Can This Master Sommelier's Algorithm Recommend Better Wine Than a Human Being?

By Mike Pomranz |
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A forthcoming online wine retailer purports to have the answer to make shopping for wine easy: a complex algorithm that recommends specific wines based on what it decides you like. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry, the store can probably talk you through it when you go in to sign up. Yes, its algorithm is so specifically tailored, the store requests people actually drop in to answer the questions necessary to sign up.

Bloomberg Businessweek recently profiled Verve Wine, the Manhattan-based store and wine website set to launch its brick-and-mortar location next week followed by its online component next month. The brand is the brainchild of Dustin Wilson, one of the world’s 230 master sommeliers, known both as one of the main characters in the wine documentary Somm and as the wine director of New York’s 11 Madison Park before launching this venture. “I looked at the landscape of wine retail, and I thought what I could do was more promising than a restaurant,” he told Bloomberg. “Retail hadn’t evolved in a long time, so I wanted to push things along.”

So what makes Verve Wine so unique? The site promises to use plain language (as opposed to “wine-speak”) evaluations (recommended to happen in person but that can also be taken online) to plug your drinking preferences into its computers at which point the brand’s website will be able to better recommend which wines you might like out of its initial catalog of about 1,000 mid-priced bottles (most will sell for between $25 and $50). “The algorithm is based on assigning values to each of the components we feel are important to wine: acidity, tannin level, alcohol level, and the presence of oak, herbs, flowers, fruits, earth, and spices,” Wilson explained. As is typically the case with these kinds of recommendation engines, users will also be able to rate wines as they go to further tailor the output towards their tastes.

Wilson positions his concept as a way to explore wine but in a manner distinctly different from something like a wine club. A wine club looks to please everyone; Verve looks to please just one person: you. “If we can understand people’s tastes, they will explore with a lot more confidence,” he told Bloomberg.

The concept sounds intriguing enough, especially coming from a big name like Wilson. In the end, though, what many of these recommendation sites can overlook is that sometimes arriving at the place you want to be isn’t just about the destination, it’s about the journey… the drunken, drunken journey.

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