Do you really want to put an Enomatic machine in your restaurant? You know, that romance-killing stainless steel wine cage that spits out three-ounce pours with grace of a soap dispenser?
It's not that I don't understand the impetus for the investment; I do. There are real benefits to these machines, but there are also a lot of hidden asterisks that aren't talked about nearly enough. They are not the foolproof saviors of wine spoilage. They are only as smart as the people who operate them.
Though wine preservation systems have been around since the late 1970s, Enomatic was the first automated system and, along with their rival Napa Technologies, they've responsible for a fairly recent surge in the popularity of preservation systems in bars, restaurants, and retail stores. According to Clay Sheff, the managing director of Sheff Imports, the company that handles the distribution of Enomatic in the Northeast, the brand saw a spike in sales in 2009, followed by a steady increase in sales since then.
But the public and the wine industry seem divided. In a poll conducted back in 2009, Eater LA asked readers if they were for or against the Enomatic trend; a strong majority was against it. Judging by the small sample of sommeliers and wine drinkers I spoke with, again the majority expressed dissatisfaction or skepticism. A few of the sommeliers that were not for wine preservation systems were still quick to acknowledge the impact of these machines on wine programs.
"Love or hate it, we wouldn't have seen the development of wide by-the-glass programs in the late '80s and early '90s without these machines," says Levi Dalton, a longtime sommelier and the host of the I'll Drink to That! podcast.
Dalton recalled his experiences coming up as a sommelier in his 20s observing the older generation plotting to develop the first expansive, high-end by-the-glass programs in the 1980s, when both Cruvinet and WineKeeper where coming onto the scene. In his estimation no one thought it was possible before wine preservation systems. Whether or not it worked wasn't important, he says. It provided was a sense of security.
There's no doubt that they surely helped pave the way to higher-end by-the-glass programs, but there are practical issues with the system that make me wonder whether, despite the current popularity and demand for automatic preservation systems from the likes of Enomatic and Napa Technologies, they will ultimately prove to be a isolated trend rather than the new normal.
Man or Machine?
Daniel Johnnes, the wine director for Daniel Boulud's Dinex Group, which includes some of the country's most revered, high-end wine programs, said that he's tired of technology and toys in restaurants.
"I believe in the human touch and good training on how to pour and manage inventory," he says. "I never liked wine preservation systems because if you have to worry about keeping your wine fresh for three or four days then the wine isn't selling or you aren't selling it effectively."
Bernie Sun, the wine director for all of the Jean Georges restaurants worldwide, more or less echoed Johnnes' point. He's never felt compelled to look into the systems because the inventory in each of the restaurants is tailored to move quickly enough that preserving wines for a prolonged period isn't necessary.
The first real consideration is whether or not these systems are necessary, even in fine dining restaurants with high-end glass pours. Outside of the four-star establishments, wine lists are getting smaller and the economy has prompted diners and restaurateurs to rethink the idea of a $50 glass of wine.
Of course, there are still restaurants that seek to have high-end beverage programs but don't have the steady stream of clientele that the Jean Georges and Boulud restaurants enjoy. They need something that can preserve expensive wines so there isn't financial waste, but does the machine just create a different, and perhaps greater, financial burden? These automated machines can range from $10,000 to over $100,000 plus the cost of maintenance, which raises questions about the ease with which a restaurateur can really recoup that cost with the smaller margins he or she will likely have on high-end glass pours. Hiring a great sommelier that knows how to structure a wine program, as Johnnes suggests, is perhaps a better investment.
"If you asked people who have an Enomatic if they would buy one again, the majority would say they wouldn't and that they're still paying for it," says Brian Smith, the owner of Loca Linda wines and the former wine director at a New York wine bar (which has since closed) that served 90 wines out of Enomatic.
Not-So-Magical Answer To Wine Waste
According to Smith—who liked the Enomatic for its ability to allow the bar to pour vintage wines by the glass—to really make your money back on a machine like the Enomatic you have to have a specific balance of volume, a sort of Goldilocks "not too busy, but busy enough" flow. He also started to realize that some wines just don't hold up as well as others in the machine.
"You have to have the right wine," says Smith. "For example, 1997 Dalle Valle Cabernet worked because it was big enough that a small amount of oxygen could get in and it will still work for a few days."
But Enomatic claims on its website that it "prevents wine from being altered by oxygen and protects its organoleptic integrity (taste, aroma, body, and color) for 30 days or more."
That's a big claim particularly when you consider all of the factors—from cleaning to loading to variations in age of wine and style—that can significantly alter the validity of those promises. These machines aren't the magical answer to wine waste like many people expect them to be; they require close monitoring and quality control.
Of course, at restaurants without Enomatic machines wines get served at less than optimal condition due to human oversight. But a very expensive machine that promises to cure the ills of wine waste — but still relies on humans to do so — doesn't exactly seem like a solution with staying power. Perhaps I am wrong. There are plenty of restaurants and wine bars that use these machines and customers that continue to be impressed. But you can't trust that just because a wine is behind the stainless steel and glass wall and pumped with argon that that wine is sound. Oxygen still impacts the wine and there's no guarantee that the machine has been properly cleaned and maintained.
So, excuse me if I wonder about your $110 one-ounce taste of 1996 Petrus served out of an Enomatic. I am all for businesses finding the best way to allow customers to taste wines they might not otherwise be able to, but there are practical concerns that make these machines not quite as valuable or foolproof as they claim to be.
"I'm just not hitting my button and turning my chair around for it," says Smith. "You know?"