In 2014, Bright Cellars was the latest subscription box-based start-up to launch, taking the age-old idea of a wine club and giving it a high-tech touch. Founded by two MIT grads, Joseph Larendi and Richard Yau, Bright Cellars’s tag line is “We want to help you discover wine!” In August 2015, Bright Cellars closed a $1.8M seed round shortly after graduating from gener8tor, a start-up accelerator in Milwaukee, WI.
Bright Cellars uses a propriety algorithm that matches you, the wine-drinker-to-be, with wine recommendations based off of a “taste palate quiz.” Every month, they send out a new box of wine that their algorithm determines you’ll enjoy based off your quiz results…and the feedback you provide after your first box. Hence the Pandora bit.
Their main goal is to move a novice wine drinker from mass-produced wines like Yellowtail or Barefoot to something more niche, like “hidden gems from small vineyards from all over the world, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, and South America.” Bright Cellars is out to democratize wine and wine discovery, and is doing so leveraging big data and algorithms.
The taste palate quiz and how it works
Bright Cellars requires each customer to take its “taste palate quiz”, which compares 18 attributes to your preferences and leverages a proprietary algorithm to recommend wines. The quiz has a variety of questions, including which type of chocolate you prefer, how you take your tea, and how adventurous you are with dining. After submitting, Bright Cellars displays a selection of wine recommendations, personalized for you, including Bright Points personalized rating. Preferences can be refined after consuming the wine—just as you’d give a thumbs up or down to a song in Pandora. See Exhibits A and B for images of the taste palate quiz and the results.
Exhibit A Screenshots of the taste palate quiz: questions on chocolate and juice preference. Note the humor woven into the questions.
Exhibit B Screenshot of the results page of the quiz, post-algorithmic processing. Bright Cellars attributes a Bright Points personalized rating (its confidence, perhaps) for each of its recommendations. Have to say the results are pretty good; at least, it sounds like I’d like this wine.
Bright Cellars hasn’t quite broken into the wine world yet. It’s moved into its tech start-up space just fine. But conquering the snobbish cloisters of wine geeks and snobs is a behemoth of a task that lies contrary to all thing tech start-up: wine drinking and knowledge are all about old world romance and history, the experience of discovery, not an automated spit-out of an algorithm, as Bright Cellars makes it out to be. As one blogger wrote, it’s “a good place to start if you literally have no idea what you like and want to figure it out.”
Algorithms are meant to replace the boring, tedious work and give us humans the space to be strategic and creative. So where can an algorithm that tries to automate wine selection fit in?
The tasting notes of the wine world are infamous for their multitudinous nature, and for how ridiculous they sound. One glass of wine can be described as smelling like any or all of the following: raspberry, blackberry, boysenberry, cranberry, black cherry, briar…the list goes on. Raspberry can really mean fresh, dried, or even raspberry jam. Sometimes these adjective leave the conventional world of edible items: tar, wet cement, garden hose, petroleum. So, the selection algorithm Bright Cellars uses has an incredibly rich selection of “data” points in this array of wine descriptors, which when a normal human has to think about can be quite overwhelming.
Even if Bright Cellars does not introduce amazing heralded wine and vintages to veteran wine connoisseurs, it does provide the simple value of directing a newbie to what he’ll like. Bright Cellars equips the novice drinker with the tools and descriptors necessary to take the leap to more niche wine. See Exhibit B: tasting notes most prevalent in that bottle are highlighted, giving the less informed consumer the necessary knowledge to speak about the wine. Bright Cellars, in digitizing wine taste, empowers its customers with the knowledge of what they like and enables them to make more confident wine choices. As Bright Cellars continues to grow, the team should focus more and more on positioning themselves as a tool for those interested in wine who are unable to jump the hurdles to knowing more about wine and refining their discernment.
Whether an automated algorithm like Bright Cellars will ever be able to replace the function and mystique of a Master Sommelier is yet to be seen. And even if its functionally possible, does the customer who truly enjoys wine, including the excess of 300 words he can use to describe one single bottle, want to lose the chance to do so? Is there such a thing as over-digitizing wine and taste? Clearly there is a role for technology in wine tasting, but the balance between entry point facilitation via technology and deep enjoyment of aged wines has yet to be struck. (790 words)