At La Tour d’Argent in Paris in 1977, during my first meal in a Michelin three-star restaurant, there was the inevitable moment when the sommelier approached the table. At the time, the place had a cellar of 500,000 bottles, the largest in the world. The sommelier opened the list to a section that he thought was compatible with the food we had ordered, and proceeded to describe the wines one by one.
Few restaurants have sommeliers today, yet many have huge wine inventories and lists that exceed 500 selections. While it can be daunting to navigate such a wine list by yourself, you can relax—help (in the form of technology) is on the way.
The software company Incentient has developed an iPad system called SmartCellar. It was first used at a New York restaurant called SD26, and has recently been installed at South Gate at the Jumeriah Essex House. More than 40 restaurants are now employing the software, and culinary stars such as Gordon Ramsay and Todd English have indicated interest in the system.
The beauty of the SmartCellar iPad application, apparently, is interaction. Customers have access to all the standard information—grape variety, region, price—along with additional features such as winemaker’s notes, critic’s ratings and food pairing suggestions. The device displays real-time inventory, and the chances of ordering a wine which is out of stock are almost nill. It can be less intimidating that talking to a real person (provided, of course, that you are not intimidated by gadetry).
One of SmartCellar’s most successful debuts has been at Bones, a classic Atlanta steakhouse with 1,350 wine list selections and an inventory of 20,000 bottles. After putting 30 iPads into service several months ago, wine purchases have increased by slightly more than 10% and the cost of the average bottle has increased. It seems that customers are more comfortable with gadgets than people, which is not surprising considering the current trends in society.
Does the SmartCellar iPad app threaten the job security of sommeliers? “If they can build one that can open a bottle of wine,” said Master Sommelier Fred Dame, “I’m going to be scared to death.”Individuals who are extremely wine-knowledgeable are still required to program and update the devices. And at some point—probably when the bottle is being served—customers still seem to require reinforcement from an actual person that they’ve made the right choice.