Thursday, September 16, 2010

Enough already!

Text and photos ©Tom Hyland

Interesting article in the New York Times on Wednesday about restaurants now offering to their customers iPads that contain the wine list; there is now an app that can list a particular restaurant's wine offerings along with ratings. The idea here, as best as I can tell, is that a customer will have another option when he or she selects a wine off the list.

I for one think this is technology gone wild. Do customers at a restaurant really need this information? Isn't that what a sommelier is for? One woman in the article is quoted as saying that clients "like to make their own decisions." How's that? How is reading a collection of ratings for a group of wines making your own decision?

The article does cover a number of opinions and apparently there are many in the business who see this as a plus. If it works for them, fine. I certainly don't blame Apple for creating this app. They've got a huge audience out there who is endorsing all sorts of apps, from choosing a restaurant to reading specific magazines or watching a particular TV show. (I myself am waiting for the app that lists the best bathrooms in big cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, so the well-to-do can be choosy about where they do their business. Hey, people like to make their own decision, don't they?)

The article mentions that one customer chose a wine as it had received a high score from Robert Parker. There is no mention in the article if other ratings are listed for the wines. I certainly hope so; the last thing wine lovers need is more slant toward the international, super ripe wines favored by Mr. Parker. It's the bigger is better philosophy, which unfortunately is probably what prevails at a business wine dinner. Don't order a wine if it works with the food, buy it because it's a powerhouse. If you're happy with that, then I guess you deserve this new play toy.

But the crux of the problem, it seems to me, is technology being used as a crutch. Don't know what restaurant to go to? Don't know what wine to select? No problem, just take out your iPhone or iPad (or other similar devices) and check out that app. Is this what technology has done to us? What happened to our sense of adventure? Isn't life more than a set of numbers and statistics, especially when we're dealing with a sensory experience as tasting wine?

Wine at its best reflects a sense of place; a wine made from Pinot Noir in the Santa Rita Hills in California has a particular flavor profile, one that is markedly different from a Burgundy from Nuits-Saint-Georges. Does this iPad app with its numerical ratings cover that? When it does, I'll be all for it, but for now, this is another argument against rating wines with points.

A friend of mine tells me often that "the internet is the worst invention in history." I don't exactly share his sentiments, but I understand his thoughts, as he thinks a lot of people have lost their jobs because of it. If I were a sommelier at a restaurant that offered an iPad to help customers choose wine, I wouldn't be worried just yet, but I'd have to think that my services weren't as necessary as they were before this tool. And let's face it, technology is only going to get bigger and more out of control.


  1. I've wondered if there are folks who, without their smart phone for some reason and in an unfamiliar locale, actually freak out a bit when face with making a purely gut driven decision.

    I'm hoping this isn't difficult for some folks and in fact I'm pretty sure it isn't difficult. We can all still appreciate the problems of a restaurant with dirty tables and floors or a restaurant that has $25 salads and no one at the tables at 1pm.

    Enjoyed the post,
    Tom Wark...

  2. "If I were a sommelier at a restaurant that offered an iPad to help customers choose wine", I'd have to learn more about wine than just Parker's ratings, basic knowledge of the main international grapes and a few information about the producer... I'd have to meet producers, speak with them, understand their passion and their work, visit their vineyards and wineries, and give my customers more than just a quick suggestion on a food and wine pairing. I'd have to transfer to them my own passion about interesting wines, unusual varieties, and not only about famous wines that sell (the ones with high scores).
    Technology can do much of the work, but will never replace your heart.

  3. Tom:

    Good thoughts. It may be helpful for some people.

    I do think though that at this point, it's a gimmick to get people in the door. Competition is tough these days, so I understand that. But shouldn't excellent food and service be the reason why customers enter the door?

  4. Marilena:

    Outstanding comment! Personal passion is what selling wine is all about, not numbers. Thanks for sharing your thoughts - we all need to remember them.

  5. I was at a restaurant recently and the wine buyer told me that they didn't need to taste wines, they only pick from the top 100 wines of the Wine Spectator to make their list. So there you have it, let The Spectator and Parker make late Friday afternoon hot shot deliveries to these folks, who have forgotten to order the wine, presumably because they no longer have a brain in their head.

  6. Every time I think I've heard or seen the worst, something like this comes along.

    How sad that this buyer takes this stance. If that's the case, why even have a wine buyer? You could make the person who orders produce take care of that position.

    Your comment is spot on - thanks.

  7. Tom,

    Really timely and good piece.

    Rather than ratings, restaurant operators and sommeliers/wine directors should be providing 'context' about the wines they have selected for their wine programs, and using the internet to bring their customers useful information to enhance guest appreciation of given wines.

    Otherwise, as a poster above said, "why have a wine buyer?" Why not a "number reader"?

    Ratings alone are a superficial measure of wine, like those who only rely upon them.

    Ronn Wiegand MW MS

  8. Ronn:

    Excellent point - technology can be helpful, but it has to be used the right way.