Can an Algorithm Decode Your Palate to Find Your Perfect Wine?


9 minute Read

The wine market in the U.S. is booming. The days of deciding whether you’d prefer a red or white to accompany your entree are long gone; choices now include rose and orange. (Hello, millennials!)

Despite our relatively young wine industry, and cultural conditions like age restrictions, the United States consumes more wine by volume than any other country in the world. Retail sales are expected to continue to grow another 11 percent by 2020, according to The IWSR and Vinexpo.

We’re drinking more and we’re drinking differently. Today’s consumers are increasingly knowledgeable and curious, and willing to venture far beyond conventional ideologies that kept noble grape sales flowing and rando hybrids to a localized trickle.

“People are approaching wine differently than they ever did before,” says Kristie Petrullo Campbell, founder of the consultancy Petrullo Wine Company and the former chief sommelier at Jean Georges Vongerichten’s flagship restaurant in New York City. “Instead of coming into a restaurant asking for a particular varietal like they did 10, 15 years ago, the typical – often younger – consumer is much more interested in pursuing a flavor profile or taste and is generally approaching the experience of wine consumption in a more personalized, laid-back way.”

It’s a Wide World

As more wine newcomers eschew the noble grapes (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon) for emerging and novelty wines, their options multiply. There are now about 1,300 widely used commercial varietals of grapes. The notion of sipping through them all to find that one perfect wine for you is thus increasingly overwhelming (and unlikely).

Historically, sommeliers and established critics like Jancis Robinson would serve as guiding lights to this type of quixotic quest. These days, however, consumers are frequently turning to apps and education-driven wine clubs to narrow the crowded field of options.

Enter establishment wine’s frenemy, the World Wide Web. Entrepreneurial winos have noticed the uptick in wine interest and consumption, not to mention the rise of smartphone usage, and flooded the market with a range of wine apps, clubs, and all manner of grapevine-to-glass operations.

Although experts like Robinson, Decanter and Noble Rot Magazine continue to be major sources for the modern wine connoisseur, casual drinkers trust their favorite apps thoroughly, consulting them as they would a somm before making purchases. (And sometimes even as a test against which to measure a sommelier’s expertise.)

“In my early years as a somm I was quite skeptical about the whole idea of relying on technology in correlation to wine,” says Parag Lalit, the sommelier at the Sixteen in Chicago. “Over the years, many outstanding apps have proved me wrong. Delectable, Vivino, Wine Searcher, Cellar Tracker, to name a few.”

Approximately 23 percent of wine consumers use apps to make wine-purchasing decisions, according to a study out of the Sonoma State University Wine Business Institute.

The Yelp Age

There are now hundreds of wine apps and clubs on the market. All purport to help users find the best wine for them, and many are hyper-curated with specific segments of the population in mind. There really does seem to be something for every type of drinker, from “adventure” wine clubs like Plonk that deliberately market unusual varietals from diverse regions, to locavore-minded groups like Club W, now Winc, that appeal to millennials by marketing meticulously designed labels.

But wine is like a poem. Countless external factors — including how and where it’s encountered, or your mood at the time — can drastically change your perception of it.

“There are a million different possibilities for food and wine pairings,” says Amy Lutchen, the wine director at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steak House in Chicago. “Data about wine and food is absolutely necessary, but the total wine experience is comprised of more than just the contents inside a bottle. Companions at the table, atmosphere of the setting, history behind the bottle, and differing palate preferences all contribute to how you feel during the moments when you first sip the wine as well as how you remember the evening when you look back on it.”

Ask Me No Questions

Can a website, no matter how carefully designed, rigorously tweaked, and constantly updated truly ascertain something as specific and frankly unpredictable as an individual’s response to wine? A handful of these new online businesses combine elements of the app and the club and set out to do just that.

“As a wine professional who has been working in not only winemaking but also direct wine sales I can say that it would be possible for an algorithm to help match customers needs,” says Becky Rodriguez, the communications manager for Château Teyssier in Saint Emilion, France, and a former salesperson for Oregon’s Willamette Valley Vineyards.

“I say this as someone who has directly worked with customers and tailored their needs with their preferred wines,” Rodriguez continues. “There are absolutely certain questions you can ask to help pin people’s preferences, all of which an algorithm could do,” Rodriguez continues. She argues that apps gather the data just as a sommelier would.

“Sommeliers ask people very specific questions in order to pair the right wine,” she says. “There are also certain things that absolutely do and no not pair with certain wines. All of this info could be compiled into an algorithm, and would probably be just as accurate as the recommendation from a sommelier.”

Others disagree. (Primarily somms, as it turns it out!)

“Selecting wine for someone’s palate is not black and white,” says Petrullo Campbell. “People taste things differently. One person can describe a wine as dry, crisp, and tart while someone else can describe the same wine as fruity. It happens all of the time. Interpreting taste is so personal. That’s why an algorithm can’t work.”

Petrullo Campbell worked at New York fine dining destinations Jean-Georges, Daniel, and Eleven Madison Park before founding her own company, Petrullo Wine. It is, in many ways, the anti-app.

“Wine is so personal, so nuanced,” Petrullo Campbell explains. “And often someone will say they want one thing, but once we taste wine together and I learn their palate, I discover that to them a California Cabernet is a ‘light’ wine. To me, I would define ‘light’ very differently. So understanding not just their likes and dislikes, but the specific way they describe those likes and dislikes and being able to predict their tastes on not-quite-articulated cues? There’s no way an app could do that.”

To be fair, somms have serious skin in the game. Sommeliers spend years training for their certification, shelling out thousands of dollars and hours in hopes of passing a rigorous exam. Truly talented sommeliers win accolades and highly competitive positions at top restaurants not just for their extraordinarily refined palates, but for their ability to understand and read people.

It’s still a relatively new industry – the Court of Master Sommeliers wasn’t established until 1977. It’s not hard to imagine that some sommeliers see their dearly won professional status being threatened by automation.

Working the Bright Shift

Given all that’s at stake for wine professionals and the industry at large, I decided to take one of the buzzier clubs, Bright Cellars, out for a test drive. Could Bright’s algorithm beat the wine I’d recently discovered at one of my favorite local shops?

Founded in 2014 by wine-loving MIT grads Richard Yau and Joseph Laurendi, Bright Cellars is essentially the Match.com of the wine world. Users fill out detailed surveys from which Bright’s algorithm matches them with their dream wines. Once a month, Bright delivers four bottles, all for $60 plus $8 shipping.

After perfecting their list of questions and gathering some serious feedback (they collected 10,000 wine reviews from users in their first year of operation alone), Bright believes it is getting closer and closer to being able to deliver true love.

“[The] wine-selection algorithm depends on 18 attributes that are based on our seven questions,” says Christie Low, director of operations at Bright Cellars. “We also have an in-house sommelier and staff of wine professionals who are constantly reviewing the wines and users’ responses to the wines to learn how we can hone the selection even more.”

Bright Cellars sources their wine from third-party wineries and typically has 30 wines on hand to choose from for their monthly delivery.

The Sweet Low-Down

The process of ordering and getting the wines delivered was flawless, with automated delivery updates, tracking info, and reminders to have someone over 21 years old at home to sign for the delivery. The bottles came neatly wrapped in green tissue paper and nestled in wee cardboard canoes, making the process of opening them feel more festive and momentous than merely extracting a bottle from a brown paper bag.

I received a Pana Shiraz 2016, a White Willow Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, an Acopio Garnacha 2015, and a Forty Winks Sauvignon Blanc 2015. The selection was geared toward my palate, which skews bitter, and assessed according to Bright’s fascinating series of seven questions.

Bright’s queries seemed like they might actually be pretty useful in probing the fringes of my tastebuds and drinking habits.  In addition to somewhat predictable queries — “What is the one type of chocolate you could eat for the rest of your life?” — Bright also inquires, “How do you like your tea?”

Survey questions canvas your adventurousness with new foods and drinks, and about how you like to drink. Do you drink with friends? On the beach? With a good book? All of this begins to tiptoe into the armchair psychology territory said to bring sommeliers success.

Now the tasting. I gathered a range of drinkers from experienced (borderline alcoholics who organize their vacations around vineyards) to neophyte to assess Bright’s service and the wine-club experience overall.

The assessment of the wine was mixed. Forty Winks was the crowd favorite and the White Willow skulked in dead last.

The general assessment of Forty Winks could be summarized as follows:

“Eh? I like it. I think I like it. Would I go out and specifically buy it again? No.  Would I buy it if I saw it on the shelf and I was just in the mood for something easy drinking? Yes.”

The Pana Shiraz and Acopio were dubbed “easy drinking” wines that all of the tasters enjoyed but were not enthusiastic about repeating.

Poor White Willow got corked and turned over to the fridge. It’s destined for a zesty Italian sauce whose bright tomato, basil and cream could combat its soul-deadening notes of tobacco and pepper.

Market Analysis

One thing was clear, though: Of the eight people who sampled the wines (from the septuagenarian without an email address to the guy who won’t go to houses where iPhones aren’t allowed at dinner), all were fascinated by the idea of an algorithm doing the dirty work of wine selection for them.

The experience of sampling wines that skew toward my palate made them want to see what would happen if they gambled $68 on their own algorithm. Many also already utilize similar services for bulk food delivery, meal prep, books, even baby toys.

But this clearly isn’t a service for experienced wine drinkers. This is where newbies can earn their training wheels and somewhat knowledgeable wine drinkers can further hone their palates.

Bottom line: Bright is offering a step up from macro, industrially produced plonk like Yellow Tail. And it has zero problem with that.

“Our typical customer is newer to wine,” Low explains. “They came of drinking age fairly recently and just started eating at nicer places and have the time, interest and budget to learn more about wine. We have people of all ages using the service, but I’d definitely say that between 25 and 35 is our sweet spot.”

They have certainly found a market. Bright Cellars currently has 17,000 users, and closed a $2 million round of funding last summer.

Many users end up becoming repeat customers. Between 50 and 60 percent provide Bright with ratings on the wine they tried, ensuring that they’ll get better matches if they continue and providing the company with data to improve their algorithm.

The Future is Now

Algorithms are probably here to stay, and chances are they’ll just become more accurate and sophisticated as the data they collect piles up and is analyzed.

“The idea may appear embryonic today,” Lalit says, “But the pace at which this industry is advancing, I wouldn’t be surprised if virtual somms based on precise mathematical calculations appear in the coming years to provide a similar experience and expertise as a floor Somm.”

For many, this is off-putting. The charm, the human touch, is the essence of what so many of us are really seeking when we reach for a glass of wine.

Lalit is aware of this. “That said, the human factor does make hospitality a unique industry and while automation is not totally impossible in the coming decades, [it] will definitely take the charm away from this beverage and the industry,” he says.

Happily Ever After?

I learned quite a bit from Bright. It turns out I have a sweeter wine tooth than I thought, and that most of my food and even beer choices would indicate.

But it didn’t come close to unseating my perfect wine: a refined yet glug-worthy gem that is reasonable enough for everyday consumption but special enough to serve dinner guests. That I found at a happy summer meal with a good friend and an excellent sommelier, who patiently allowed us to taste three wines and talk her ear off about what was wrong with them before serving us the Cherry Pie Three Vineyards Pinot Noir. (Be still, my heart.)

As the sommelier explained, Cherry Pie is made in part with grapes from Stanly Ranch, one of the best places in the world to grow Pinot Noir grapes. It came with a reasonable price tag because it was blended with grapes from two other wonderful but less famous vineyards.

Did the fact that I discovered it on a magical, light summer night over delicious food and great conversation influence my perception of it? Almost certainly.

Ultimately, wine clubs based on intelligently programmed algorithms can point you in the right direction. Services like Bright will reinforce deal breakers and underline new #winegoals.

And, like Tinder, they can certainly give you a thrill for a night or two. Will you learn something? Absolutely. Will you fall in love? It’s not impossible, but there’s no way to digitize true love. You’re going to need another human for that.

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