Delectable and Vivino acknowledge subjectivity but develop that into a curated educational experience.
I’m not sure whether you need reminding as often as I do, but we are human beings. We’re a maze of feelings and desires that usually go unacknowledged. We shift moods and modes dramatically from moment to moment. It’s messy, and we’re helpless on our own. To be human, we need to find ways to connect with each other.
That’s a whole lotta platitude right off the bat, but I am continually drawn to such sentiments as I explore the ways in which I use technology, including wine-related apps for my mobile device. Such apps are increasingly common and diverse, and customers frequently ask me if there are any I like. The short answer is yes.
First of all, I ought to state my biases. I write about wine in a conventional, pre-Internet-2.0 format: for a newspaper. I claim a certain amount of expertise, and what I write passes by an editor’s eyes before it is published. The very structure of how my criticism is presented lends my perspective a position of privilege. The mode is hierarchical – vertical – for better and worse.
In the horizontal orientation of social media-based criticism, everyone is an expert, and no comment carries more inherent weight than any other. Therefore, the strongly – and often, vituperatively – expressed opinion tends to gain more notice. The mode is democratic, again for better and worse.
Apps that successfully balance the benefits of an hierarchy with those of a democracy prove most successful. The risk with too much of the former is tyranny; the risk with too much of the latter is chaos. An app that simply tells you what to drink is no better than a wine writer who does. An app that hurls you into a world of disembodied bits of information is usually unhelpful. Even if it gets you closer to a good wine choice, it takes you further from why wine matters.
Another of my biases is that I sell wine in a small retail shop, where direct communication between two human beings is the basic mode of exchange. From my perspective, a wine app whose intention is to aid a customer in selecting a bottle of wine would, at best, equip that customer with useful ways of having a conversation with someone else who is interested in wine. At worst, it would automate a transaction whose central value lies in human interaction.
The vast majority of apps tend toward the latter approach, leading you through a tree of choices to arrive at a recommendation. Tap “wine for an occasion,” and move on through “for a date” or “for a holiday” and so on, until you land on a crapshoot zinfandel. Tap “wine for pizza,” choose between a meat sauce or a white pie, end up with “barbera” or “chardonnay” respectively. Tap “I like merlot” and arrive at Ducktrap.
Ultimately, no matter where you start, you’re funneled toward a grape category and then three or seven actual wines. It’s like most other experiences in contemporary society: smooth, digital, pragmatic, airtight, disempowering.
Food without tomatoes or meat seems only to go with pinot grigio or chardonnay; who knew? And then, the pinot grigio wines that get recommended are going to be the most widely available brands. Chances of them being good wines are slim; the chances of them being at your local shop are slimmer.
The apps that hold out any hope of monetization are the ones that offer wine for delivery, right then and there. Once we can link it to a 3-D printer, we’ll have app-enabled wine on demand.
With the possible exception of those created by major wine publications based on content produced by their journalists, these apps offer no established relationship between user and recommender. They create an inhuman procedure, a deceptively “objective” transformation of something so essentially subjective.
This is where Delectable, and to a somewhat less successful extent, Vivino, step in. They acknowledge the fundamental subjectivity of wine but build that into an educational experience curated by people who come to earn your trust.
Both of these apps use social media that’s truly social, modeling themselves on the “follow” mode of Twitter and Instagram. On Delectable, you find people to follow through links to Facebook, Twitter, your own contacts or “wine pros.” Then, you use the app’s amazingly accurate photo-recognition software to post photos of wines you’ve drunk. You rate the wines, commenting if you like, and find what others have said about the wine. If someone says something smart and seems to have tastes or perspectives aligned with yours, follow them. Conversations begin and bring you to interesting places you otherwise wouldn’t have thought to visit.
Conversation is Delectable’s crucial power. Actual human beings on Delectable are talking to each other. A dynamic matrix of enthusiasts is creating a community around wine. Since the very aim of the app seems to be community and conversation, rather than commercial recommendations to the consumer, a large number of wine professionals are on it all the time. Sommeliers, winemakers, journalists and importers all post photos of the wines they’re drinking, not only (not even mostly) the wines they’re selling. Their conversations are about pleasure, vintage variation, experiences.
The tone feels real, above all. The comments can be fine-grained flavor notes or poetic emoting, or sometimes check-out-how-cool-I-am ego boosting, but they’re genuine. They’re how people who love wine talk about wine. Enthusiasm, rather than money, is the currency.
The opportunity for everyday consumers to listen in on conversations among professionals is crucial. Instead of being talked down to, one feels invited to participate, prodded to learn, encouraged to create. If the majority of paint-by-the-numbers wine apps are the boring math class you were told would improve your logical thinking skills, Delectable is the welding internship that convinced you to become an engineer. Delectable is fleshy and human.
Vivino’s photo-recognition is not as precise as Delectable’s, but it does offer additional features such as the opportunity to catalog your cellar or create a “taste profile.” This latter aspect strikes me as risky, because I don’t want to be pigeonholed. If you’re pretty sure you like “hearty reds” and want to find such wines you may not know about, go for it. But I’m worried that over time you’re going to convince yourself that you like only hearty reds. The obvious guideline is to trust humans, not categories.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is a simple, rather unambitious app that does not attempt any human-to-human interaction at all. It’s strictly factual, but allows you to play with and learn about your own relationship wine as part of a much larger natural world. The app is called When Wine, a guide to drinking according to the biodynamic calendar. In biodynamic gardening and farming, days are divided into categories of leaf, root, flower, fruit. The latter two are good for tasting; the former two are not. If you think that’s hooey, go ahead and try the app. Find a wine you know you like, and drink it on different “days.” You may find that your reaction to this wine changes rather dramatically according to the biodynamic designation.
Another great wine app is the great everything app, Evernote. It’s the best way I know to capture and catalog photos you snap of wines you enjoy, entering them into one or more “notebooks” you create and adding text notes if you wish. Evernote doesn’t do anything, then, to process that information. It’s just the ideal format for walking into a store that sells wine, finding a human being who is eager to help and presenting the history you’ve documented of your actual wine experiences. The human being can take it from there.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at: