As the holidays approach here in the US, we reach peak wine season.  It’s the time when everyone starts thinking about which wines to serve for family gatherings and what to order for parties and celebrations.  It’s also the time of year when wine journalists devote their column inches to what to serve for Thanksgiving.

This year, the common theme running through these articles appears to be to – relax, take it easy, and don’t stress out. There are too many flavors at work in a Thanksgiving meal, too many family complications, you don’t want your wine choices to become overly burdensome. As long as your guests are happy then everything is a success. I agree with many of these sentiments, too much time and effort can be spent over-analyzing the perfect Thanksgiving wine and food pairings. The vast array of food served at Thanksgiving runs the whole spectrum of dominant characteristics, virtually ensuring that there is no one perfect wine to pair if you aim to sample all the available dishes. A picky eater that sticks to one dish is a pairing slam dunk, but realistically we all like the feast.

People who don’t tipple much during the rest of the year can be struck with fear at the prospect of providing suitable refreshments for the Holidays. As Tom Wark over at Fermentation recently remarked, don’t scare the wine drinkers. I don’t think we should be totally blasé about wine selections, but we don’t need to go full art/science/little bit of magic complexity either. As Trish Rogers points out at the beginning of her ZiNG! workshops, we are all born with all the necessary equipment to taste and evaluate food and wine. There is little complexity beyond noticing the effects of wine and food in your mouth.

Now there is good science relating to wine and food pairing – both are composed of chemicals and they come together in an environment that can evaluate their interaction. A good reaction will trigger pleasure in your brain, saying “I want more of that”. A bad reaction will cause us to screw our face up and say “ugh! no more of that”. Knowing, appreciating, and being guided on those reactions should be an aim for everyone.

So what’s the wine solution to Thanksgiving? Personally, I think enough wine to go around and plenty of variety! Now this may cause a stemware problem, but there is nothing that says you cannot have several different glasses going at the same time. There are many food dishes on the table, so why not several wine bottles?

If you are still looking for some inspiration, then we’ve published a Thanksgiving food collection for you to subscribe to. Just open the Taste ZiNG! app and search for a subscription with the code UPUGYY or the name Thanksgiving.

Happy Holidays.

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iPads in Restaurants

In a recent interview, top San Francisco chef Michael Mina was asked if he was a techie?

MM: I don’t believe in using the iPad for a winelist. I hate that. When I go to a restaurant, I want the wine list. I believe in using technology to make experiences better for your guests. … But I don’t believe in replacing the traditions in the restaurant with technology.

I’ve been using computers for a long time so I might be biased, but I do believe that technology could augment a diner’s experience. First and foremost, many wine lists are inscrutable even to those of us who are regular imbibers, so it would be nice to have some guidance on which wines will pair with the food on offer. For example, not everyone knows the difference between a Domaine Arlaud ‘Les Ruchots’ 1er Cru 2010 and a Massolino ‘Parafada’ Barolo 2004 (both similarly priced at Michael Mina in San Francisco) but you would not want to mix them up in a food situation. Now this is traditionally where a sommelier would step into the picture, but if you are still negotiating with the rest of your dining partners over dishes and wine, where everything is up in the air, this could take some effort and I for one would feel guilty taking up so much of someone’s time. Restaurant technology, if done well, offers the diner a greater opportunity and insight into a wine program than just a name and a price and at a pacing that suits them, and could be a tremendous trade up on tradition.

On a semi-related matter, Andrew Knowlton, the restaurant editor at Bon Appétit, is conflicted over the use of iPad menus. You see, his problem is that he steals menus, and obviously a $400 piece of consumer electronics is a very different moral proposition than stuffing a sheet of paper into your pocket. As we encourage restaurants to use Taste ZiNG! I always expected theft to be a concern, I just never expected it to come from food critics!

Salt

This is the first in a series of posts about the ZiNG! and the basic elements that make up the ZiNG! approach to pairing food and wine.

Salt is everywhere, probably in too many places.

Salt is one of our five basic tastes, classified as appetitive – meaning it stimulates our appetite, increasing our desire to eat it, which is why it is so frequently used in seasoning. Evolution helped us develop a fondness for salt because it is essential to life. All living creatures use salts to regulate the water content of their body and the sodium is used for electrical signaling in the nervous system. We won’t get far without salt, we cannot, and should not, avoid it.

When it comes to food, salt may not be dominant in a dish (unless the chef has been over-zealous with the seasoning), but there are foods where salt is naturally dominant. Foods such as cured meats, hard cheeses, seafood and shellfish. They all have a salt undertone to them.

So let’s try an experiment. Find a couple of wines, one a high acidic wine such as a Pinot Gris, and a low acid wine such as a California Chardonnay. The wines don’t have to be expensive, just try to avoid the very low end of the market where the wines are dominated by sweetness. You’ll only need a glass of each for this experiment so you can always do it in a wine bar. Take a sip of each wine to make sure that the wines taste OK and there’s nothing wrong with them.

Next, get some ordinary table salt, again no need for fancy sea salts because their extra elements are not significant, wet your finger and dip it into the salt. You don’t need a lot so don’t go overboard, you want to simulate a salty dish and not be unpleasant. Once you’ve changed the salinity in your mouth, take a sip of the high acidic wine and notice how the wine tastes.

  1. Is it still acidic?
  2. Is it still balanced?
  3. Has the wine been compromised by the salt?
  4. Was the wine better by itself?
  5. Was the food better by itself?

Now repeat the experiment with the low acid wine – you will need to taste a bit more salt before drinking. After sipping the wine, ask yourself the same questions again.

With luck you should notice one wine compliments the salt and tastes nice, what we call a ZiNG!, and one wine will taste completely different, a noticeable degradation and unpleasantness, a pairing that you really want to avoid. Notice that all we did between tasting the wine by itself and in the presence of food was to add a single chemical, salt, sodium chloride, but that was enough to modify the chemistry in our mouth. There was nothing wrong with the wine, and yet a small change in the environment completely changed our perception.

The Beauty of Boring

We are in the midst of the latest iPhone frenzy, from last Wednesday’s announcement to next Friday’s release. The initial reactions, based on, at most, a very quick hands-on, range from ho-hum to boring and predictable to Apple is losing its mojo. No doubt the actual reviews as they trickle out over the next week or so will follow this pattern – the iPhone 5 is competent but not earth shattering and iOS is becoming stale.

But the beauty of this boringness means the design language remains the same. That is, the navigation bars and buttons, the scrollable tables with drill down to more details, the swipes and pinches, are all the same. Not only does this breed familiarity amongst users but it means that apps do not have to be redesigned to meet a new style. Or more comprehensively, there doesn’t have to be two versions of an app, each appealing to the old and new approaches.

Sure the new iPhone 5 is slightly taller in what amounts to an extra row of icons on the home screen or two new rows in a table, but most apps, including Taste ZiNG!, will be able to easily incorporate this change. There will have to be another variant for splash and background images, but views that present a table of information will automatically show more rows. The only possible changes will come on views that are not designed to scroll, so developers will need to decide whether the extra space is left at the bottom, or whether it should be evenly spread amongst the existing presentation. There is not enough new space, unlike the difference from an iPhone to iPad, to start incorporating more data.

What gets lost in the call for larger screens is the impact this has on designers and developers. Apple appreciates the subtle interplay between the widgets on a screen and the negative or white space between them. Dramatically changing the screen size has a detrimental effect on app design. Just scaling a layout by a constant multiplier depending on device size is not always the best decision. A wider screen can seduce the designer to place more buttons on a toolbar, but at some point this can become overwhelming and it might be better to reduce all the buttons to a single action button that only reveals it’s options when necessary. Indeed this is the latter option taken by the Taste ZiNG! app on the iPad. Even though there is significantly more screen estate, the set of actions that are available on each view is presented behind an “actions” button, providing a common interaction pattern, reducing noise and clutter, and allowing the use of words instead of icons.

Look for a update to the Taste ZiNG! app explicitly supporting the larger screen of the iPhone5 in a few weeks. We are in the middle of some other changes that will need to be completed first. And of course, we want to test the app on actual device before submitting a new version (and that may take awhile as pre-orders sold out in one hour!).

Last week I attended the first Portland Digital Experience conference and during a presentation on “Magically Customizing Your Users Experience”, Tom Byrnes from 4-Tell expanded on the fact:

We are not in a service economy, we are in a self-service economy

He supported the argument by highlighting a report from Accenture that found in a retail environment, 60% of customers know more about a product that the sales representative. Not difficult when, as Byrnes pointed out, the average length of service of employees for a major retailer is 6 weeks.

Given the high staff turnover and the relative inexperience that plagues many big box stores, it is no wonder that customers take it upon themselves to educate themselves. Fortunately they now have the tools available to perform research, even while in the actual retail establishment.

The same self-service skills transfer to a restaurant situation, it is relatively easy to use your mobile device to search for details on unfamiliar bottles on a wine list. However that can be a time consuming and socially unpopular activity table-side if you are considering more than a couple of wines. To enable an effective self-service experience, a restaurant needs to provide the tools for a more directed decision making process.

In a recent column, Matt Kramer observed many wine lists are unusable, nothing more than a price list. Kramer suggests that what wine lists need to be, and what a modern sommelier needs to do, is to better educate their customers. In effect, tell a better and more effective story about a wine so that a person can make a better choice. He offers a couple of proposals such as showcasing a select number of interesting wines or using symbols on the wine list to highlight unique items.

However I don’t think either of these really help. A deeper back story on wines might be nice, but who is going to read (or who’s dining partner is going to let them read) a 100 word biography on each potential selection. Highlighting interesting and unique wines is also nice, and wine programs should be encouraged to contain a diverse selection, but is a diner really going to take a chance on a wine if they are not sure that it will match their food?

A wine list cannot be considered in isolation; a selection needs to be made in concert with the food choices. But this is where the self-service economy falls down without additional details from the restaurant about the dominant elements within a dish. So the challenge for restaurants in the new self-service economy is to find ways to provide enough information to assist a diner in making informed decisions.

The Fear of Wine

The recent discussion on wine lists continues with Eric Asimov at the New York Times positing “Should a wine list educate or merely flatter you?”. The food in restaurants generally follow the underlying concept or theme of the restaurant and most of us understand that going in. But should the wine list follow the same pattern in staying true to concept? Should a Greek restaurant only serve Greek wine, or should their wine list offer some safer, household wines that anyone can retreat to?

The problem, and beauty, with wine is that there are hundreds and thousands of choices and every one, even if they are made from the same varietal in the same general region, is different. So to the vast majority of us, wine lists are pretty incomprehensible, often made up of wines that we’ve never heard of, never mind tasted. Some wine lists will offer clues as to the region, some might list varietals, but others, as W. Blake Gray pointed out really are nothing more than price lists. On a list like Sotto’s, the names might as well say “blah, blah, blah” for all that most people will understand.

These kind of wine lists are either lazy or arrogant. If wine bloggers, who are in the top 0.1% of wine drinkers in the USA, don’t recognize any of the wines, don’t feel comfortable ordering wine there’s no hope for the regular diner. Instead they will grouch at the prices and order a beer or a coke. As Eric Asimov notes, this leads to a fear of wine.

So how do we remove that fear and educate would be wine drinkers?

wine informationMore flowery words won’t help. Instead we need to look at a wine from the inside out. If we can identify the dominant features of wines and show how those characteristics match the dish in front of me we can begin the education. If we can take a list and determine a subset of wines that will lead to a more pleasurable experience then diners will have the confidence to order a suitable wine at their price point knowing that they have selected a winner.

This “inside out” approach is what ZiNG! is all about. By characterizing wines based on their acidity, viscosity, fruitiness, sweetness, alcohol and tannin levels then we have the basis for food and wine pairing. It doesn’t matter if it is a well known label or an obscure one, if those elements are aligned with the dominant elements in your food then there will be a match and if they don’t align there is literally a bad taste in your mouth.

ZiNG! takes away the fear, the fear of making the wrong choice, the fear of spending too much money on the wrong choice, the fear of missing out on a good choice.

Welcome to ZiNG!

This week the ZiNG! app has finally made it to the app store.

Then today comes this article in the NY Post by Steve Cuozzo (“Sour Grapes”) all about how hard it is to navigate wine lists where you have no familiarity with any of the wines or grapes. Dr. Vino jumps in and asks what do you do when you encounter a wine list dominated by wines you don’t know much about? There are some undoubtedly some nice wines on those lists, and if they are related to the type of cuisine then there are probably many great matches. But how do you know what they are?

food and wine orderWell this is exactly the type of problem that the ZiNG! app sets out to solve. If a restaurant entered their menu and wine list into the app and published it through ZiNG! then diners can use that information to see what wines would match with the dishes they want to eat.

ZiNG! is based on chemistry and can determine great pairings (“zings”) from the dominant elements in food and wine. It is different from other wine/food pairing approaches in that it deals with specifics and not generics. This specific Pinot Gris is going to pair excellently with this specific salad based on the dominant elements in the dish. A chef could tweak those elements and you match completely different wines.

The ZiNG! app plays the role of not only helping diners navigate wine lists, giving them the ability to order with confidence, but also helps restaurants actually sell their carefully curated lists because people are not throwing up their arms in dispair and ordering a beer instead.