If you have never been stuck at a table listening to someone ‘educate’ you on wine, I am envious. There are few things more grating than those snobbish or patronizing tones in which some man tells you your taste is incorrect, or your pairing flawed. Wine has long maintained an aura of superiority among alcoholic drinks, despite losing its luxury-only status over the last century. But the days of listening to droning wine snobs may soon be coming to an end, with tech companies like Palate Club leading the revolutionary charge.
Two reasons why wine has maintained its allure of elitism:
It is important to understand the reasons why wine has such associations if we are to understand why they are changing. While there is, of course, a complex historical web surrounding the wine industry and class, we can boil it down to two broad categories. Let’s start with the ‘bad’ reason before we get to the ‘good’ one. After all there are some aspects of wine’s rich history and nature worth keeping, even if the rest will be transformed.
The bad reason: wine has an economic incentive to stay exclusive
Wine has long maintained the illusion of luxury. At least as an imported commodity—a distinction which it has historically held thanks in part to its geographical limitations. While certain regions were able to produce fine wines, others often had to settle for imports, naturally raising the price. And where prices rise, status can be established by possession, collection or just consumption. This despite the fact that in the french countryside (and other wine-producing regions) the beverage was, and still is, quite affordable, even for the masses.
Thus arose, historically, the high prices and elite associations which, in many ways, helped shape the attitude even of modern wine drinkers. Yet over the course of the previous century, the production of wine was at least as industrialized, if not entirely democratized. Wine became a commodity like almost any other. Capable of being produced ‘en masse’ and sold accordingly, now you can get extraordinarily cheap wine. While wine experts will grumble about its quality, the good at least is available to all.
Yet those same French vignerons and, to a lesser extent, most of those in the ‘old world’ did not want to see their profits and livelihoods crumble with the prices. Through powerful branding and the careful cultivation of elite association (and, admittedly, good quality wine), they were able to hold on to wine’s elite associations. This was achieved despite the fact that wines of excellent
quality are now produced across the globe on most every continent, as Palate Club’s extensive cellars reveal.
The good reason: wine is a complex and nuanced drink
While one can rage all day about the snobbishness of certain wine-drinking elites, there is no denying that not all wines are the same. Wines can vary a lot. From obvious differences like red, white or rose, right through to those derived from the precise blending of different grape varieties. Even the land and local flora is said to contribute to unique flavor profiles, aromas and subtle differences in taste.
While some of this may sound like snobbish rambling, the chemical truth is there for the testing. Yet, there is as much mystification and marketing involved in most wine descriptions and labeling as there is science. That doesn’t mean we should simply ignore the rich variety that wine has to offer in favor of simplifying it, however. That would be a waste.
This is particularly important given that, just as every wine has subtle variations, each wine taster is different as well. A fact too often ignored by the wine industry in their drive to sell wines to large audiences. But one which Palate Club is determined to reverse.
Dethroning snobbishness, Palate Club is determined to democratize wine
Because of the historical and chemical properties of wine, it has become a sector dominated by opinionated experts. Wine ratings heavily drive sales despite being based on a limited subset of human plates and preferences. These experts have long dictated or guided the market’s understanding of, appreciation for and, ultimately, the prices of wine. And while they can help some find quality wines, many others whose palates differ will find themselves woefully left behind by this elite club.
One organization is trying to change that, though. They offer a unique service that combines fine traditional wines with the very best of modern data science. Palate Club, a Bay-Area startup, wants to send customers wines they will enjoy straight to their door. But rather than trust the advice of any expert, they trust the client.
Starting with a blind tasting kit, and with every bottle that follows, customers taste and rate the wines they receive. Based on their rating, Palate Club’s taste matching technology uses the wine’s objective characteristics to identify what each customer enjoys, or does not enjoy, in their wine. Over time, this builds up a near-perfect profile of the customer’s palate, allowing Palate Club to send increasingly well-tailored wine to each customer’s specific tastes. At the same time, the client learns about their own preferences in the process.
When no one is king, the customer wears the crown
Will there still be wine experts rating wines and pronouncing eloquently about the merits of one cabernet sauvignon over another? Sure. Will you need to listen to them, not at all. The source of their authority comes from knowledge, but with Palate Club putting that knowledge into the hands of each and every customer (literally, with their app), the experts’ snobbish hold over the wine world will be broken.
And the next time that irritating relative starts on about why your Zinfandel is a poor choice, whip out your phone and educate him, in as much or as little detail as you want, on why it is exactly the right wine for you.