Roger Theunissen recalls going out to business dinners with colleagues, bankers, and the like, and never knowing which wine to order.
"It was a frustration," says Theunissen, a software developer and CEO and founder of WineStein, an artificially intelligent sommelier app. "Sometimes I chose the most expensive wine, and sometimes I said, 'okay, this one's good.' And I never had a clue which to choose to go with a particular dish."
The frustration point encouraged him to work with a team to create a software that could think like a sommelier, suggesting the best wine pairings with a given dish. "That's what artificial intelligence is all about," Theunissen explains. "It took about six years, but we developed a complete engine with all the wines in the world."
The result is WineStein, which is based in Europe and just beginning to earn adoption stateside. The app works with a restaurant's menu to ascertain the best wine pairings, given the inventory, and is accessible for users on their own phones or a tablet at the eatery. Most advantageous, from an operator's perspective, is that WineStein sends out reports to the restaurant that detail each wine, how often it's selected or viewed, and how often it's paired with a certain menu item, which gives them hard data to show distributors about what is in demand at the restaurant.
One of the first U.S. establishments to adopt Theunissen's software is The J Bar, a spinoff of Johnny's Italian Steakhouse (recently named one of the best beverage programs by FSR). Located about three hours from Johnny's Italian in Davenport, Iowa, The J Bar opened in mid-August as a more bar-centric concept than its predecessor.
"Quite often, having been in the restaurant industry as long as we have from an operational perspective, the worst thing that we can have is the distributor saying 'this is what you need,' and we end up with $5,000 or $6,000 bottles of wine just sitting there for a year or two," says Ajay Singh, vice president of brand development at Johnny’s Italian. "Now, our bar managers can actually pull the recording analysis up while the wine distributors are there and show them: this is what's going through, this is what's being requested, what do you have to complement this.
"We've really created a science behind this and a really different methodology behind how we look at wine," he adds.
The J Bar's first full month of operation was September, and Singh says the wine sales have "done phenomenally well and frankly surpassed our expectations," adding they're second to liquor.
Theunissen says WineStein predicts about 20 percent higher sales at each venue where it is employed.
Shaping the Wine List
Most restaurants begin creating a wine list in a similar way. The bar manager or restaurant manager thinks about the wine she wants to offer to complement the menu or tempt drinkers with new or one-of-a-kind tastes. In some cases, it's personal preference, though often, it's influenced by the local wine distributor, whose objective is to push wine.
Before its opening, The J Bar's leaders knew one of the key components they wanted to highlight at the new concept was wine, Singh says. The J Bar installed a WineEmotion 24-bottle system to serve wine in 1-, 3-, and 5-ounce pours and tempt guests' curiosity, but wanted to go beyond the wine dispenser system.
"We wanted an opportunity to bring in wine, we obviously wanted it to be a part of our bar sales, and yet we wanted to take away the intimidation factor from people who aren't as familiar with wine," Singh says. "So, we started to do a little homework and we happened across WineStein. After almost a year and a half working with Roger and his team, we implemented it at The J Bar."
The J Bar began with an initial allotment for its wine inventory, Singh says, based on what executives thought the restaurant should carry. But they learned that partnering with WineStein offered an unanticipated benefit: Theunissen and his team took the J Bar's entire inventory and pushed it through the model with WineStein to see how well the wines actually paired with the dishes.
Singh says The J Bar found that a large population of its wines did not score as high as they would have liked. The tool helped the restaurant fine-tune its wine selection so it could proffer a list that matched dishes on both the higher end of the wine scale as well as the lower end in price.
The J Bar uses WineStein by floating three tablets through the restaurant that guests can use to surf the app, which will suggest the best pairings with the menu. Guests can also call up the app on their own phones and browse The J Bar's menu, and wine options, from there. The app allows guests to set a price filter for the wine they purchase.
“We recognized the restaurant was aimed at Millennials,” Singh says, adding that a smartphone wine app was right in line with The J Bar’s audience, and has also helped The J Bar train its staff in wine offerings.
By Sonya Chudgar