The Devil's Advocate: Personalised Wine Recommendations for Solitary Drinkers

Do artificial Intelligence-powered personal wine recommendations solve a problem? Robert Joseph isn't so certain.

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

At the recent Act for Change conference in Bordeaux, when introducing his panel of wine professionals, the moderator, Patrick Schmidt MW, included information about what they all enjoyed doing in their spare time.

I liked this idea and it set me thinking about lots of the things we all do with our lives – and quite possibly money. We eat and drink and travel. We listen to music and read words in various media. Some cook, or paint, or play an instrument, or garden, or practice some kind of sport or challenging mental activity.

How many of these is truly solitary? Reading, fishing and running certainly fit that description, but for most people, most of the time, most activities, I’d argue, involve other people at least to some extent. Artists like to see their work being admired; cooks want to share their dishes. My taste in music is private – until I inflict my playlist on anyone travelling in my car.

And the same is true of wine. I don’t usually drink alone.

I thought about this while listening, at that same event, to US tech entrepreneur, Pam Dillon, talking about Preferabli, the startup of which she is CEO. Her eminent team of MWs and MS’s she explained, had tasted a huge range of wines – I think she said all the wines on the market, but I may have been imagining that - and identified 700 data points that make it possible to recommend specific wines to individuals that they are sure to enjoy.

Now let’s, for the sake of argument, accept that Preferabli really achieves this for me. What happens next? Obviously, I can use the information to buy wine that I like – presumably through Preferabli’s website. And then I can give it to my friends and family.

One of the wines I happen to enjoy is sparkling Shiraz from Australia, so assuming Preferabli has correctly recognised my taste for it and recommended a decent example, I’ll certainly serve that, probably with a starter of foie gras. Then we can move onto a main course of really rare veal with a rich creamy sauce, which I think I’ll accompany with a Barsac. Obviously, there may be those who fail to share my taste for force-fed goose offal, off-dry fizzy red, undercooked baby cow, or indeed my choice of food-and-wine combination. But that’s their problem, not mine.

For the same reason, there will be no dessert or cheese, because I don’t like them. And I won’t be offering water either. Can’t stand the stuff!

I’ll also be wearing a decent amount of Eau de Ronaldo, the after shave recently launched by the superstar footballer, that magically combines the aromas of male perspiration, musk and patchouli. And I’ll probably puff away at a few unfiltered Gitanes maïs cigarettes – because, after all, it’s my home and I can do what I like.

Alternatively, I might boringly follow my usual modus operandi, and give a bit of thought to what my guests are likely to prefer.

But setting my facetiousness – and the serious point that most of us buy wine for other people as well as ourselves - aside for a moment, I’m not sure in any case that I want an artificial intelligence system to give me something it’s certain I’ll enjoy. One of the reasons I now have a pretty good relationship with Spotify after a bumpy start is that it presents me with a playlist every week that sometimes takes me outside my comfort zone and introduces me to music I discover – sometimes to my surprise – that I rather like.

Of course, the problem with wine, unlike music, or even books which one can browse prior to purchase, is that you generally won’t know what you’ll think of it until you’ve spent possibly quite a lot of money and removed the cork or screwcap.

But the solution doesn’t lie in a precisely individualised recommendation system. What I – like every other, even marginally adventurous, wine drinker – really need is more opportunities to explore and define my tastes without having to splash out on a 75cl bottle. That may come in the form of tasting samples in tubes and mini-bottles, or wine bars serving samples from taps, or events (and not necessarily just ones focused on wine).

Offer me an event at which I can explore a wide range of the food, wine and music of a wide range of places, and I'll be interested - because, as I'd tell Mr Schmidt if he asked, travel is one of the ways I like to spend my time and money.


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