A robot sommelier spilled wine on my pants. Then it asked for a tip

A retail business uses a robot as a marketing gimmick. This was, for me, a completely new and fascinating experience.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

A money maker?

Chris Matyszczyk/ZDNET

It was raining hard, so we were vulnerable to a seductive inducement.

We considered a large donut or a wander in a quaint antique store. But, given the times in which we live, this particular inducement felt entirely irresistible: "Wine Tasting With Robot Sommelier."

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That's what the sign on the street said and it was hard not to be moved. My wife and I didn't hesitate. This had to be worth doing, at least once.

So we wafted inside the Maria Concetto winery tasting room in Calistoga, a little town in the Napa Valley that's famous for people bathing naked in mud. (No, I haven't tried it.)

We'd seen the robot sommelier through the window and it looked like the sort of robot you see in a car manufacturing plant.

Soon we learned that it was, well, made from the same sorts of bits as a robot in a car manufacturing plant.

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When is a robot just a marketing tool?

Still, would this robot sommelier actually recommend wines to us? Was its sense of our mouths so delicate that it could judge precisely what wines we'd like, just by looking at us?

It wasn't. At least not yet.

In fact, as winery owner -- and former tech executive -- Maria Reznikova freely confessed, this is a marketing gimmick. 

It gets people through the door. Competition is tough, so anything that can be a point of difference -- especially, one imagines, for younger audiences -- is a positive.

I couldn't help but admire the attitude. So many wineries present themselves in similar ways. Why wouldn't you use a robot to entice? Everyone loves robots, don't they? Well, everyone is fascinated by them, especially as they might rule us soon.

It grabs. It pours. It dances.

This so-called Robinovino has particular talents that one doesn't see every day in one's local saloon. 

It can pick up a wine glass and a wine bottle. It can pour a precise amount of wine from the bottle into the wine glass. 

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And it can dance.

It doesn't move quickly, but it does create a splendid sense of neuroticism, as it constantly gyrates, nods (what purports to be) its head and generally tries to twitch its way into your heart.

Did I mention it dances?

Well, it attempts to dance.

We sat there, temporarily mesmerized. That's what a marketing gimmick is supposed to do, isn't it? If it can mesmerize you into believing you're experiencing something extraordinary, then you'll be prepared to pay a little more. Won't you?

Robofascination, meet robospill

But then Robinovino missed the glass in front of me and spilled red wine in our laps. Quite a bit of red wine -- and our pants were already wet from the rain.

I'm (mostly) sure it didn't mean to. It seemed it hadn't quite worked out that the bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon was slightly taller than the bottle of Pinot Noir it had previously poured.

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So it missed the glass and poured the wine directly onto us.

It's just a work in progress, we were told, one that'll have its kinks flattened out and perhaps even artificial intelligence injected in, so that it can present a more personable -- and accurate -- attitude. Goodness, it might learn to dance even better.

It does, though, do wonders for passers-by. Many of those who didn't come in still felt forced to take out their phones and video the spectacle unfolding through the glass storefront. Yes, while standing in the rain.

Is a robot worth more than a human?

I wouldn't dream of commenting on the quality of the wine the robot poured, as it's almost irrelevant when the robot is the star. (In any case, a disclosure: I have a ceremonial position as a wine ambassador at Napa's Honig Winery.) 

Everybody's mouth is a little different, so every wine will taste a little different.

However, the lessons were memorable. If you're going to use a robot as a gimmick for your business, be clear about why it's there and make sure it gives your customers just enough for them to feel it's worth it. 

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Which leads me to something that may offer a curious portent for the future. To enjoy Robinovino's gyrations -- and spillings -- we had to pay an extra $20 each. Yes, on top of the tasting fee.

It's an interesting principle that I wonder if, say, restaurants will embrace: We'll charge you more because you were helped by a robot server, rather than a human. Progress costs money, don't you know?

As a final flourish -- a (possibly) humorous finale, this -- the robot proferred an empty glass adorned with: "Tips are appreciated." 

Well, I suppose it worked hard, even if we didn't ask it to dance.

Naturally, we tipped, but I should warn you that with the tip our six-wine robot sommelier tasting came to more than $220.

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I wonder where else robots will appear to entertain, in order to enhance a purchasing experience. 

Perhaps, one day soon, I'll walk into H&M and witness a dancing robot modeling trousers I'd like to buy.

Talking of which, I must go. I have some laundry to do.

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