Wine Demon (or WineDemon, as they style it, the old spacephobes) is a newish app from the people behind Naked Wines, the online wine retailer. The aim is to become something like the TripAdvisor (fellow spacephobics) of wine, creating a single place where millions of people can find millions of reviews of millions of wines. In doing so, they want to cure “restaurant-wine-list-phobia”, to put an end to “supermarket-special-offer-bafflement” and to banish “what-was-that-lovely-bottle-itus”.
This is how it should work: when you try a wine, you rate it. When you need to find out if a wine is any good, say in an unfamiliar shop with no useful staff, or in a restaurant, you can search for it and read everyone else’s ratings. These may guide you to an unknown gem, which in turn would enormously impress your date, if you have one, or warn you away from a disaster.
Let’s start with rating your own wine. This, I like. It’s very easy to find your wine on their system, and impressive how frequently they already list even my more obscure selections (even if I’m often the first to actually review them). If you can’t be bothered searching their system, or if you’ve got a wine which isn’t there and don’t want the faff of inputting all the information (not such a strenuous task, really – they only want the basics), you can just take a picture of the label and the magic elves at WineDemon HQ will do it for you. You can give it a simple rating out of 10 (it’s out of five really, but you can use half-marks), or you can add a more detailed tasting note. This is all good (though I’d like to be able to input where I bought a wine, whether I’m drinking it at home or at a restaurant).
It’s when it comes to looking at other people’s wine reviews that the first problems crop up. And this is key, because if the searchable database of reviews can’t produce meaningful data, the app is fatally flawed.
I think the major problem is this: people like wine. A lot of people aren’t very fussy about it – they just like a glass of something wet and alcoholic at the end of the day – and like pretty much anything vinous. This is Yellow Tail’s business model. But this means that, however hard some wines try, it’s actually pretty difficult to get a bad average review. However, people who consider themselves wine buffs are a different matter. This hard-to-please bunch are always liable to give even very decent wines a disappointing score if they don’t quite hit the mark. Let’s call these two groups of people Type A’s (love anything) and Type B’s (very fussy). Only Type A’s will drink the likes of Blossom Hill, so the cheaper, lower-end wines will always get pretty good reviews. Only Type B’s will drink Chateau Lafite, so the posh stuff is always liable to be marked down on technicalities. This presents some reliability issues with the ratings. Let’s look at some examples:
• Yellow Tail shiraz: 85% of 157 Demons liked it, average review 3.5/5
• Chateau d’Yquem: 81% of 143 Demons liked it, average review 3.5/5
• Gallo Family cabernet sauvignon: 88% of 43 Demons liked it, average review 3.5/5
• d’Arenberg The Dead Arm shiraz: 54% of 31 Demons liked it, average review 3.5/5
Jacob’s Creek sparkling shiraz: 84% of 100 Demons liked it, average review 3.5/5
Bollinger Grande Annee: 73% of 122 Demons liked it, average review 3.5/5
Berberana Rioja Reserva: 83% of 117 Demons liked it, average review 3.5/5
Rioja Alta Gran Reserva 904: 80% of 137 Demons liked it, average review 3.5/5
As you can see, according to WineDemon’s rating system Yellow Tail shiraz is better than Chateau d’Yquem, while the Dead Arm shiraz, one of Australia’s highest-rated exports, is less popular than Gallo cabernet sauvignon. If you want a sparkler you’re better off with Jacob’s Creek fizzy shiraz than Bollinger Grande Annee, and for Rioja you should choose Berberana’s reserva (“half price” at Tesco’s as I write, at £6.99) over Rioja Alta’s £40+ Gran Reserva 904.
(The first version of WineDemon had a glitch that led to fewer people “liking” top wines than there should have been, but I’m told it has been fixed)
There’s a chance that they already have a way to solve this problem: it is possible to rate other reviewers, meaning that at some point in the future you could restrict results to just, say, the 10% most trusted reviewers. But you’d be needing the same people who’s ratings skew the system to be more discerning in their selection of reviewers, and I don’t see how you could possibly be confident of that. Or you could see who has reviewed your chosen wine and trust only the people you’ve heard of, though this relies on you having heard of rather a lot of people. It is apparently possible to automatically find users who you follow on Twitter, and to prioritise out their reviews, though I haven’t been able to get this feature to work.
As an aside, clearly the WineDemons needed quite a lot of reviews to get their app up and running. To encourage this, they offered free Naked Wine wine to prolific reviewers. When word got out about this offer, hundreds of people logged on and gave random marks to random wines until they’d built up enough credit to go shopping. They didn’t get their wine – it’s bizarre that any of them really expected the offer to be honoured in those circumstances – but they did leave a hell of a mess. I’m told the unreliable reviews have all been removed.
I’m finding WineDemon a great place to put my own wine reviews, allowing me to easily fish them out again at a moment’s notice, along with a picture of the label, to cure my own what-was-that-lovely-bottle-itus. But I fear that anyone relying on the community’s reviews to help them out with an unfathomable wine list would probably be better off just closing their eyes and picking something at random.
I’ll keep using it for to review wine, and I’ll keep checking the average scores optimistically. Perhaps TripAdvisor also went through this phase, and with time, and with lots more reviews, WineDemon will become a more reliable source of recommendations. And perhaps Yellow Tail really is better than Yquem – I don’t believe I’ve ever tried either.