Wine tech’s big problem: Algorithms may not be the answer

By Published On: September 5, 2022

Esther Mobley, San Francisco Chronicle (MCT)

Wine and the Internet are strange bedfellows.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot during the last couple weeks while working on two very different assignments about wine tech companies — one on the brink of collapse, one thriving. The first was about the demise of Pix, which promised to make it easy for people to discover wines they’ll enjoy and find out where to buy them. The second was about the highest-rated wines on the crowd-sourcing wine app Vivino.

To many wine lovers, there’s something at the heart of both of these enterprises that feels antithetical to the whole reason they drink wine in the first place. Inevitably, they say, these databases end up privileging mass-produced wines, since those will inevitably generate more reviews and be available in more stores. The unique wines from smaller-scale producers, already obscure, become even harder to discover in these large online tangles.

Another argument against these zoomed-out searches is that they can reduce the complicated, unknowable matrix of an idiosyncratic wine to just a few basic qualities. Instead of learning about the history of this family estate, or the traditions of the region, or the method in which it was made, you’re told only whether the wine tastes like green apples or cherries. Pix had hoped to perfect the art of the flavor search algorithm, allowing you to search for wines based on the flavors you seek, though it never quite got it to work.

I sympathize with these anti-wine-tech sentiments — to an extent. I’ve always been suspicious, for example, of the online personality quizzes that try to match you with your “perfect” wine based on other foods you like. (Apologies to longtime readers who have endured my rants about that before.) These quizzes erroneously assume that people will want to taste the same type of wine over and over again. And they seem to place far too much importance on individual flavors.

All of these technological efforts attempt to make wine easily intelligible by the masses. To simplify. But maybe the problem is that wine isn’t simple.

As one reader summarized, emailing in response to the Pix article: “The real reason wine tech keeps failing is because there is nothing tech can offer wine.” (It’s worth reiterating that Vivino, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture funding, is not failing.)

This came up in a Twitter thread last week by Aaron Ayscough, the veteran natural-wine blogger who writes the excellent newsletter “Not Drinking Poison.” He explained why “a search algorithm for Wine Flavor Descriptors is a hellish idea”: Mainly, these individual flavors — say, peach — are “the most fleeting aspects of a wine.” Ultimately they are distractions from the things that truly make us love one bottle over another, Ayscough said, such as its overall balance and harmony.

Ayscough’s antidote to this dumbed-down approach to wine recommendations is to get to know your winemaker. Although “this is often considered obscure info,” he tweeted, personally knowing the makers of the food and wine we consume “is how humans have sourced much of their diet until well into the 20th century.”

It’s a lovely thought, but it’s idealistic, divorced from reality.

There will always be a market for those like Ayscough and me, who are interested in learning about the stories behind the wines we drink and who prize bottles made with integrity (however we choose to define that). No matter how passionately wine writers promote this way of thinking, most people who buy wine aren’t ever going to ask these questions. Yet I still believe there should be effective ways for these folks to communicate what they want. Allowing them to search for a wine that tastes like “blackberry jam” clearly isn’t the solution. Still, there must be some way to make the convoluted task of finding a wine to drink a little more approachable, right?

Will that solution come in the form of a new wine tech venture? Maybe. I’ll be waiting.

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