By now, we’ve all heard about the massive influx of technology in today’s kitchens, from sous-vide cooking to the use of liquid nitrogen. But what about the dining room? Many progressive restaurants are switching to digital menus and wine lists in an effort to become more green and efficient.
More than a year ago, The French Laundry dove into the digital world by putting its 105-page wine list on the iPad, a practice that’s since spread across the U.S. and the globe. Establishments using this new menu technology are reporting increased wine sales and an uptick in wine curiosity. One upside is that digital wine lists don’t intimidate: No matter how unwieldy a restaurant’s printed list might be, an iPad list always measures the same thickness.
Several wine-savvy software programs and systems have sprung up, trying to capitalize on the trend. RealWineLists, for instance, produced by a company called BinWise, is software that connects a restaurant’s wine inventory with its point-of-sale system, facilitating reordering and accounting. When the last bottle is sold, it drops off the list, allowing restaurants to buy smaller quantities without having to make real-time excuses about stock-outs.
Could this mean the beginning of the end for sommeliers? It all depends on how much information you allow your list to convey. At The French Laundry, for example, one could call up all of the world’s chardonnay at once. A budget-range function also allows patrons to search for, say, all wines priced between $100 and $200 per bottle. The French Laundry, however, chose not to include information about soil type, barrel usage, pairing suggestion, and (horror of horrors) wine ratings. Instead, the technology was adapted so the customer could assemble a wish list of sorts and have the sommelier guide them the rest of the way.
Several St. Louis restaurants are also aware of the iPad’s benefits. Last February, Café Napoli transferred its 350-item wine list to 15 iPads. Napoli 2 has them budgeted for next year, as does Cielo at the Four Seasons Hotel St. Louis. And Truffles may well have its iPads in use by the time you read this.
This May, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Frontenac was one of 10 locations to beta-test iPad wine lists (all locations will go live with them next year). It’s been a boon in demystifying the restaurant’s list, including 100 wines by the glass, says sommelier Stephen Blevins, who adds that an unintended effect was to “create interest where there may have been none before.”
And how are customers responding to using iPads instead of traditional lists? “We’ve only had one customer request a hard copy,” says Café Napoli co-owner Kye Pietoso, “and even he’s an iPad user now.”
A former sommelier at The French Laundry, Hoel serves as a senior wine advisor for Soutirage, a Napa Valley wine merchant and advisory firm.