Until recently, most electronic wine lists were more techie toy than fully realized tool capable of adding value to a wine program's bottom line. Diners often had trouble navigating cumbersome menus with limited search options, and wine directors complained that poor software and lack of compatibility meant they had to manage multiple wine lists—one for the guests and another for inventory—doubling their work. But Apple's iPad is beginning to change that.
"The iPad was such a sensation that we coupled an overdue product for the restaurant industry with a hot new product," says Jennifer Martucci, founder and senior vice president of product development and marketing for Incentient. The firm's SmartCellar wine list software for the iPad is being used by roughly 40 different restaurants, though most are still in the development stage. Todd English, Gordon Ramsay and Cleveland's Michael Simon have all signed on. New York's South Gate at the Jumeirah Essex House introduced their iPads featuring SmartCellar July 15.
New York's SD26 was the first restaurant to use SmartCellar, but on different hardware, and owner Tony May contributed to the product's development. The restaurant will switch to the iPad Aug. 2. "I brought my concept to May," says Martucci, "and he was key in saying, 'I want the guests to have as much or as little information as they want.'"
Martucci says that SmartCellar is not a read-only application, but rather a dynamic product that can be customized for each restaurant. At South Gate, guests can tap through the iPad wine list, searching by glass or bottle, red or white, variety or keyword. Results can be sorted by multiple options, like price or name, with selections saved to a personal list. For some wines, guests can also drill down for more information on varieties or regions. Standard information is provided by Incentient, but restaurants can add their own notes or graphics.
Mauro Cirilli, the wine director at Barbacco in San Francisco, has done just that since his wine list features many lesser-known indigenous Italian varieties. "You can bring info to the guest that you don't normally have time to bring," says Cirilli, "Vineyards, labels, varieties and info about how a wine is made. Guests are more excited about wine."
The technology, however, is still in the early stages of development and integration. Restaurants are having mixed results. At Barbacco, Cirilli updates and manages the iPad wine list manually, while at South Gate the iPad is fully linked by Wi-Fi to the restaurant's inventory. "If you sell the last bottle of a wine, the list is updated [immediately]," says South Gate sommelier Olivier Dufeu. "There's nothing worse for the guests than selecting a wine that has just been sold."
South Gate's iPad wine list also offers cocktails and beers, and the restaurant has ambitious future plans, such as adding Dufeu's personal tasting notes, additional graphics, posting a live version online and allowing guests to rate and review wines on the iPad itself during tastings. SmartCellar also offers a feature that allows guests to order directly on the iPad, but South Gate keeps it turned off to avoid a self-service environment.
Incentient is not the only company to capitalize on the iPad platform. Delicias, a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner in San Diego, is the testing grounds for a similar iPad application called i-Somm (somm is a popular industry abbreviation for sommelier). Delicias owner Owen Perry also owns the software firm behind the i-Somm app.
The restaurant's general manager and sommelier, Gino Campbell, says his iPad wine lists have been well-received and his regular guests are excited to offer constructive feedback. i-Somm doesn't currently link to the restaurant's point-of-sales system, however, but Campbell hopes that once it does he can customize the software so that when stocks run low, it will automatically order more. Both SmartCellar and i-Somm are expected to release what Martucci calls a 'residential' version of their wine list software through iTunes later this year, allowing wine collectors to keep track of their wines and offer the list to guests.
In China (where the iPad is assembled), Johnson Chan, who oversees operations and wine programs at three Grand Award-winning restaurants—Don Alfonso 1890 and Robuchon à Galera in Macao and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong—also use an iPad wine list. With a core wine cellar that's approaching 200,000 bottles and more than 6,000 different labels, an iPad list is nearly a requirement. "For a large wine list, it offers the convenience of [being light-weight], as well as selection by price range, vintage, size, year, grape variety, etc.," says Chan. "It also allows the client to view a picture of a sample bottle if he or she so wishes." Chan developed his software in-house and says the cost is minimal compared to managing paper wine lists.
Apple prices the iPad from $499 to $849 depending on features, but companies like Incentient rent and maintain the devices for a monthly fee. Most restaurateurs agree with Chan that costs are relatively minimal and were not a factor in their decision to use the iPad. Delivering additional information and excitement to their guests was worth the price.
As for restaurant guests, many are still figuring out the iPad itself. South Gate, Barbacco and Chan all report that they still keep paper copies of their lists for guests who request them. They also report that the iPad has yet to increase wine sales, though Martucci says that wine sales have increased for most of her clients.
Could a fully-integrated iPad wine list push sommeliers out the back door? That's exactly what Jack Serfass, the owner of Naples Tomato, a Best of Award of Excellence winner in Naples, Fla., has in mind. In June, he announced plans to launch an iPad app later this summer that will replace the sommelier. In addition to offering standard search and information options, their iPad wine list will also recommend food-and-wine pairings. "The iPad that will let guests browse, search and expertly select from hundreds of wines without being pressured, misled or upsold," the restaurant announced in a statement.
Cirelli, Dufeu and Campbell say they are busier than ever, however, and that their guests still expect to see them tableside to assist with wine selection. "A lot of guests are regulars and prefer to talk to me," says Campbell. "They prefer to have interaction with a human."