In search of that almighty wine app

Photo by Vinologue

We are some ungodly amount of years in to the App Epoch of Civilization and as of yet, I’ve not been able to find the almighty “wine app” that doesn’t bug the crap out of me in some aspect or another. It’s a strange thing really as a simple system for taking notes on a wine should be an easy bundle of bits to cobble together and appify, especially given that Silicon Valley is fully committed to its “solutionism” trajectory in life. But, last week in attending Vinisud for the first time, I gave a try with the apps I hadn’t experience yet and this was my general takeaway of those as well as the others I’ve used in the past.

This one has been around for what seems like forever. It’s a decent app that’s quick to load overall, but it commits one of the cardinal sins that all these apps do in that it tries to automatically read the wine labels and generally doesn’t do a great job of it. In regions with more traditional labels like most of France, this could work fine, but in Spain where modern, edgy labels are the norm, it didn’t work at all. Also, while its interface is incredibly simple, at the same time, it always felt unfinished to me as if they wanted to be first in the game and then get bought up by a Google or Yahoo. Also problematic is that (at least when I used it) everything you put up was public with those in your network which, if you’re working to create a large compendium of reviews isn’t something you want.

This one has been all the rage from people I know in San Francisco. I flat-out do not like this app. The first problem is that it’s only available for Apple devices. Given the massive proliferation of Android these days, I find this to be ludicrous. Secondly I find the interface and ratings to be far too simplistic for what I need. Their focus seems to really be on selling wines via the app. Smart thinking as this is a big money industry. But when it comes to an app for recording reviews on the go, it doesn’t work for me.

Like Delectable their focus is really on trying to get you to buy the wines. The review form is again simplistic, but with slightly more options. I also like the ability to add private notes. The photo scanner for the label (again, this…) doesn’t work terribly well, but the database to look up a wine manually is well-stocked. I don’t know what happens if the wine isn’t in there though, but arguably, they’ve done a good job of compiling a large database of wine information. But again, like the two before it, you’re just a quickie type review that won’t let you do all that much.

The photo scanner works a bit better than the others, but upon scanning in a very common Rioja that I was using as a test bottle in a stable environment, it got the name of the wine and the year wrong. At least I was able to correct them. Again, the reviewing system is quite simplistic and I’m forced to add a photo. Like Drync and Delectable, they’re also focused on selling the wines and “crafting” a list for me of what they think I like. Good luck with that guys…

I didn’t review Just Wine or Wine Notes because like Delectable (which I tested on my iPod), they’re only available for Apple devices. A company who wants to gain market share but doesn’t create a version of their app for half of the mobile users out there farts out in to a big flat fail in my book.

While some of these apps might be “fun” for the casual wine drinker, absolutely none of them are ready for any kind of “pro” or “aficionado” market and those are the people who are actually going to buy the higher ticket wines if the app’s main purpose is to sell wine. Using Instagram along with Google Keep seems to continue to serve me better on the mobile than any of these apps if I want a quickie digital note.

At Vinisud, I ended up sticking to a pen and a notebook as pretty much everyone there did. The reasons for this are many. For starters there are no apps or systems that allow the flexibility to write more advanced tasting notes. Whether a wine writer or an importer, “:)” and “:(” don’t mean shit when you get home and go over your notes. The other problem is that the mobile phone, even with an 11.5cm (4.5″) screen, is a simply horrid way to take notes. Tweeting or sending an SMS/tweet is fine, but writing notes on wines are not, especially as the autocorrect on most any phone will barf when coming across words such as château, domaine, or even better, Mourvèdre and Assyrtiko. Maybe a tablet would be better given more finger space, but honestly, you’re often having to write in cramped spaces that lend themselves to analog better anything digital can–and as I’ve experienced some winemakers really don’t want you bringing your digital crap in to their cellars.

But here’s the biggest “ain’t gonna go there” when it comes to the wine apps: you have to be online to use them. Because they rely so heavily upon photographing the label and then matching it up, you need to have connectivity for this. “Oh, but if you have a smartphone, you’re always online” I’m sure the US-based developer would say. But no, you’re not. If you’re like me, based in Spain and then go to a fair in France, the roaming data costs for adding the 150 or so wines I tasted over three days there would have been hundreds of euros.

Well okay, say you’re based in the US where data roaming isn’t a problem. You still have the problem that if you visit a winery there is zero coverage in the cellar. At wine fairs there is also often zero coverage as the cell is too crowded or the space just has lousy reception. I guess you can just write things down and send in the review later, but of course this makes it hard for phone to trump paper and pen…

I think this is part of the reason that a website like Cellar Tracker is still so popular in that it really meets the needs of the novice, professional, and anyone in between when wanting to transcribe your notes in to a digital place. Writing about wine has been and will most likely continue to be an intricate, involved type of writing. While compiling an 800 word essay on a single wine is overkill, “Grassy, roses I like it :)” doesn’t really cut it.

The other plus with Cellar Tracker is that their database is huge, regularly culled for consistency and you don’t need to be taking photos of your wines to enter them. I keep coming back around to this point as what initially seemed like a very useful feature has ended up being the weak point in every single wine app for me. Call me a Gordon Martin, but for wine reviews, there currently aren’t any apps for that.