Food & Drink

Sometimes, that fancy app’s just not appropriate

Wine apps such as Vivino are raising interpersonal- ethics issues in restaurants.
Wine apps such as Vivino are raising interpersonal- ethics issues in restaurants. Chicago Tribune

A short time after the Chicago restaurant Maple & Ash opened late last year, sommelier-in-residence Scott Tyree got the coldest shoulder of his career from a customer. According to Tyree’s recounting of the incident on Facebook, it went like this:

Tyree: “Good evening, sir. I understand you are interested in red Burgundy this evening. May I be of any assistance with the list?”

Guest: “No, I just photographed your Burgundy page on my Vivino app. I don’t need your recommendations. The app will tell me all I need to know.”

Tyree (in his head): “While you’re at it, sir, please ask your app to retrieve the wine from the cellar, place stemware on your table, and open and serve the wine. Enjoy your dinner.”

OK, everybody just calm down.

First of all, Tyree says, the customer was not a jerk. He was neither uninformed about wine, nor a cheapskate.

Tyree was put off by the exchange – understandably so – but he was more confused as to why someone would choose software over human interaction. What eventually sent him to social media was his curiosity about other sommeliers’ experience.

“I just find it really interesting that people would rather consult an app than talk,” Tyree says. “It just seems like another symptom in the technological takeover of the world.”

His Facebook post hit a nerve, sparking a lively conversation among other wine industry types and restaurant-goers alike.

Friends, friends, friends. Have a seat. Listen. Wine is among the most app-able commodities in the world. Few things are studied, scrutinized and debated with such fervor. Enology overflows with data, in degrees minuscule enough to fill a lifetime of serious study. At the same time, what could be more human and civilized than dining with wine? It is all about people in the presence of other people. This is why some restaurants have a “no cellphones” policy.

I could not imagine consulting a software program when I have access to an actual human expert, not only on wine but specifically on the wines and cuisine of the very restaurant I am sitting in. Notice that I didn’t stop at “actual human.” The next word was “expert.” It would seem that a person who is into wine enough to download a wine app would understand the value in trusting the wine staff.

A fine-dining wine staff knows the wines in the cellar, knows the food coming out of the kitchen, and knows how those two things go together best. What that diner did is the equivalent of traveling to a foreign country with a bilingual guide and refusing to ask her to translate the road signs, instead photographing them with a phone and letting an app tell him what they say.

Dining in restaurants is a human, social experience. It’s why people rarely go to restaurants alone. It’s why most of the tables are out in the open. It’s why someone says “welcome” when you arrive. This is not to say that a wine app can never be useful in a restaurant. But make it an extra thing, and not the thing itself. Use it to enhance, not replace.

In an equally ridiculous app incident a couple of weeks after the first one, a customer said to Tyree, “Thank you for your recommendation, but Vivino disagrees with you. We’ll take the malbec instead of the Bordeaux.”

I asked Tyree if he had thoughts on what this app-reliance was all about, and he didn’t. But I do. It’s about control, and having all of the answers in your hand. My advice to you in a fine-dining situation?

Give up the control. Let the professionals do what they do best. Control what you want to pay, and make your preferences and prejudices known. Beyond that, trust the people who work in the restaurant. It doesn’t require a full surrender. But at least let them help you. At least look them in the eye and talk to them. Sommeliers are people too, you know.

Technology can be great. It improves and sometimes saves lives. It educates and entertains. But let’s not replace human expertise with algorithms. If you had teeth issues, would you trust the word of your dentist over a recommendation that popped up on your phone?

Giving up some control and trusting an expert does not make you weak. It only makes you more human.

Maple & Ash was hopping the night of the first app debacle, when the customer said to Tyree, “I don’t need your recommendations. The app will tell me all I need to know.” Frustrated by the brushoff, Tyree assigned the table to an associate and went on to answer questions at other tables. Had it been slower, Tyree says, he might have returned to the app table to get into that customer’s mind and find out what was behind his phone devotion.

“I wish I would have been able to have a conversation with him about it,” Tyree says in complete sincerity.

In the e-parlance of the day, I say: “a conversation with him” – LOL! ;)