As a software engineer at Apple and as an investment strategist at Goldman Sachs, Alex Fishman made very good money, which he spent at some of the world's nicest restaurants. But one moment reliably brought dread.
"Being handed the wine list is the worst moment," Fishman says. "Most of the time I hope there's a sommelier, and they can pick the wine. But there are times when I have to--though I usually try to refuse."
A crippling lack of knowledge about vintages, tannins, and terroir is absolutely a first-world problem, and Fishman is the first to admit it. But upon leaving his next job, at government contractor Palantir--which uses data-fusion platforms to assist government and private companies in fighting crime, terror, and fraud--Fishman knew he wanted to start a company aimed at consumers. He also knew he wanted to take some of Palantir's principles with him.
"Part of what makes Palantir so successful and such a special company is that it's comprised of all these smart people only motivated by the success of the mission," says Fishman, who is pictured above. "If we could keep our borders safe and we could make our big institutions function better, we can also make it easier to enjoy life."
Fishman turned to the tech-averse wine industry, deciding that, as he says, "we want to make the world a more delicious place."
Fishman started building his wine app, which he called Delectable, in September of 2012, initially crafting it as a personal journal tool for wines that aficionados had tasted and wanted to remember. Soon, he built in social layers, hired top programming talent, and raised roughly $6 million in venture capital investment from an esteemed panel of entrepreneurs--including Joe Lonsdale of Palantir, David Sacks of Yammer, Max Levchin of Slide, and Gary Vaynerchuk, whose motormouthed tasting videos for Wine Library first made him famous--to expand the app's scope and audience.
On June 19, the new 4.0 version of the Delectable app is being debuted. An app update is rarely cause for celebration, but there's something pretty cool going on here.
On the surface, the app features a reworked user interface, new social-interaction tools (users can follow and read recommendations from not just their friends but also their favorite sommeliers and chefs), and--most impressively--instant-image recognition.
From a user perspective, it feels a little magical to open the new version of the app, snap a photo of the bottle of wine you're drinking, and, by the time you've set the bottle down, the app has identified the winemaker, place of origin, and vintage of your beverage--and then shows you what other people who drank it have thought of it.
Yes, a little wine social network has totally nailed fast image identification and built a back-end library on the basis of it.
Says the reliably amped-up Vaynerchuk: "Are you kidding? Two-point-five-second recognition? That's just sick."
Vaynerchuk says the company's main hurdle is competition. Delectable isn't the only company trying to carve out a new market in the wine space. The app Vivino, by a startup based in Copenhagen, Denmark, also does quick wine-bottle identification, as does Drync, another popular app created by a Boston-based team.
Fishman says the inspiration for building a superstrong tech back end for his app was the wine industry itself. He and his team, early on, interviewed sommeliers and small winemakers in Napa and Sonoma, a quick drive from the company's San Francisco headquarters. Yes, a bunch of San Francisco engineers went to learn from an industry that, at is heart, is built on purists proudly allergic to technology.
"Wine is complicated," Fishman says. "Our job as technologists is not to dumb it down; it's to make the complexity approachable. I learned accuracy is something winemakers and sellers will also not give you any leeway on."
Fishman and his team--which numbered about a dozen--set out to not piss off their core audience of industry insiders by making an app with technology so smooth they wouldn't feel it. They've also built an expansive library of millions of wine labels and user reviews.
"We ended up building the first version of our app for them," Fishman says. "Then we thought we'd universalize it for everybody. Version 4.0 is taking this product and making it so everyone can use it."
If Delectable seems like a narrow business, consider the lines of revenue, current and potential. There's e-commerce (currently, app users can order bottles or cases with a few taps), and there's the potential to leverage the influencer voices on the app (including sommelier Michael Madrigale of Bar Boulud and Richard Betts of My Essential Wine) as well as a Big Data play. Would you expect anything less from a Palantir alum?
"We are increasingly a data provider for the industry," Fishman says. "Obviously, respecting the privacy of users is of utmost importance to us, but there are really interesting things we can do around data here."
Suddenly, the wine industry isn't looking so change averse--and you can raise a glass to that.