As if job security in the restaurant business wasn’t bad enough, researchers in Spain are developing a robotic sommelier.
There’s no need to polish the resumé just yet, although scientists at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona are making rapid progress toward developing a machine that could someday take the place of a human. Their device is capable of distinguishing the sweetness and classification of three types of Cava (Spanish sparkling wine made by the Champagne method), and they believe that eventually the device can be programmed to detect all eight varieties.
They’re not the only ones working on it. At the University of Bourgogne in Dijon, researchers have created an “electronic nose” that is capable of analyzing the chemical composition of a wine and identifying its grape variety, vintage and other details—right down to the specific barrel in which the wine was produced. These devices are being developed primarily to combat the burgeoning industry of counterfeit wine, but they may someday have applications on the restaurant floor.
The soft economy of the past several years has already had an impact on the job market for sommeliers. While there are record numbers of young people interested in pursuing wine as a career, there are far fewer restaurants with the resources to employ a dedicated wine steward. Most of the venues hiring a formal sommelier tend to be large hotels or resorts with multiple restaurant outlets, and the markets where they are located—Florida, Las Vegas, Arizona—have been hardest hit by declining tourism.
At the same time, consumer interest in wine is at an all-time high, even though most drinkers have traded down to cheaper bottles. While there may not seem to be a need for a sommelier to help customers pick out a $35 wine, there’s usually someone (an owner, manager or key server) who has helped put the list together and can provide guidance on finding hidden gems. More often than not, this person is focusing on the wine program as a labor of love, so their insights can be valuable.
Still, the benefits of a robotic sommelier are interesting to ponder. They don’t get sick, they don’t have personal preferences, and they’re not going to jump ship for a better job offer. Best of all, you don’t have to tip them.