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Tech & Innovation: Lightbulb moments from the US

Published:  03 March, 2021

As famous for its wines as it is for entrepreneurial spirit and world-beating technology, it’s no surprise that innovation continues to come thick and fast from across the pond. From everyman investment platforms to robotic wine management systems and AI wine matching services, Jo Gilbert rounds up what’s new out of the US.

Vinovest – democratising fine wine investment

Wine investment has long been the preserve of the asset-wealthy classes looking to diversify their portfolios. And part of this is as it should be, says Anthony Zhang, entrepreneur and founder of Vinovest, a new platform which aims to bring wine investment to the masses. 

The venture was born of a desire to offer everyday investors the opportunity to enter the secondary market. US-born Zhang says wine could and should be an important part of any investment portfolio. 

The Vinovest platform aims to eschew the “low liquidity, exorbitant broker fees and commissions” that have typically characterised the fine wine market by offering investors low minimums of $1,000.

“My co-founder and I came across an article about the global wine market, including how it had more or less consistently outperformed the S&P 500 over the past 40 years,” says Zhang, a 25-year-old entrepreneur.

“We also help wine merchants reach a much larger segment of younger customers than they might otherwise. These are individuals who are just embarking upon their wealth accumulation journey, and subsequently there is tremendous potential for growth.” 

The premise has made Vinovest – Zhang’s third business venture – successful in its first year. Backed by the expertise of three master sommeliers – US-based Dustin Wilson MS, Jonathan Ross MS and leading Australian expert Jane Lopes MS – the company has traded over $10m in the past six months alone with customers in more than 20 countries.

Investors own the bottles outright, with several bonded storage facilities available via partnerships in both the UK and France. 

Vivant – creating a sustainably focused network around the world

Helping to accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable future is the latest ambition of ex-Silicon Valley entrepreneur Michael Baum. 

Via his new platform, Vivant, Baum is aiming to move beyond the usual live streaming format by creating a network of sustainable producers from around the world, thus forging links between producer, trade and consumer, with a strong educational drive running throughout. 

Though Baum is currently the owner of Château de Pommard in Burgundy, he started Vivant with the aim of connecting the most interesting people in wine from around the world and discovering the “world’s best-tasting wines made free of pesticides and herbicides”. 

Baum says: “Today, less than 3% of the world’s wines are produced responsibly. This means that most of the wine we enjoy is made from conventionally farmed grapes grown with synthetic chemicals that are harmful to our health, contribute unnecessarily to environmental destruction and, ironically, kill the flavours and aromas in the wine itself.

“The on-trade has an essential role in educating consumers about wine and supporting the transition towards sustainability. But first, they need to learn for themselves.” 

Vivant is currently running five to six experiences per day, with the platform’s bespoke Interactive Tasting Method and Experience Kits delivered worldwide. It has just passed its 200th session since its launch in December 2020.

Wine Cab – bringing robotic automation to the hotel and restaurant industries

Computer technology isn’t the only area in which the US leads. It has been at the forefront of robotics largely thanks to the automotive industry, though others are now edging to the fore, including wine. 

Having developed products for the automotive, healthcare and consumer goods industries, among others, New York-based Calvary Robotics founder and entrepreneur Mark Chaney has now turned his hand to enhancing the “space, security and management of wine collections” of the hotel and restaurant industries with his futuristic wine management system.

Using a high-speed seven-axis industrial robotic arm, Wine Cab not only acts as a virtual sommelier, capable of tracking inventory and ordering replacement stock, it also can also select and present bottles in under 15 seconds.

“Wine Cab is not necessarily designed to replace human labour, but they could free up staff to handle more customer-oriented tasks and help increase efficiency,” says Chaney. “From an aesthetic point of view, Wine Cab also gives restaurateurs the opportunity to display their collection for guests to see, rather than hiding them in a cellar or storage room.

“Once hidden away, wine cellars have now come above ground and become centre stage. Wine Cab models allow owners, chefs and restaurateurs to display their collection of up to 600 bottles and to integrate seamlessly into any environment, circumventing the need for a traditional cellar.” 

Chaney says he set out with the intention of marrying Old World tradition with robotic innovation, while introducing robotics into businesses in an organic way. 

Yahyn and Tastry – combining technology and wine curation

With so-called ‘virtual sommeliers’ on the rise, offering everything from advice on cocktail recipes to food-matching options, two US-based companies are now aiming to take this one step further by using data to accurately match consumers’ taste preferences with their ideal wine. 

The partnership brings together the online wine delivery services of Yahyn with Tastry – a sensory sciences company that uses artificial intelligence to create “meaningful relationships between wineries and consumers”. 

The aim is all about improving the wine-buying experience by being able to recommend a wine that is specifically based on a person’s unique preferences.

Though personalised recommendations have long been the bailiwick of sommeliers, the two companies say they can accurately predict preferences via an intensive data matrix of tastes put together by Tastry founder Katerina Axelsson, a California chemistry undergraduate who has been credited with teaching a computer how to “taste” wine. 

She says: “There is a shift underway in the sales and marketing paradigm for sensory-based consumables. The status quo has always been ‘buy-it and try-it’. But the younger generations are increasingly rejecting this paradigm. They do not think they should have to pay for anything they don’t like. On the contrary, they expect relevant, hyper-personalised recommendations, and they expect them to be accurate. We need look no further than the development and manufacturing revolutions in entertainment, gaming, makeup, and clothing.