In Vino Digitas

To be seated at a restaurant, request the wine list and be handed an iPad stirs a strange mix of emotions. It might thrill in its combination of play, ease of use and information exchange; it might also feel disruptive or even seditious, a threat to the traditionalists and the sommeliers that divine them.
     “This device is the future,” says Paul Guerzon, wine director at SD26 in Manhattan. “Wine lists are typically either by country or by varietal. You never see one that can cross reference, let alone perform key word searches that can be broken down alphabetically and by price, vintage, country or varietal.”
     Digital wine lists aren’t new. In 2001, Aureole Las Vegas debuted an eWine book to manage its then 35,000-bottle stock. But due to buggy software and the routine theft of the expensive tablets, adoption didn’t catch on. Nearly a decade later, the tablet wine list was still a rarity. “Our first generation machine was a Samsung that was clunky and had a small screen,” says Guerzon. “There were customers who were steadfastly opposed to it, but it was more of an issue with the technology itself.” Then along came the iPad last April.
     Partnering with Long Island software company Incentient, one of a handful of companies operating in the space, SD26 incorporated the firm’s SmartCellar program onto 16 iPads and immediately saw customer complaints disappear.
     A test run reveals a remarkably smooth and fluid interface. A tap on the “red” offerings leads to the varietals. A touch on cabernet presents over 50 labels, with asterisks denoting sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines. Select the 2008 Caymus and the screen presents a photo of the bottle; next to it are buttons with tasting notes, production information and a leading critic’s score (93).
     “Initially I was on the fence with including scores,” says Guerzon, until he witnessed any number of customers check ratings on their smart phones. Yet he’s not going to choose wines solely by score. “If you do that then everyone will be looking to buy the least expensive wines with the highest scores. I want to have scores, but also make people work for it.” For Dennis Kelly, head sommelier at The French Laundry in Yountville, the move to an iPad is largely environmentally motivated. “We decided to head in this direction to be more environmentally responsible,” Kelly says. “We have a 105-page wine list and reprint each time we sell out on a wine, so we go through a lot of paper.”
     Not everyone is convinced the new technology enhances the dining experience.
     “I think it creates the wrong interactive experience, and the restaurant loses something in that. It allows us to be more antisocial,” says eater.com wine columnist Talia Baiocchi. “To me a wine list is tactile, and I want to turn pages. Maybe I’m a boomer trapped in a millennial body, but I think it’s a crutch.”
     A crutch that can hobble even the most erudite oenophile.
     “I was recently out with Robert Bohr [former wine director for NYC’s Cru] and Richard Betts [winemaker and Master Sommelier],” says Bobby Stuckey, MS, co-owner of Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, Colorado. “All three of us know our way around a wine list. And here we are using an iPad at a restaurant,” he says with a laugh.
     Stuckey says that the iPad is fun and weirdly mesmerizing, but in the end, the experience left him unfulfilled. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an expert or a novice, there are occasions when you are looking for something that you yourself don’t even know you are looking for and an iPad can’t tune into that,” he says.
     According to Stuckey, who works the floor nightly, the problem with the iPad-as-sommelier is that it lacks a filter. “Say the guest thinks they’re looking for a dry, full-bodied red wine and their vision of that is a Mollydooker Shiraz,” he says. “Now imagine the iPad recommends a René Rostaing Côte Rôtie: It’s technically correct, but not in that guy’s world—his palate is not set up for that.”
     For Stuckey it’s not so much whether the wine list is digital or paper, so long as it comes with a human guide. “A solid wine list and a great sommelier equal a sum greater than the parts.”
     Worries about the future of the sommelier in the age of the iPad are real. Prior to the introduction of the new technology at SD26, the restaurant had three sommeliers working with Guerzon. Now it’s just him.
     But Andrew Turner, general manager and sommelier of Michael’s in Santa Monica, believes the iPad and sommelier can and should coexist. “As the guy who counts our bottles, I look forward to managing inventory on the iPad,” he says. “As far as replacing the sommelier, Michael [owner Michael McCarty] sees the device as just another tool to keep the sommelier job relevant.”
     In addition Turner says, the iPad solves an enduring fine dining problem. “The darker the restaurant, the more romantic it is. And that’s where the real beauty of this wine list comes in: It’s backlit.”—Mark Borden