It’s good but it’s not quite right: let’s make wine apps even better

As I’ve said before, wine’s kind of my thing. I’m a oenophile and I’m not afraid to admit it. Because of this, I’ve downloaded a whole bunch of wine apps. Heck, I even gave the producer of one some tips on usability.

The problem with the wine apps that I’ve downloaded is that none of them quite hit the mark. Some do a few things rather well and some do a lot of things rather badly.

Being the insufferably opinionated type of chap that I am, I thought I’d write a blog post about them. My naive hope is that someone will weave all of my recommendations together and produce the one wine app to rule them all. Fingers crossed.

App under a hot tin roof

Picture the scene: it’s a Friday (or possibly a Wednesday) evening. You’re having something special for dinner and you want a wine of above-average decadence to go with it. You stop off at your local supermarket on your way home and stride confidently to the wine section. Just at the point that the dizzying selection of bottles makes you slightly hysterical, you whip out your phone. You open your trusty wine app only to discover that your pocket sommelier has abandoned you. The supermarket’s metal roof stands between you and the greatest sensory pleasure that £9.99 can provide. You’re close to tears. You reach for the Wolf Blass and shuffle off home.

One of the biggest frustrations with wine apps is that they rarely work when you need them most. I learned recently that supermarkets often have mobile signal-nullifying metal roofs. What’s the use of a wine app that doesn’t work when you’re in a supermarket? I’ve almost stopped using Olly Smith’s wine app because of this flaw.

Thirty fifty’Find a Vino tackles this problem rather well because it downloads its wine database and lets you use it offline. A nice touch and probably the only example of this that I’ve seen. Why aren’t more people doing this?

I didn’t realise I’d entered a spelling bee…

Most good wines are hard to spell. Reckon you can spell ‘Nicolas Feuillatte champagne’ right first and every time? I can’t. I’ve just pasted it in from a Google search. 

Fuzzy searching has long been considered best practice for a good online search experience. You know the kind of thing: you type ‘mississipi’ into search and it says ‘Did you mean ‘Mississippi’?’.

Not providing fuzzy search makes people feel stupid and like they want to give up. That’s not a good thing. Wine apps and wine websites in general don’t yet seem to have embraced fuzzy search as a convention. If all wine websites and apps adopted fuzzy search tomorrow, sales would go through the roof. I promise you. Phonetic and voice-based searching (how many times has someone recommended a wine verbally and you’ve no idea how to spell it?) would also be cool but, ahem, I digress.

Judging a bottle by its label

6 bottles of Faustino 1 Rioja
Faustino 1 – if looks could repel.

We all do it. How may times have you bought a wine because it looked cool? This is a truly crap way of choosing wine. Some of the best wines look rubbish. Take Faustino 1, for  example. The 2001 vintage is Decanter magazine’s wine of the year for 2013 but it looks silly. It looks like it should have a candle stuck in it and be used as a table decoration in some dodgy tapas bar in Newport.

All wine apps should let you take a picture of a bottle’s label and let you know whether it’s worth buying (based on your individual preferences, of course). Vivino lets you do this but only after you’ve signed up to its online community. What if you’re looking for an expert review? A mixture of expert and amateur reviews would seem the most helpful way of doing this.

Oh, yeah, that’s a really good one. Sorry, we don’t have it…

Do you remember video shops? I do. I remember that you’d wander in on a Saturday night, full of hopes of renting a copy of Back to the Future 3 only to find that it was out. For a month. You’d add your name to a waiting list and head home with something you didn’t want to watch. It probably hadn’t been rewound either.

Wine apps do a similar thing. You search for a wine based on the supermarkets and wine shops that you go to. When you get there, you find out that your local branch doesn’t have it. Why can’t apps tell you what’s available at your local branch? All of that data is published online. Grrr.

Tonight, Matthew, I shall be eating…

Matching food with wine is a tricky business. It’s all too easy to go with what you know. Cabernet Sauvignon with red meat; Sauvignon Blanc with chicken or fish, that sort of thing.

The really amazing matches between food and wine require three things: bravery; chance; and a little bit of information. Buy enough wine and you’ll probably get some good matches through the first two alone. It’s the third that lets you dial up the first two. That’s to say, with a little bit of information about which flavours and which grapes are likely to go with something, you can start experimenting and be braver with your budget.

This approach has led me to one of the finest (and bravest) matches to date: battered cod and chips and Champagne. Try it, it’s an absolute revelation. The drier the Champagne (look for the word ‘Brut’ or ‘extra Brut’ on the label) the better. If Champers is beyond your budget then go for Cava. You won’t be disappointed.

The point of the previous digression was really to say that a really good wine app should let you type (or speak) what you’re eating and give you some wine matches. Ideally, you’d want these refined by your selected supermarkets in your selected location. Olly Smith’s app tries to do this but in a clumsy way. What you get is a list of grape varieties to try with a pretty broad range of dishes. You can then drill down into what’s recommended in the supermarket or wine shop that you’re stood in. That’s all fine as long as you’ve a decent web connection and your local branch stocks the wine you’re after.

It’s not rocket surgery

OK, so that’s probably about enough wine whinging (wineing?!) from me. In short, the people who make wine apps need to up their game. All of my recommendations are based on me having used each of the apps mentioned and so some user testing would have uncovered them. That’s where the problem lies. I don’t think the makers of wine apps are testing them being used in anger.

Do you or would you use wine apps? What do you think is missing?

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Things of 2013 – another pointless list…

Just when you thought people had stopped publishing their pointless lists, another one rears its obsessive-compulsive head. Mine’s a little different though, I promise. Here’s why:

  1. it’s hopelessly, almost inappropriately, late; and
  2. it’s not a top ten or anything so logical. It’s a random assortment of things that floated my boat in 2013.

Film: The Great Gatsby (in 3D). Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece distils the essence of Fitzgerald’s novel and catapults it into a stratosphere suitable for 21st-century audiences.

Wine: Chateau Figeac ’88. This experience was, to me, what being a wine aficionado is all about. The bottle looked like it’d been rescued from a sunken pirate ship, the label rendered the exact vintage a mystery but what was inside was one of the finest sensory pleasures I’ve experienced. It was like opening a wine-filled oak barrel and curling up inside. Cheers!

Technology: Amazon Kindle. Yes, I said it. Buying a Kindle has transformed the way that I read. Not least because its percentage-read status indicator gamifies reading. If, like me, the modern world has turned you into a distraction magpie (ooh! shiny…) then anything that helps you commit to a book is a fabulous thing.

Place: Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, France. This medieval city is majestic, charming, pretentious and workaday. It’s also a melting pot of some of the best wines in the world. Not many places can claim that.

Music: The Next Day, David Bowie. The fact is, this chart-botherering sexagenarian could probably have banged out a glorified best-of album and we’d have bought it. The Next Day is exciting, relevant, tender and raw. There are moments of shuddering electricity even when Bowie’s not singing. Check out 00:20 – 00:33 on If You Can See Me if you’re not sure of what I mean.

Book: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. Hang on, hang on! Before you say anything, I will say that this isn’t one of the best books I’ve read. What I will say is that it contains one of the finest sentences (‘He was a man of jagged risings’) I’ve read and is unputdownable. I’d also say that its narrative chicanery would put Dickens to shame. You’re right though: it is a bit baggy towards the end.

Event: Glastonbury Festival – because I was a thirty-something Glasto virgin.

TheatreBorges and I, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bedminster, Bristol. This came as a true surprise. The tale of one of the greatest storytellers of modern literature and his heart-wrenching love for literature and tigers was tender and exquisite. The realisation of the near-blind Borges that he’ll never see his beloved animal again was devastating and beautiful. I’m not a crier but this moment tipped the emotional equilibrium within me until I sobbed uncontrollably.

Person: Mrs. H. 2013 was, at times, an incredibly tough year for us both. Despite all this, my wife’s optimism, charm, support and loveliness have held things together. Thank you, you’re wonderful x.  

Meal: Home-cooked (by Mrs H) Chateaubriand (bought from: http://www.donaldrussell.com/)  served with goose-fat chips, stilton sauce and a rocket and parmesan salad. Eaten at home and thoroughly complemented by a bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion, 1998. Perfection.

So, that’s my list. I told you it’d be different. Are any of those things on your lists? Not the last two, obviously, that’d be a bit weird.

From gravitas to graft: perspectives on Bordeaux

“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things […] that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”  Ernest Hemingway

We decided on a trip to Bordeaux after I passed my first wine exam earlier this year. We’d hoped to get a candid insight into wine, wineries and the Bordelaise way of life. We weren’t disappointed. Our trip offered up a range of sensory pleasures and some unexpected perspectives too.

Picture of the sign for 'Margaux' from the road

Route Soixante Six

Driving slowly through Bordeaux is a thrill. Seeing names like ‘Pauillac’, ‘Margaux’, and ‘Saint Emilion’ on signs is like being on a wine geek’s Route 66. These names, for wine aficionados like me, have taken on an almost mythical quality, they’re stamped on my consciousness after years of reading them off of wine lists, wooden crates and the pages of my wine course book. Visiting Bordeaux, however, throws this into relief. Vines next to the road in Bordeaux

Wine, in Bordeaux, is a way of life. Vines run through the landscape like veins, delivering lifeblood to the local economy. Wine, here, has both workaday and romantic qualities. Everyone’s at it.  It’s as common to see grapes growing alongside the scarred remains of an ancient Bordelaise church as it is to see them flanking a railway line or cheek by jowl next to the local carwash.

Chateaux, wine factories, boutiques and farms

A ‘chateau’, in winespeak, means anything from an exquisite seventeenth-century mansion to a farmhouse filled with battered winemaking paraphernalia. It’s simply the name given to a self-contained estate or stretch of land that grows its own grapes and produces its own wine. This means that, despite the dizzying number of chateaux, they, like the subtle differences between their wines, are unique in their own way. In some cases, strikingly so.

Take Chateau de Bonhoste, for example. Our visit here was undoubtedly the most candid insight into winemaking that we’ve had. Our guide, an enthusiastic 23-year-old with impeccable English, allowed us inside the process. We watched grapes being hurled (at eye-watering speed) into the press, smelled wine as it was maturing in oak barrels (delicious! by the way) and met two generations Grapes going into the hopper at Chateau de Bonhosteof the family that own and run the place. Their ageing room is a cave, hewn out of Saint Emilion rock, that maintains a natural fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Within it are such gems as the tiny vintage made to commemorate the birth of the owner’s first son. Delightful. They do passion by the case.

Stainless steel vats inside Chateau DauzacAt the other end of the scale is somewhere like Chateau Dauzac, situated on Bordeaux’s famous left bank. Its wines are outstanding but its chateau is not. Dauzac is owned, not by a family of ruddy-faced Gallic vignerons, but by an insurance company. Dauzac is about as soulless as it gets. Walking around the ‘chateau’ (there is a mansion but it’s empty and used for business meetings and conferences only) is like walking around a wine factory, with its eerily clean stainless steel vats and temperature-controlled ageing room. Dauzac is what a vineyard run by a team of accountants would be like.

Celebrity fruit

Driving through deepest Margaux is like driving through the Hollywood hills, stealing glances at iron-gated celebrity mansions as security guards stare on.

Tastings in this elite world are for ‘professionals’ only and the intimidating presence of the top chateaux feels entirely (almost comically) contrived, intended to dispel any myths that what’s inside is merely fermented grapeChateau Margaux - glimpsed from afar juice. Instead, as they would have you believe, is a rare chance to try the ‘greatest perfection’ of ‘natural things’ of which Hemingway speaks. It’s there, of course, but not to buy. That, it would seem, is even too vulgar for the world of the elite chateaux.

The universe of Bordeaux is pompous, ridiculous, charming, intriguing, intimidating and utterly fascinating. That’s why we’re going back next year.

Confessions of a wino

I love wine. In fact, that’s not true. It goes much deeper than that. I’m obsessed with wine. Not in a Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction kind of way, you understand. It’s just that what started out as a fleeting interest has grown and transformed into something of which the word ‘hobby’ just doesn’t fit.

‘When did it all begin?’ you may ask. Well, I’ll tell you, and, thanks for asking.

Confused beginnings

I’d always kind of enjoyed wine but found it baffling and certainly didn’t understand why people would consider spending more than about seven quid on a bottle. As a younger man, my taste in wine was largely governed by four motivations:

  1. what cost more than five pounds but fewer than ten pounds in a supermarket;
  2. what was the one up from the cheapest bottle on the wine list in a restaurant;
  3. what sounded like it would taste good; and
  4. what came in a cool-looking bottle.

This seemingly-flawless approach to buying wine meant that my wine vocabulary was very limited. It also meant that – and I’m not ashamed to admit this – I’d often buy Black Tower and that American one that came in a re-usable carafe. I had managed to taste some pretty good wines along the way (usually when out for dinner and when I had the guts to ask the sommelier for a recommendation) but my knowledge was riddled with holes. The world of wine was daunting and inaccessible and, far too often, I’d buy and order wine that I’d had before or definitely knew something about. Clinging to these certainties helped my confidence. I call it the chicken tikka masala-approach to wine.

‘Haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle…’

The turning point came in 2005. How come I can pinpoint the exact year? Well, that’s when the film Sideways was released. I’d heard about the film but it wasn’t until my brother said that the character of Miles (played, expertly, by Paul Giamatti) reminded him of me that I knew I had to see it. ‘Right’, I thought, (quietly outraged that I could be pigeon-holed so easily) and set about getting hold of a copy.

Whilst I wasn’t all that keen on the comparison with the troubled Miles (my brother assured me that he’d meant it in a good way!), the film ignited my passion for the world of wine and convinced me that I needed to crack it.  Now, I know that Sideways is a work of fiction but its message about wine awoke something within me.

After I’d seen the film, I started with Pinot Noir (the subject of Miles’ obsession), eager to sample the ‘[h]aunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle’ flavours that Miles described. I haven’t looked back since and passed my Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) level 2 exam last month. I wouldn’t say that I’ve cracked the world of wine but I’m now a seasoned traveller, able to navigate my way around it with confidence. I can also say that I’ve drunk wines worthy of Miles’ hyperbolic words.

The personality of the earth

In his book, Making sense of wine, Matt Kramer describes wine as ‘the voice of the earth’. I don’t agree. To me, wine is an expression of the personality of the earth and a sensory link to it. Its idiosyncrasies, its good bits and its bad bits. Think about the most delicious wine you’ve ever had. Think about the smells, the taste and how much you enjoyed it. Isn’t it incredible that all of that experience is produced by fermented grape juice? To me, it’s like natural alchemy.

Good old ‘Ho Bryen’

Wine is about shared experience, with our contemporaries and our ancestors. It’s capable of taking us back in time within our own lifetimes and those of our ancestors. I’m convinced that that’s why people like to hang on to it for so long. Cellaring a bottle from a particular year is a way of locking away a fragment of that year to uncork when you fancy a spot of time travel. I recently drank a bottle of Barolo from the year of my birth and, whilst the wine was past its best, it was thrilling to drink something that was born in the same year that I was.

In some cases, wine is capable of putting us directly in touch with our ancestors. You could say the same of antiques, I suppose, but there’s something about the immediacy of the smell and taste of wine that’s far more potent. I love the fact that if you’re lucky enough to be able to sample a bottle of Chateau Haut Brion then you’re in great company. For none other than Samuel Pepys did the same at the Royal Oak Tavern on April 10, 1663. According to Pepys, he ‘drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryen that hath a good and most particular taste I never met with’. How cool is that?