South Florida’s high-end restaurants are beginning to embrace the iPad wine list trend, which should soon make leather-bound tomes with grease-stained pages obsolete. Mare Nostrum in Brickell; The Dome Restaurant, Bar, and Lounge in Coral Gables; Barton G; The Forge on the Beach; and Stéphane’s in Boca Raton are among the many restaurants that are implementing tablet systems.
Do these wine menus spell the end of the sommelier? While some restaurants are leaning on iPads to give customers more information, most industry pros don’t see them replacing the flesh-and-blood experts. “Restaurants with major wine programs need that person on staff. Without a sommelier, it would be like having a restaurant without a chef,” explains master sommelier Virginia Philip (one of only 21 women worldwide who hold that title).
Philip oversees the multimillion-dollar wine collection at The Breakers Palm Beach, and Stéphane’s, the contemporary French eatery slated to open later this summer in Boca Raton, has hired her to create its list; it will feature wine pairings for every dish on the menu, including specials. Philip likes that she can make changes immediately and remotely using the Tastevin app by Rottweiler. Stéphane’s executive chef John Belleme’s menu has a wide variety of flavors, and “guests will know a coconut curry works better with a Riesling, for example,” she says.
Dean Forst, a restaurant manager and sommelier of Mare Nostrum, near Brickell Avenue, likewise notes the ease of changing items daily using the wine list company Uncorked. “I can update it from my iPhone,” he explains.
“It has been life-changing, revolutionary,” says Barton G. Weiss, who uses tablets at his eponymous South Beach spot. He finds the electronic lists especially useful when keeping track of the ever-changing inventory. “We were reprinting them every day when we changed a label or added a bottle. These have paid for themselves just in paper costs alone,” says Weiss. Of course, he built 36- by 40-inch easel-like Plexiglas frames to keep customers from “putting them in their purse.”
Some smaller restaurants find the costs—several thousand dollars in hardware and software, as well as sometimes hundreds of dollars a month in maintenance fees—prohibitive. However, according to an article in Nation’s Restaurant News last year, many restaurants report increases in sales of 10 to 20 percent. Another benefit: Customers who have aged into reading glasses love that they can discreetly blow up the font size and see without flashlights.
In polyglot Miami, Rachel Dominguez, owner of Coral Gables’ Dome Restaurant, finds that having menus that can quickly switch to any of five languages is indispensable. (In addition to English and Spanish, options include French, Chinese, and Portuguese.) “People love having more information at their fingertips.”
In some cases, the experience extends beyond the table. At The Forge, its popular wine bar website links guests to the company’s Facebook page, Twitter feed, and blog, which is updated daily with new events and a “drink of the week.” Once in the restaurant, guests can use any of the eight iTouches attached to the enomatic wine-tasting machines and have a virtual encyclopedia at their disposal. The app also shows labels, suggests food pairings, and manages tasting notes for The Forge’s 750 wine labels.
But not everyone has embraced the innovation. Michael Schwartz, the James Beard Awardwinning chef and owner of Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink and Harry’s Pizzeria, admits his ambivalence. “It is sort of a distraction. It’s like being on your phone. I like it better as a backup tool for a somm for someone who might ask for more information on a wine or a region.”
Despite acknowledging the obvious advantages, self-described old-fashioned sommelier Tommaso Galdi from Altamare Restaurant says, “I love Apple and all kinds of electronic devices, but please—not on a restaurant table.”