Gimmick Or Godsend?

  • Wednesday 28 March 2007

Is your wine collection scattered far and wide, meaning you can never find the right bottle at the right time? Cellar management programs are touted as the perfect solution. Margaret Rand puts them through their paces

First of all I suppose I should come clean. I am not a computer lover. I use a computer all day and every day, but I do not love it in the way that I love my books, for example. It’s a tool. On the other hand I find it well-nigh impossible to remember what wines I have bought, what I have drunk and where most of them actually are. Forget about leaving wine undisturbed; mine gets regularly shaken up as it gets yanked out of the rack and shoved back in as I hunt for that elusive Hunter Semillon that should be ready, if not past it.

In other words it seems to me that I am a pretty good target audience for anyone wanting to sell cellar management software. At the heart of all these programs, you see, is database software. This consists of a screen where you enter the details of each wine in your collection: Latour 1961, Mouton 1945, and so on (I wish). You put in such information as what you paid for it, when you bought it, and perhaps where it is in your cellar. You add new wines as you buy them, and tell the computer when you drink them. Most programs can tell you, accurately or not, when the wine is at its peak. There may be a food and wine matching section, though these are seldom much use.

You can search the database for all those forgotten wines that need drinking, or for wines approaching their peak or made pre-2000 that will go with Dover sole, or whatever. There may be an online facility for updates and even information-sharing with other users; there may also be an encyclopedia section to the program, with information on producers and regions, maps, vintage charts and the like.

But having investigated what’s available, I’m less certain who these programs are aimed at. Are they for wine buffs or computer buffs? It’s an important question since, as Olivier Humbrecht MW of Zind-Humbrecht points out, if all you want to do is keep track of your cellar, straightforward Microsoft Excel software will do the job perfectly well, without the outlay.

Andreas Larssen, Le Meilleur Sommelier d’Europe 2004, agrees: ‘My 3,000-bottle cellar, with around 500 different wines, is quite easy to manage with just a normal Excel formula and pen and paper.’

It is, however, a question that arises more readily in Britain than on the other side of the Atlantic. Richard Ward of Saintsbury believes that Americans are far more likely to use modern technology to manage their wine collections, because wine is as new to them as the technology. (Ward himself doesn’t use software: ‘I drink it as fast as I buy it and never quite get to the place where the accumulation curve is steeper than the consumption curve.’) It could be that the very idea of a program which combines a DIY database – DIY even if you scan wines in and out with a barcode scanner, as you can with most – with a wine encyclopedia of some sort, is already looking outdated.

Keeping up to date

What we’re seeing now is imaginative thinking that organises your cellar for you, and offers other services as well. www.vinfolio.com will come to your house and do an inventory for you, which you then keep updated with barcode scanning. It helps if you live in the US, of course: this is a US-based company which will travel internationally if you ask it nicely. It was about to launch some software at the time of writing.

Or there’s Vintrust (www.vintrust.com), a San Francisco-based online cellar management and storage system, with some pretty fancy add-ons: one of 25 sommeliers is assigned to you to advise – on what to drink when, with what, what to sell, what to buy – and if you get your wine buys shipped to Vintrust’s premises, it will inventory them for you and store them until you want them; you manage it all online. It will even pick up wine for you, from wineries or retailers in northern California. It will come to your house to do your inventory there if you want, and because it is website-based rather than client-based there’s no software to download: you have an online account and you can manage it from any computer, anywhere. So far it has 2,500 clients, with an average cellar size of about 800 bottles. It already has centres in New York and New Jersey, and plans to open in four more US cities in 2007; expansion into Europe is scheduled for 2008.

ESommelier (www.eSommelier.net) is different again: it comes with its own monitor, with software already installed. You do your database yourself on a touch-screen from a prompted list of 150,000 options, typing in any that aren’t there, plus your own notes, and you can plug in a barcode printer and scanner.

For some reason the cellar management systems produced, perhaps as part of wine companions, by leading critics (Robert Parker and James Halliday, for example) are no longer made. ‘We’re hoping to revive it in the not too distant future, because everyone asks us for it,’ says Halliday.

Given that all one needs is a database, there seems little point in having to buy an encyclopedia section, usually full of mistakes and mis-used apostrophes (sorry, apostrophe’s). Permit me, as an aside, demonstrate what is wrong with these encyclopedia sections.

The Uncorked Cellar (www.uncork.biz), when you click on what should be a map of Germany, says it doesn’t have one: ‘If you can supply one we can use, please mail it to mail@uncork.biz.’ How sad is that? The same went for a map of Spain. The Uncorked Cellar also can’t spell French place names – ‘Aslace’, ‘Valee du Rhone’ – on maps. Its vintage ratings, at least on the demo version, were patchy and full of gaps. And it gives you a ready-made database of wines from around the world which contains such gems of information as ‘Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA produces wines from the France region.’ Better still is ‘Barton & Guestier Bordeaux produces wines from the Languedoc region.’ It’s a pity, because the database side of the program, of which more later, is impressive, and not amateurish at all.

The encyclopedia side of AvosVins (www.avosvins.ca) gives almost as poor an impression. Cellar! (www.cellarwinesoftware.com) gives you pronunciations, which are fun and accurate. But the art of pigeage becomes ‘pigeageo’, and Pedro Ximénez is a ‘Spanish producer of dark, sweet sherry’. And Bacchus (www.bacchusandcomus.com), which provides literate copy and sound information, simply gives you yard after yard after yard of it, with no concessions to snappiness, design or the extreme dullness of reading screeds of sans-serif type on screen.

The nitty-gritty

Okay, back to the databases, which are why we’re here in the first place. Here things get much, much better. The sections where you enter the details of your own wines – traditional cellar-book stuff, without the ink stains – are mostly effective and slick, though I found it very difficult to enter wines into the demo version of Bacchus.

The Uncorked Cellar, on the other hand, is good fun. You can wallow in your cellar with this – there are all sorts of charts that will tell you how many reds you’ve added, or whites you’ve uncorked in the last six months, or clarets you’ve drunk with lamb with your friends from down the road. It’s cellar porn, in a way. And while it’s a bit fiddly to find your way round, the instructions are good.

If you want an online facility as part of your program, look at Cellar! By buying this, in fact, the program promises that ‘you are not only purchasing a fine program, you are also entering into a wonderful, worldwide community of wine enthusiasts’. This may or may not make your heart sink. When you install it you get pre-installed web links and new links contributed by fellow users.

It aims for a community feel: you’re encouraged to share tasting notes and all sorts of information. It’s a lot of fun to use, though it’s probably the most complex of the programs I road tested and would take time to master.

Wine Cellar II (www.pmcs.co.nz) also has internet updates, with cellaring guidelines, retail prices and food matches, but as far as I could tell these come only from winery websites, and it’s very New Zealand-oriented. It has no built-in encyclopedia, which is no great loss. It does much the same job as AvosVins, though with a New Zealand slant.

AvosVins is efficient, but lacks the fun element. It’s relatively formal in approach, with good graphics, though a lot of grey. Again, you can share information with other users via the internet.

Much depends on one’s temperament. Do you want an online bulletin board, or do you regard those as the domain of weirdos? Do you want to play with it, or just use it as a workaday tool? If the latter, then The Personal Wine Curator (www.thewinecurators.com) is worth a look. It bills itself as ‘the simplest and most intuitive database for keeping track of any wine collection’ and it is, indeed, admirably simple and clear. It consists of database software which seems slick and effective, plus a food-and-wine-matching facility. One plus point for this programme is that you can download an existing database on Excel, Word, ‘or other text document’. The ’10 Cool Things’ it promises, though, turn out to be a bit daft, for example the option to ‘View a list of producers’.

Clarity and simplicity become but a happy memory when one turns to WineBase (www.winebase.com.au). Again, there’s a database, but what WineBase claims to be particularly good at is giving information on the maturity of your wines. Unfortunately what it’s not good at is expressing itself in English. Try this: ‘BestAt date: The crucial figure for WineBase is the BestAt date, as this is the basis of a lot searches. I say the basis because even though you can search for wines that peak (even though they don’t) in a particular year, you can also search for ‘a spread of years based on this figure. If you do as it suggests, and wade through pages of this sort of gibberish before you begin, the effect is an erosion of the will to live. There’s also a hideously complex list of icons, many of which resemble each other but do different things. I have no doubt it is technically extremely impressive, but I would rather go back to a quill pen and parchment than have to deal with such minutiae.

So what do other collectors do? I asked Hong Kong-based collector NK Yong, who has a bigger and better wine collection than most of us, what he uses, and his cellar management system is reassuringly straightforward: ‘I use my own adaptation of commercially available software, but now sadly obsolete and more or less no longer updated and upgraded. I have tried a couple of purpose-designed software progams – for example Parker’s cellar software – but I found the details needed there and the style too complicated and too laborious.

‘What you need is basic software that you can customise to your own needs. The actual basic information that needs to be recorded and automatically (almost) updated are: name of wine, grower, vintage, size; where bought, cost, quantity; where stored; if bought abroad, when shipped; when a bottle or bottles are consumed/given as a gift/sold; then a simple way of recording, which then automatically updates the inventory and shows the remaining stock; and last, a tasting note for each bottle consumed – desirable but not obligatory.’

So take a tip from an expert, and keep it simple. Be sceptical of add-ons, and don’t buy a lot of stuff you don’t need. And if you can’t find exactly what you want, bribe a computer-literate child to customise something for you.

The Best Of The Tests

Personal Wine Curator

(www.thewinecurators.com)

Mercifully easy and stress-free to use, and doesn’t have too much stuff you don’t need. Recommended. Good for

the computer semi-literate, and for the impatient.$34.95 8/10

Cellar! (www.cellarwinesoftware.com)

Online facility, good database, poor encyclopedia. The online facility is great if you like bulletin boards and chatrooms: no other program seems to offer as much contact with other users. If you want to keep yourself to yourself, look elsewhere. Good for wine nuts and bloggers with time on their hands. $49.95 downloaded, $59.95 for a disk. 8/10 for the database; 5/10 for the encyclopedia

The Uncorked Cellar (www.uncork.biz)

No online facility, good database, poor encyclopedia. Recommendable if you don’t mind having to buy the encyclopedia in order to get the database. Good for hardcore enthusiasts with plenty of reference books. From $95 7/10 for the database; 3/10 for the encyclopedia

The others:

AvosVins, CA$59.95 plus CA$9.95 p&p for a disk; Bacchus, from £29.95; WineBase: A$75; Wine Cellar II: £34.95, plus £2 p&p if posted.

eSommelier (www.eSommelier.net)

Not tested for reasons of logistics and price, but looks promising. From $5,000.

Vinfoli0 (www.vinfolio.com)

A company that inventories your wine. Check the website for new software. Prices depend on which services you use. Inventories cost $2.50 per bottle, including 2.5 hours per 1,000 bottles. Additional time charged at $40 per hour per person.

Vintrust (www.vintrust.com)

Online only. No software. Prices depend on which services you use. Inventories cost $2.50 per bottle, with a minimum fee of $150 per visit. There are extra costs outside northern California.

For more information on cellar management visit: www.decanter.com/manageyourcellar

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