Devil's Advocate - Yes, People Do Need Help When Choosing Wine

In the wake of the financial difficulties facing the US wine-tech startup, Pix, there is some argument over whether apps and artificial intelligence can ever effectively help people choose bottles of wine. Robert Joseph has a few thoughts on the subject.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate

“The best invention comes from the clearest understanding of the unmet need.”

The mechanical and nuclear engineer who said this (quoting a fellow inventor) was speaking from experience. After enjoying considerable success in inventing surgical implants, Greg Lambrecht had just done the same with Coravin.

The problem he was addressing with that device was easy to describe: how to extend the enjoyment of a potentially very expensive, maybe even irreplaceable, wine over a period of months or years, rather than hours or, at best, days.

Almost any sommelier, fine wine merchant or collector will understand the need and appreciate the utility of the Coravin – just as a surgeon would, I presume, have grasped the convenience of a Lambrecht device that simplified a particularly tricky spinal operation.

In both cases, of course, the need is relatively limited. The vast majority of the world’s wine drinkers don’t have wine racks, let alone fine old bottles requiring occasional access via a gas-driven syringe. But those people aren’t Lambrecht’s target when aiming to sell a device costing over $200.

The Larger Need

The wine industry, has an immeasurably larger unmet need, however. Wine drinkers faced with hundreds of different bottles in an online or physical store have absolutely no way of knowing how most of their contents are likely to taste. Their predicament is much worse than the one facing people browsing in a clothes or book store, where shirts can be tried on and opening paragraphs of novels or biographies perused. Unless they can find a precise brand and vintage they know, or are prepared to take the time to conduct some online research, anyone shopping in the supermarkets where around 75% of the world’s wines are sold, has to simply hand over one or more $10 bills and hope for the best.

In the days when information still came in print form, along with other wine critics, I tried to help out by publishing an annual guide, which sold quite well. To be honest, however, it was a blunt tool. By the time my manuscript had been converted into a book, far too many of my recommendations had already sold out and besides, even though it was slim volume, most normal people don’t want to cart a book around with them every time they go shopping.

The arrival of the smartphone permitted Heini Zachariassen and Theis Søndergaard to launch Vivino as an app millions could use to scan the labels of those bottles. Last year, Paul Mabray joined the fray with Pix, as the ‘world’s first wine discovery platform’ which, as he acknowledged in this Meininger's interview, is now struggling to attract the finance to keep it afloat.

So What if Wine is Hard?

I’m not going to consider, here, whether Mabray’s concept or its execution were flawed; instead I would like to respond to a blog post on the subject by the American, Miquel Hudin, which dismisses any effort to address the ‘age-old conundrum that “wine is hard”’ as “solutionism” a term the Macmillan dictionary defines as the “(arguably flawed) idea that every social problem has a technological fix”.  For Hudin, most wine drinkers – over 95% - are “just looking for a consistent drinking experience" and simply “find something they like [and] stick with it”, or driven by price.

None of these people, Hudin reckons, need help from any kind of recommendation app. They’ll simply find their favourite brand, or the most attractive bargain in the store and go their merry way.

Hudin isn’t like any of these folk (though he says he used to be). Now, he’s one of those “people who want to experience everything about wine and explore it whatever it takes”, for whom “personal search and quest is all part of the fun.”

For him, “recommendations [from an app] would have to be so good that they would be better than what I see friends, fellow writers, and cavistes recommending and these recommendations would have to keep up with trends, vintages, tastes, flawed bottles, and who knows what else.” 

And, I’m sure that’s true. For Hudin.

He acknowledges that most other wine drinkers aren’t like him. They don’t have ‘fellow wine writers’ to call on, and may not even know what a ‘caviste’ is, but that doesn’t mean - at least occasionally - they don’t want to explore beyond their usual brand or the bargain bins. They know they need a bit of help and, statistically, are most likely to get it from friends and family. Crucially, they don't fit neatly into Hudin's reductive price- and brand-focused silos.

But equally importantly, they aren’t looking for perfect recommendations – from a human or a computer. They just want directing towards a drink they are likely to enjoy. Just as they want Netflix and Spotify to give them some enjoyable screen-time or music.

That’s why I applaud Vivino and Pix and every other serious attempt to meet this unmet need. If Pix isn’t rescued, that doesn’t prove that no one needed what it was trying to provide, nor even that it wasn’t doing it very well. After all, one in five startups fail in their first year.

Seven million dollars sounds like a lot of money to have burned through, and it is, but it's a mere trifle when compared to the over $220m Vivino has raised over the last dozen years. If Pix disappears, something else will soon ride over the horizon.

Steve Jobs, the Solutionist

As for Hudin’s accusation  of ‘solutionism’, It’s a snarky term that could easily have been applied to the both the iPod and the iPhone. After all, no one asked to carry all of their music in their pockets, or to be able to photograph bottles of wine to post on Instagram.

Time is the best arbiter of the utility of anything. And my bet is that, just as 188m people are currently paying for Spotify Premium to help them - more or less effectively - with their choice of music, there will be a mass of wine drinkers who’ll happily use a wine app to give them similar help.

Throughout human history, there have been inventors and people who mock their efforts from the sidelines. We need both, but I know which of the two have made the greatest contribution to human progress.

This article received minor textual edits on September 8th.

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