Scotty Johnson was the owner of French gastropub Modus when his future love and business partner walked in the door.
Like all of Deborah Braun's male prospects, she put Johnson through a personality exam, or a "screening test," she said.
“Sure enough, it nailed me," he said. "The first thought after reading it was, could we build one of these for wine?”
The certified sommelier was frustrated over watching customers stumble on their words as they tried to explain what they’d like in their glass of wine.
“I thought it would be great to reverse engineer a personality exam in a bottle. Stop the consumer from having to guess," Johnson said.
With a doctorate in organizational psychology under Braun's belt, combined with Johnson's wine expertise, they were the perfect pair to create what is now a soon-to-be released app for wine newbies, called BottleJoy.
Braun diagnosed the problem they were trying to solve as the "wall of wonder" effect, or when consumers stare blindly at what’s before them when they shop for wine or have to select one from a menu.
“So many people enjoy wine but most don’t know enough about it to be able to articulate what they like in bottle A versus bottle B,” Braun said.
Johnson sold his Bankers Hill restaurant in 2009, and the new duo spent nine months researching and building a business plan.
BottleJoy’s goal is to match what people like in a specified wine, then predict what they might like in future bottles. That meant breaking down each bottle into different attributes, such as cherry, cedar and smoke.
It was easier said than done.
“We had to develop this massive database – not just a pretty interface," he said.
They tapped Scott Krawitz, chief talent officer at technical placement firm PM Talent Global, as their chief technology officer. He was able to cherry-pick the best resources to build out BottleJoy’s platform.
A team of trained sommeliers, subject matter experts and wine pros were tasked with populating the system by giving each wine a two-part assessment for aroma and palate.
The laborious process took a year to narrow down about 810 attributes that the industry accepts as definitions and enter them into a massive database.
Anything with a numeric value -- including alcohol, pH or sugar levels -- are held absolute.
“But for fruit, there’s no numeric value to fruit. You have to create that from the assessment,” Braun said.
The app can be tweaked as different words are incorporated and adopted into the wine language.
“As younger critics come on they start using different terms than those from Robert Parker’s era,” said Johnson.
Parker, the 65-year-old U.S. wine critic who rates wines on a 100-point scale, is retiring from the business. BottleJoy decided to stay away from the traditional points rating system.
“What is the difference between a 99-point wine and 100-point wine to the average consumer? It’s irrelevant,” said Johnson.
A dark bottle with a picture of a bird and a points scale doesn’t provide much insight.
“When you are making purchase anywhere between $8 and hundreds of dollars, it’s really frustrating to people these days when other information is so widely available to people,” said Krawitz.
The BottleJoy app will officially launch in the first quarter of 2013. The app is in beta testing mode at Wine Steals Point Loma.
BottleJoy-enabled locations will be marked with logos on the front of the restaurant and menus.
When a user walks into a location, they can pull up the app, hit "what’s here," and BottleJoy will list wines on inventory and rank them by most liked, with price points. About two months after the launch, the app will be able to start ranking wines based on the person’s palate style and similarity score.
The first core locations will be at Wine Steals Point Loma, Wine Steals Hillcrest, C Level and 100 Wines, with 20 other smaller restaurants willing to deploy it.
The goal of the app is rather simple: to give a compass to consumers. They will either see a wine that classifies as a "BottleJoy," which accounts for what they like in a bottle; a close match, which is in the realm of what they like; branching out, which is leaving their comfort zone; and then a total departure.
The user will build a personalized user profile, but it won’t churn out a perfect wine match every time.
The app can gather additional data on consumer use by tracking predictions versus the actual actions of the user.
“Say we tell the user we think you will really like this and they try it and don’t like it. We can take that into consideration when tuning the algorithm going forward,” said Krawitz.
Quality metrics will be mined from the database of users, tracking how many of a user’s friends within their social network have liked the bottle and how many people with a similar palate style have given it a stamp of approval.
“We are giving confidence to the consumer when they make decisions,” said Krawitz. “People are educated in so many other areas of life but have little confidence when it comes to wine. It’s shrouded by obtuse language and information.”
There are currently 1,000 wines registered in the app, and that number grows every day as more certified taste leaders come on board to populate the system.
From a sales perspective, it reduces the amount of language and work necessary for restaurants trying to sell wine. BottleJoy has held training meetings with Wine Steals staff to educate them how to use the app and communicate with patrons on how to use it.
Beta testing is tracking upticks in sales of certain wines.
"We will have real actionable data to show other retailers," said Johnson.
The app gives the restaurant valuable data about users, their preferences and wines that are trending.
“The average restaurateur may be able to cook great food but is not a wine expert," said Johnson. "Sales staff is not educated to sell wine and everyone gets the same brand names.”
Users might even learn a thing or two about their taste preferences along the way, like the fact they gravitate toward higher alcoholic wines.
“The beauty of the app is it effectively becomes a learning tool for the wine drinker,” Braun said.
Braun typically doesn’t like super sweet wines. While one wine may be a close match, the app will tell her if its sugar levels are high.
"It’s giving you more information than what is currently available on a wine list or even if you talk to the wine guy or waiter. He may say, ‘I love it,’ but he has different palate style,” she said.
Instead of words, descriptions rely on color coding. A video game-like interface lets users pick their own characters.
“It’s very visual. Our target market is the younger, new drinker that’s been playing video games," said Johnson. "You can easily assimilate the information.”
Users can buy wine bottles directly though the app from participating wineries in quantities of three, six and 12-packs. Regulatory compliance is built in, and wine gets delivered to their door.
“The biggest missed opportunity for wineries is to capture that random tasting at a dinner party, a date, at the moment. Right now no one is really trying to capture and figure out the mobile technology space,” said Johnson.
Once users find what they like, they can use that wine to represent a palate-style benchmark, or a “needle in a haystack” of tastings.
The app also solves the problem of remembering which wine you ordered and liked, instead of haphazardly documenting the bottle via a photo.
“This is clear cut. You can get in touch with the winery and have it shipped to your door five days later,” Braun said.
There’s a “favorite” function on the app, letting users file favored wines into a separate list. That list will be posted onto the user’s Facebook profile, offering a go-to reference when buying them a gift, for example.
Integrating social media has three benefits: the wine gets exposure, friends know what you like and the app gets exposure.
“Other apps out there are really just touching the surface. We are going much deeper as far as helping people understand what’s truly in the wine,” said Krawitz.
Some apps create mini-assessments for taste and palate. One has a rudimentary questionnaire that asks whether users like coffee or salt, for example.
“That is really a limited way of looking at what is going to help people determine what they like in a bottle because wine is a complex, organic living system," Braun said. "In order to break it down you have to do a full-scale research study with statistics behind it to determine what people would like."
The app is free for restaurants to deploy and free for consumers to download. BottleJoy makes money on sales inside the app and on its website, which will have a full e-commerce function.
Data about what’s preferred locally and around the world is sold back to distributors and wineries.
"We are able to see wine trending before people are placing orders. So the wineries can then make decisions where to store wine to reduce costs and increase profitability,” said Johnson.
The expansion plan is to target cities that aren’t wine centric, like Sacramento, Atlanta and Scottsdale, Ariz.
“Areas people like wine but aren’t known for their wine intelligence,” Braun said.
The focus is on San Diego for the first six months, with the goal of getting BottleJoy in the vast majority of local restaurants.
In a year, they hope to have 100,000 users and a grassroots expansion into the nearby Los Angeles and Orange County markets. Integrating big box stores with a national presence, like BevMo, Total Wine & More, Costco, Trader Joe’s, is also in the works.
Strategic partnerships with retailers in New York and Brooklyn are in place.
“They are ready to be on board when we have the resources to spread out,” Braun said.
On the consumer side, the mobile app lets users conjugate the language of wine, understand their palate and share their preferences in the social media realm.
Wineries, distributors and retailers benefit from sales. The company has been working with the under-the-radar wineries in Baja California's Guadalupe Valley to help gain visibility in markets like San Diego.
“We’ve built a platform that is a customer preference engine on one side, and a direct-to-consumer sales and marketing side on the other. It can translate to additional verticals,” said Krawitz.
Craft beer, for example, is on the road map.
Making the sell to the distributor and convincing them the data will increase their profitability and sales is key.
“If a distributor says no, the winery will say no. Wineries will never do anything to disrupt the relationship with distributors. That is how they guarantee they move the product,” she said.
That’s where novice wine apps go wrong: they don’t keep the industry in mind.
“You can’t break those channels. You have to work through them and in them to be successful,” Braun said.
So far, BottleJoy is self-funded, with a small round from friends and family. The goal is to get traction and attract smart capital to penetrate more markets and add teams to other cities.
The company made its San Diego debut at Innovation Night at La Jolla Playhouse in early December, a gathering of top thinkers in technology and biotech.
“It shows that Innovation Night does bring innovation to different venues, including wine,” said Krawitz. “Innovation is when you create something no one knew they wanted but then they have to have. The industry doesn’t know it needs this information yet."