"If anyone should have one, it’s you,” I heard whenever talk of smart-phones erupted among friends. As a journalist covering travel, plus food and wine trends, I’m on six planes a month and often on tight deadlines for articles. Apparently, the idea that I could be locked out of my email inbox for an hour or two seemed inexcusable.
But, like many things in life, why fix what isn’t broken? Alas, just before 2013 wrapped, my flip-phone became unhinged and its sound quality dulled.
It was time to upgrade, to an iPhone.
Almost overnight, my world of wine opened up even more with the newfound access to apps, not to mention the Internet. Mulling over a wine list while out to dinner, I could easily expand beyond the sommelier’s tasting notes by visiting the winery’s website. If I liked the wine well enough to buy it later, the app could pop up the price in an instant in my palm, not to mention show its availability at a local retailer. If I wasn’t sure what to pair with asparagus risotto, or an equally baffling menu option like roasted artichokes, I would no longer be left high and dry—wine apps were ever-present to coach me.
Yet I was also asking questions: Now that diners have wine information at their fingertips, what does it mean for sommeliers and wine directors? Is this a cause for professional concern? Do they have to up their game? And, most importantly, were their jobs as informants on all things vino suddenly in jeopardy?
In test-driving numerous apps, my goal was to simulate a restaurant’s customer. For example, imagine I’m out to dinner with friends and we are attempting to settle on a bottle of red wine to pair with our vastly different orders. Or maybe I am perplexed about which $100-plus Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to choose as the choices span dozens of boutique producers (while that can be a very good thing, it’s not if you aren’t familiar with them). Perhaps the restaurant isn’t staffed with a roving wine expert, or the place is hopping and I’m eager to place an order. After all, for the price of a candy bar (most apps range from no cost at all to a modest $2.99), diners can download extremely detailed wine information. Isn’t that a threat that wine professionals need to listen to?
First, I put on my reporter hat, asking fellow wine drinkers for suggested downloads. With an eye on how a diner might enhance her experience at the table, or seek out a spot to drink wine some night, I sought out suggestions. Definitely Cor.kz ($1.99), wrote my friend Denise Reynolds, a wine writer in South Florida. I downloaded the app, clicking to my heart’s desire, stunned that my neighborhood wine bars loaded up tout de suite after I clicked “Places: Looking for a Wine Bar?” If in wine country, the app allows you to find wineries and vineyards too.
But the true strength in this app is that it can research any wine you wish. Or, if faced with a lengthy wine list, start by varietal, wine-producing region, or country. What’s not to love about that?
Never one to underestimate the credibility of a wine author, I put Canadian journalist Natalie MacLean’s free Wine Picks & Pairings app to work. Downloadable through her website (NatalieMacLean.com), it was named one of five top wine apps by the New York Times. Sliding my index finger over the “Pairings” icon led me to “Tap to Find Your Food.” That Pecorino from Calabria, Italy, in my fridge—picked up at Eataly’s Chicago location the day before—beckoned. I selected, in this order, Cheese and Pecorino Toscana. Up popped Sagrantino and Sangiovese, with 15 suggestions for each varietal.
The next evening I ordered a flight of “savory whites” at my favorite local wine bar—Thief Wine Shop & Bar, in Milwaukee—and kept my iPhone at the ready. The first button I selected on HelloVino (free) was “Let’s Get It On,” a sure sign of the app’s sassiness. What followed were five choices to effectively answer the prompt “Can we help you choose a wine?” It included being able to select by varietal. My goal was to find information about the wines I was sipping, as the waitress was busy tending other tables. A search tool in the app led me to two of those wines. I also stumbled upon every wine-drinker’s dream: the ability to take a photo of the label and promptly tuck it away within the app.
To Get What You Pay For
The vast selection—literally hundreds—of wine apps available begs the question: “To pay or not to pay?” Drawn first to the free apps, I quickly realized that a one-time fee of less than $3 isn’t terrible, especially since I—as well as other diners—have a better chance of leaving the restaurant satisfied with my wine purchase after turning to a reliable resource.
That said, there’s no price on the human experience, and a sommelier’s job can never be duplicated by a robotic series of questions and answers—there’s a reason why intense studying is necessary to pass the exam to be a sommelier. And there’s the personal connection; chatting with customers about a shared passion for wine is as much a part of the job as ordering cases from distributors. Sommeliers are the face of the restaurant, and no device can, pardon the pun, delete that skill.
Case in point: Once the flight was delivered to my table at Thief Wine, I pounced on the waitress with a question. “What is your favorite wine in this flight?” I asked.
Faster than the speed it would take to download a wine app, she replied, “Grüner Veltliner.” Now that’s service.