To anyone watching over the last 15 years, the growing graveyard of wine-on-the-internet ventures has given ample ammunition to the argument that wine and tech do not mix (see: Crushd, Wineshopper.com, the first two times Amazon tried to sell wine). The boom and bust cycle of dot-com or app-store wine properties tends to be followed by pronouncements on the complexities of the wine market and the irreplaceability of human know-how in making wine recommendations.
But this argument—that wine and tech won’t ever truly play nice—is an odd one, given that wine has never been any one thing. Wine is a product that is bought and sold and is as complex as we, the consumers, want it to be. And the internet is not the enemy of wine—it is a platform for information-sharing and selling products. It seems only a matter of time before the right combination of the two will tilt the scales in favor of wine and tech getting along.
And perhaps that one facet of that combination has already arrived, in the form of image recognition apps. Delectable, an app that scans, sorts and shares smartphone images of wine labels, is one such example. In the relatively short time it’s existed (the company was founded in 2011), Delectable has become one of the most highly praised wine apps on the market, having won the approval of top critics such as Jancis Robinson and Jon Bonné, and an enthusiastic coterie of sommeliers as its user base, including Rajat Parr, Jordan Salcito and Richard Betts. As one of the first apps to garner both the support of the industry and attract a wide audience, it can be considered something of a breakthrough.
So far, Delectable’s success seems to lie in its solution to two big problems that have hampered consumer wine apps: operator error and the banality of averaged reviews. As for the former, photo recognition largely solves this, as users upload a photo of the label, rather than have the chance to misspell wine names.
And for the latter, Delectable allows users to “follow” ratings and notes from friends or top experts in the field. Two sets of scores appear for each wine—the average of all reviews and the average of expert reviews. To drill down even further, it’s possible to read through individual reviews of the wine or the producer to get a sense of what exactly reviewers are responding to in the wine. This rewards both consumers, who can choose reviews that suit them best, and critics, who gain in status with more followers.
Delectable is a voyeur’s window into this very particular subculture, and instead of attempting to translate or filter its idiosyncrasies, the app has instead made them public. In this world, winemakers are known on a first-name basis. And the academic 101 boilerplate that comes with every mass-market media wine roundup is gone. It can feel inclusive, as if we’re getting the inside scoop from people who really know wine—and because it comes in a familiar-looking format, it doesn’t matter that the language may not be.
But the one of the less discussed effects of the app may be the potential success in chipping away at the opacity of the wine market. For all of the information about wine that’s now available to the public on the internet, the wine market remains incredibly veiled. Many sectors of the wine industry benefit—even rely upon—this knowledge gap, including retailers, restaurants and, to an extent, the wine media. Mark-ups for bottles vary from shop to shop, restaurant to restaurant. Wine names are tricky. The bulk of a wine critic’s job is beta-testing new producers and vintages and making this-is-what-this-wine-tastes-like statements.
Apps such as Delectable help to erode that opaqueness by standardizing wine names and prices, consolidating expert reviews in one place, and providing a window into a still secretive subculture by showing us how winemakers, sommeliers and collectors talk to each other about wine.
Part of the appeal of Delectable is the atmosphere, which is clubby and informal, with wine reviews often written in the insidery shorthand you’d expect to read via text message from one sommelier to another. “Love this vineyard and Eric’s style. Very cool climate Pinot. Super young but so promising,” reads an entry wine critic Jay McInerney wrote about the Radio-Coteau Savoy Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir from 2012. “Oh, God, please help me. I want to stop drinking these so young but I just can’t help myself. I feel dirty. I know it is wrong but it tastes soooooo good,” goes another from wine critic Alder Yarrow about the Arnot-Roberts North Coast Trousseau from 2013.
In short, Delectable is a voyeur’s window into this very particular subculture, and instead of attempting to translate or filter its idiosyncrasies, the app has instead made them public. In this world, winemakers are known on a first-name basis. And the academic 101 boilerplate that comes with every mass-market media wine roundup is gone. It can feel inclusive, as if we’re getting the inside scoop from people who really know wine—and because it comes in a familiar-looking format, it doesn’t matter that the language may not be. Similar to how the jargon-y banter on The West Wing changed how pop culture talks about politics, Delectable allows us to learn how winemakers and critics talk about wine to each other.
It should be noted that the app does not, however, come without downsides. As a visual medium, wine is tough. The labels, while striking, are just that—labels. Sharing a picture of what we’re drinking on Instagram or Twitter means we’re essentially waving a pricetag in front of our contacts. Couple that aesthetic with the impulse to share only when the wine is special (read: pricey or rare), and a wine enthusiast’s social media feed often begins to look uncomfortably like the Rich Kids of Instagram parody account. It’s competitive consumption as entertainment.
And, so far, Delectable is driven by active user input. The more time one puts into it—reading reviews, writing reviews, finding the right people to follow—the more one can get out of it. That is, it’s best for people who are already deep into wine. And that bears out in the data—the company reports that the expert community submits reviews at a much higher rate than the general population.
To get the rest of the market, Delectable will have to reward the passive drinker, the one who walks into a wine store or restaurant and wants direction from the sommelier or salesperson. To an extent, that exists in the app’s recommendation sections, wherein the consumer can order the wines to be sent to directly to his or her home. (Disclosure: I haven’t tested this.)
But to go even further, imagine an app that pings you when a wine that you’ve been wanting to try is in a shop close by, or one that generates a list of choices you’d like from the available wines in the restaurant. That future is not far off, whether it’s Delectable or some other entity that gets there first.
While snapshot reviews will (likely) never take the place of long format storytelling, it’s clear that the way we learn about which wines to buy and how to talk about these wines is changing, and technology is going to have a big role to play in that.