and not keen to ask for advice from sommeliers and this app does just that.’ Back-of-house tech, says Rosewood’s Raebel, is also helping to do more than just simplify stock management. ‘Ordering systems have greatly improved the accuracy of ordering – and data analysis has helped us to significantly understand how and what guests consume,’ he says. ‘It really has helped us tailor our service and selection.’ Elsewhere, he says advances in preservation and storage systems would be a welcome development. A move, he believes, that would allow sommeliers to focus on what they do best: ‘Telling the story behind the wine and translating a passion and love for one of the most exciting products in the hospitality industry.’

Data analysis has helped us significantly to understand how and what guests consume

Michael Raebel

For Roka’s Blanchett, the wine industry is one that has ‘held on to tradition a lot more than other parts of the restaurant business’. She thinks there is scope for brands or generic bodies to use apps in a similar way to the likes of London Cocktail Week – as a way to connect and promote restaurants and wines alike. Overall, it seems our hologram somm may be confined to science fiction. Human interaction, says Roberts, ‘will never be replaced’. He says new tech will push the sommelier to be ‘extra friendly, more knowledgeable and service-minded in order to make a difference’. He cautions that the demand for personalised, high quality service will increase. ‘Every aspect, including technology, needs to be embraced and considered as long as it improves the consumer experience, whether it is an app, a preservation system, an interactive wine list or an interactive menu,’ he concludes. While technology may offer its assistance, then, the art of selling wine remains down to good old fashioned humans.

This feature was orignally published on the 2020 Spring issue of Imbibe Magazine.

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