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The sommelier as endangered species

18 comments

If you go to the Calafia Cafe, in Palo Alto, you won’t have to wait for a server to take your order. Instead, you just call up the menu on the touch screen mobile pad on your table, look at hi-res digital images of the foods, and then punch in your selections. Let’s say it’s the clams and udon noodles for an appetizer, then the grilled hanger steak for the main course. Your friends do the same thing. Your orders go right to the kitchen. While you’re waiting for the food, you might play a social game on the same tablet; your table’s high scorer at trivia gets $1 off the cost of dessert. Of course, when your food is ready, a real live human being brings it to your table–the tablet can’t do that. But when the meal’s over, you can pay for it with a swipe of your credit card–no waiting for a busy waiter to have to notice you’re ready to leave. You can enter your email and get a digital receipt promptly sent. And, since the night is still young, you can browse the tablet and discover clubs, bars and so on that are right in the neighborhood.

The tablet is called a Presto, and it’s manufactured by E la Carte, which was started up in 2008 out of MIT, and now has offices in Silicon Valley, Boston, Chicago and New York. They’ve raised venture capital from angel investors, and Calafia isn’t the only restaurant that uses Presto and similar devices, both in this country (L.A.’s Umami Burger, for example) and overseas, in Japan and Europe. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “chains across the country are signing on [to Presto]. Creator Rajat Suri expects that soon every mass-market, mid-range restaurant and bar – and even some independent operations – will start using the Presto or similar technology.”

Does it mean actual waiters will soon be anachronisms? It’s hard to envision a time when somebody won’t have to schlep the food from the kitchen to the table. But a busboy (or a robot, for that matter) could do that. And you wouldn’t have to tip a busboy (much less a robot) 20% of the tab just for carrying a few plates of food.

How about wine? Restaurants already are featuring touch screen devices for the wine list, instead of a dirty old booklet with everyone’s germs on it. Barbacco, a trendy trattoria in San Francisco’s Financial District, was the city’s first. “Diners…browse through [wine] selections on screen, and can store a number of possible choices. Ordering will still take place the old-fashioned way — through a real live human being,” the Chronicle’s Jon Bonné reported. But is it so hard to imagine a future generation of tablets that not only list all the wines, but interactively suggest pairings? Maybe you order Barbacco’s paccheri, a pork ragu with plenty of parmigiano reggiano. You’re not sure what to drink with it. But the tablet is. It may suggest a nine-year old Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, from Emidio Pepe, explaining that the wine’s tannins are resolved, and its acidity and extract will stand up to the food’s richness. You look at the price: $110. Ouch. You ask the tablet to suggest something less pricey. Back comes a 2006 Tuscan Sangiovese, from Querceto di Castellina, which the tablet tells you is similarly full-bodied and dry, with acidity to cut through the oiliness. And the price is a more reasonable $48.

Deal.

Is there any reason this can’t happen, thus eliminating the [sometimes uncomfortable] dance diners are forced to perform with sommeliers? The Chronicle article suggests it will. “Eventually, [Presto] will tell diners what kinds of wines they like based on a personality quiz.” That sounds kind of silly (“Are you the type that hates to ask for directions? Then choose a Pinot Noir”), but there already are rudimentary “computerized sommeliers” on the market. For example, at Hong Kong’s Landmark Oriental Mandarin Hotel, they advertise “a computerised sommelier that will recommend food and wine pairings by region, taste or price.” With advances in A.I. coming fast and furious, who’s to say that in a generation the human sommelier won’t be seen as an charming relic of a bygone era, like trolley conductors, gas lamp lighters and doctors who make house calls?

  1. Steve, as with phone apps and all things tech-avant-garde, we “NEED” them, while man, the measure of himself, finds ways around man and leaves us more, insulated, narcissistic, and less “human”. My last cell phone, which was a gift, lasted me for nearly ten years. We have the wine tablets in Bedford, NH, but give me a person, even a less than “perfect” person to interact with every time. Choice is the “good” thing here. Sure wish doctors still made house-calls; oops, no choice there.
    Reminds me of Rod Serling’s http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0734623/TWILIGHTZONE though you’ll find no wine there.

  2. Cabfrancophile says:

    Don’t get too excited: what’s bad for the sommelier is bad for the wine critic. While the wine drinkers who post on Cellartracker can’t get access before release like critics, the voices of many consolidated in one place can be powerful. You may be able to drink your Napa Cab in peace without badgering from a guy who wants you to drink a Sancerre Rouge instead, but the same technological forces are impacting glossy wine mag critics as well.

    At any rate, there is still a place for the sommelier (or other wine savvy person) in selecting and pairing wines. You can usually tell right away when a wine list was built by an intelligent, sensible person and one that was built by distributor reps or an idiot. The latter list will have California AVA grocery store wines at 3-4 times retail with a few overpriced Napa Cabs. The former will have wines from a variety of regions hitting every price point, yet often times being shorter than the distributor-tainted list.

  3. Years ago, I thought a tux-clad holographic mini- Som on each table would be cool.
    Alas, it would only work well in a smoke filled room.

  4. Ray, water vapor hologram.

    I like the idea of a digital Sommelier because it would give me the freedom to consider as many wines as I like. I hate feeling pressured to buy something, particularly something pricey, and even if a Somm isn’t pushy one feels some pressure to not keep them standing at your table for 5-10 minutes asking questions.

    I hope in the future we have a mix of both human and technology driven wine knowledge.

  5. raley roger says:

    What Dennis said. Amen, brother.

  6. It sounds soul-less to me carried to the extreme. The human interaction is part of the experience. I cannot imagine the day when I go to a restaurant and play games on a tablet while I wait for my food. Don’t parents still teach kids the fundamental wrongness of this? Tablets have their place, but as an aid, not a replacement. Anyone going too far down this path will inevitably fail. If you don’t care enough about the experience, why not play on your tablet at home and have the meal delivered there? It misses the point, badly.

  7. What Jim said. Amen brother.

  8. Will this digital somm also create the wine list and buy the wine? Will all the digital somms form one hive mind, and buy the same wines for all their restaurants? I have seen the future, and I am staying home.

  9. Bert Langley says:

    Once an app for the restaurant tablet that reduces the obscene markup on restaurant wine is implemented, then I’m all in.
    Also, I want the sommelier tablet to not listen to me: if I ask for a medium-bodied acidic red to accompany some walleye, I want the “sommelier” to continue suggesting a 16.1% alcohol shiraz or a Garnacha from La Mancha or a Chateauneuf du Pape.
    Finally, I agree with Denis and Jim. The wave of the future is to eliminate human contact as much as possible. Today, I got up, got in my car, picked up coffee and a muffin from the drive thru at Satrbucks, emailed my people from my phone while driving to the store where I went through the self-checkout lane, picked up some bisque in a styrofoam container from the local French restaurant drive thru, and I am replying to your post while driving and drinking lunch in my car. It is 1:30 and I have not had to bother interfacing with a human all day. By the way, is today a holiday? This is great. Eliminating sommelier interfacing is a great idea as well.

  10. Zack Seymour says:

    Tablet restaurants will find their niche, but the real question is how far will it go? True fine dining is safe, and some moderate price points may switch over. Right now the price point for the technology is too high to be adopted and let’s face it being a restaurateur is a tough racket. This will not revolutionize dining. It’s dining on Virgin America and as a restaurant it will probably go the way of the drive-in movie.

    That being said any less traffic for a somm is tough. Even if tablet ordering doesn’t stick, we are looking at ways to streamline service and they’ll feel it eventually starting in the mid market values. They often are associated with a snobbishness of wine (particularly by American men who don’t like being told what to drink) even though this is far from the truth. In reality there is a strong disincentive to list to them particularly at a 300% mark-up and an untested palate. I bring my own wine unless it isn’t feasible.

  11. When I go to a nice restaurant (the kind with real table cloths and *not* paper napkins), I’m there for the experience of (I hope) great food paired with truly fine wine, all put together by PEOPLE WHO CARE. If they don’t care, then I don’t go back to that restaurant.

    Tablets do have their place and will find in-roads into fast-casual, mid-range restaurants where a corporate list is the norm anyway. But if you want the experience of artfully prepared food by a real chef who has passion and cares about what’s on the plate, you’ll most likely be spending your time and dollars at a place that also care about the wine that accompanies such artfully prepared food.

    And a large part of the experience is connecting with people who have that passion, from the servers, to the chef, to the sommelier. Yes. sometimes they miss the mark, they’ve had a bad day, they try the up-sell. You must be firm in managing your expectations in such a setting and let them know that you expect better, especially when your hard-earned dollars are on the line.

    Otherwise, you might just as well spend less of those dollars at a place with a plastic clown in the drive-thru lane, paper napkins and “jumbo size” your meal. For the ultimate “experience,” take it home and open a jug of Hearty Something-or-Other.

  12. In the age of the tablet, someone will still need to provide the data accessed by the tablet. Databases are limited only by the amount of input variables you create. The sommelier will be the person who creates these databases (variable creation and data input) and updates it. Pairing information can be added to the database daily based on the day’s menu. The need for the sommelier’s knowledge will still be there but the job function may change.

    Some people may prefer the human touch, others the tablet. I personally prefer the human touch for places I frequent regularly but the tablet is fine for places I rarely visit. My favorite wine bar here in NYC had a long-time bartender who eventually learned my wine preferences very well. He was able to introduce me to producers I never heard of (Clos Saran being one) and got me to try varietals I never would have bothered with before (100% Cab Franc). None of this would have been possible without a tablet.

  13. Oops. I meant to type Clos Saron.

    [Sorry for the double post but there is no edit feature here.]

  14. Bert Langley, you sound like a misanthrope! Which I’m sure you’re not.

  15. Jim Caudill, oh I don’t think playing a little game of trivia at the table is so bad! It can be a nice ice breaker.

  16. The ordering of wine is a very small aspect of the entire dining experience…
    Here is a short synopsis of what Tablets do not do:
    open & serve wine
    take wine back graciously when guest sends bottle back
    Detect flaws in wine
    interact with guests throughout meal
    build a rapport with guests
    crack a joke or two
    sell a second bottle
    refill glasses
    …and so much more.
    I think a Sommelier is a human being first and can never be replaced by a machine, no matter how advanced AI becomes, the warmth of the human interaction cannot be substituted by a machine.
    Real human beings (not those Aliens parading as humans) need human warmth…

  17. Bruno Bee, thank you so much for pointing out these essential elements of the diner-sommelier experience.

  18. steve christian says:

    I agree with Bert.

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