In Buenos Aires, wine lists go digital

BUENOS AIRES -- Digital wine lists are booming, as Buenos Aires-based Entaste and others replace the sommelier with an iPad.

BUENOS AIRES -- The decoration in Don Julio, a family-owned parrilla (steakhouse) in Buenos Aires's Palermo Soho neighborhood, is pure gaucho chic. The bricks are exposed, the tablecloths are small cowhides, the steak knives are made for fieldwork, the walls are lined with diner-autographed wine bottles, and the open kitchen is a meat-covered grill. It is about as low tech as a restaurant can be.

Except for the wine list. Which is an iPad.

As wine-drinking has democratized over the last two decades from an upper-class affectation to a middle-class competitive hobby, the need for open information has boomed. Whereas in the past mouthing French winery names served as a kind of secret handshake, new wine aficionados want their wines to be ranked by merit, and to feel that they know the winemaker, grapes, and winery involved. Magazines like the Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate have provided ample information to enthusiasts, but casual wine drinkers are still lost when faced with a paper restaurant list. Now, a handful of technology companies are digitizing wine lists, thereby giving diners timely information and helping wineries and restaurants sell more expensive bottles in the process.

The iPad app used in Don Julio comes from Entaste, a Buenos Aires-based company founded by American technology entrepreneur Dave Garrett along with two Ecuadorans, Carlos García and Juan Egues, and a pair of Argentines, Sebastián Arena and Eduardo Orteu. Garrett, 43, had co-founded Vines of Mendoza, an Argentine wine exporting and vineyard real estate venture, and while there realized that the wine industry had not evolved alongside the wine drinking public.

"The wine industry has worked the same way for the last 10,000 years, and it's one of the most atomized industries in the world," Garrett said. "There are about 40,000 wine producers, 2 million restaurants and maybe 1.5 million wine shops, almost all independently owned. And from the producer down to the retailer, every step along the way, almost every one keeps their inventory on a clipboard. So there’s this information deficit that runs all the way down the value chain. Wineries typically have no idea where their wines are being sold, or how much, or who their customers are. And consumers have no idea about the wines they’re drinking or the producers who made them."

The end result of that fragmented system was a paper wine list that required interpretation by an expert--i.e. the sommelier. That anachronistic situation did not fit well with a generation used to doing its own research online before buying anything, so in recent years Entaste and a host of other companies like Incentient, Wine-IsVinipad and Venu have begun to bring the industry into the digital age. While the applications have been around for a while--Entaste opened in its first restaurants in South America over a year ago--they did not begin to take off until the iPad reached near commodity status. Now they are booming: Entaste, for example, is in 250 restaurants, Garrett says.

The idea behind Entaste and similar services is simple. Winery owners provide information on their wines, winemakers and wineries to the wine list company, which produces a database (the wineries may pay to add pictures, reviews, and so on). Restaurants then put together a wine list from the database, adding their prices and comments from their sommelier, and the information is pushed to their iPads. Customers then page through the electronic list by grape or by region, dig into the history and reviews of the wines and wineries, and order--leaving an information trail all along the way.

"You can have Google Analytics on you wine list, so we know how many tap Malbec, or Cabernet," Garrett said. "And because of the amount of data we have, we can say Chardonnays grown between 900 and 1,100 meters above sea level that spend less than 6 months in French oak and are priced between $45 and $65 are doing really well in Hong Kong, whereas Merlots that were grown between 500 and 750 meters and priced between $80 and $100 and spent more than 12 months in American oak are doing well in Singapore."

For Garrett, the choice to launch the company in Buenos Aires was part convenience--he was there at the time--and part to do with Argentina's restaurant environment. Buenos Aires has recently gone through a restaurant boom and locals have begun drinking more premium wines, leading restaurant owners to create better wine lists. At the same time, local wines lists consist almost entirely of domestic Argentine wines, making it easier to sign up the wineries and test the system. Five months ago, Garrett and other members of Entaste moved to Hong Kong to try it out in a more open environment, and now of the company's 250 customers, 90 are in Brazil, 60 in Argentina, and 40 in Hong Kong

Back at Don Julio, co-owner Pablo Rivero swipes through his restaurant's list as a cook turns thick slabs of beef on the monstrous grill behind hum. "This one sells a ton. And this one too," he said, tapping on wines whose producers have provided generous amounts of information and photos. "The information is what sells."

Restaurant owners who use digital wine lists have claimed to see wine sales rise between 10% and 20%. Rivero, who estimates that his customers order bottles priced 20 pesos (about $5) higher with a digital list, attributes the extra sales to his customers' ability to confidently splurge on unknown wines--without a salesman's intervention.

"Why do people order what they always do? Because they don't have information. And asking for information means calling over the sommelier, which is a nuisance. It's uncomfortable for the table," Rivero said. "Either you're on a date and you don't want to have another man come over and tell you what wine is. Or you're in a business meeting and having someone else at the table doesn't work."

And so, as digital wine lists take hold, sommeliers may find themselves with much more free time on their hands.

Photos courtesy of Ian Mount and Entaste

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