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AI proving ‘most exciting catalyser’ of wine innovation

Published:  18 June, 2020

The advance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) software is by far the most exciting catalyser of innovation in the wine industry, according to speakers at an Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) webinar held yesterday (17 June).

Led by Richard Bampfield MW and titled 'Looking into the future - how technology will change the wine world', the session looked at the impact that new tech will have on the wine industry, against the backdrop of the current Covid-19 crisis.

Pam Dillon, CEO of Wine Ring, opened the session by saying that while drone wine deliveries and compostable bottles might be more visible gimmicks, true disruption will be introduced through digital automation of operations.

LivEx chairman James Miles built upon Dillon’s comments, explaining that the evolution from social to semantic web - from person-to-person to machine-to-machine interaction – “is the great revolution underway and will remove a lot of friction from the supply chain”.

So how exactly will AI and machine-learning impact on the wine trade?

The most obvious consequence is the development and ubiquity of recommendation engines that, by processing users’ preferences, ratings and reviews, generate customised online shopping experiences.

Vivino’s CEO Heini Zachariassen introduced one of the platforms new features that, by scanning the multiple reviews submitted for a given wine, allows for automated categorisation and filtering, such as repeated mentions of ‘acidity’ corresponding to a higher ranking for searches for a high-acid pour.

The question as to whether such AI predictive technology will diminish the role of the wine critic split the panel.

Dillon said there will still be a space for the critic’s educational role and that expert voices will always be needed to lure new customers to regular wine drinking.

Zachariassen, on the other hand, argued that the days of the wine critic are over, saying that having a significant number of user-submitted ratings actually provides a more accurate ranking than the score given by a single expert taster.

Questioned about how apps like Vivino might avoid issues with ‘fake reviews’, such as those experienced by restaurant rating platform Yelp, Zachariassen said that Vivino has a “very effective ways of detecting and cleaning these”, but without specifying exactly how.

Both Dillon and Zachariassen agreed that the recommendation engines will “consolidate customer-centric sales” and create a level playing field for wine producers in a market until now very much dominated by branding power houses.

The panel said that AI will also play a key role in the non-consumer-facing aspects of the trade.

Zachariassen and Miles mentioned how automation of supply and demand management will lead to greater optimisation. This, in turn, will allow better purchasing decisions, leaner stock management and higher fulfilment efficiency.

By being fed all the information from different inputs, web services will be increasingly able to predict and manage demand, pricing, procurement and stock allocation.

LivEx, for example, has created a standard identifying system for wine, LWIN, which, very much as ISBN works for books, allows for computers to share an identifying language. Standardisation will be key for computers to speak the same ‘language’ and automated processes to develop scalability.

All the speakers pointed out that the wine sector has never been an early adopter of tech, consistently lagging behind on innovation, with operational changes carrying too much risk for many in a sector weary of disruption. But AI and machine learning are pervasive across all sectors and, as reinforced by the extreme disruption of the current crisis, the wine trade cannot remain oblivious.

On the question of whether AI will end physical retail, the panel again agreed that wouldn’t be the case and that great opportunities remain for innovative retailers willing to offer exciting buying experiences.

The event was the fourth in a series hosted by the IMW, running since May and focusing on the different challenges and opportunities that Covid-19 has, from vineyard to shelf, created for the wine sector.