- The Washington Times - Monday, July 27, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — Building it took eight months and the combined brainpower of math, code and food-and-wine geeks.

The result is a new computer-generated wine pairing service that developers say uses cutting-edge technology to answer an age-old question: What wine to serve with dinner?

“We think it’s going to be tremendously helpful for people,” says James Oliver Cury, executive editor of food recipe site Epicurious.com, which recently partnered with wine database Snooth to add the pairing suggestions to thousands of its recipes.

The recommendations are based on an algorithm that involved breaking down the recipes into hundreds of categories, including flavor profiles, ingredients and preparation techniques.

Among other things, the algorithm looks for words in proximity. Boiled beef with baked potatoes, for instance, is not the same as baked beef with boiled potatoes.

Pairings are listed at the bottom of recipes, along with the price of the wine — the majority are under $20. Clicking on photos of the bottle or label brings up reviews and shopping information.

But can an algorithm replace the human touch in the very subjective decision of what wine to have with dinner?

Not really, says master sommelier Geoff Kruth, wine director of the Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley. The trouble with software pairings, he says, is that they only factor in the food.

“Just as much of the wine and food pairing is about the person that’s drinking it,” he says.

Mr. Kruth says he looked at a few Epicurious recipes and found several recommendations for Oregon pinot noirs. Not a bad choice, but one that made him wonder about the scope of the recommendations. “It seemed there were a lot of the same styles of wine that were repeated,” he says.

Snooth CEO Philip James says there was an effort to come up with wines that are widely available, but he notes there are multiple recommendations for each dish, with some wines being more esoteric choices for the adventurous.

Beyond that, he says, there was a concerted effort to base recommendations on the expertise of real-life experts.

“It was important for me to get across that we were not building a sentient, thinking machine. This is not the Terminator,” he says. “This is basically cracking open the heads of the finest food and wine critics that we could find and basically scooping their brains out and putting them into a database.”

On the plus side, Mr. Kruth likes the way the system gets people talking about wine options.

“Things like that are exciting because they can lead consumers to try things that they otherwise wouldn’t have tried. I like that people are thinking about food-and-wine pairings,” he says.

New York-based Snooth (the name is derived from a town in Mr. James‘ native Cornwall in the south of England) is an interactive database of wines with more than 500,000 monthly users. Snooth doesn’t sell wine directly but provides access to a network of more than 11,000 merchants.

Epicurious has more than 25,000 professionally tested recipes as well as 75,000 member-submitted dishes. Pairings will be available for the tested recipes, except for breakfasts and meals labeled as kid-friendly.

A recipe for grilled chicken breasts with honeydew salsa, for instance, yielded a dozen wine recommendations, including some roses and chardonnays, as well as grenache, a red wine.

The wine recommendations also have an advertising component in which companies can be showcased as the “featured partner.” However, Mr. Cury says, such matches always will be clearly marked as ads and will be appropriate for the recipe.

Although the service has been launched, Mr. Cury says, improvements will continue to be made. User comments also probably will influence adjustments.

Mr. Cury concedes that trying to turn computer code into a connoisseur was daunting.

“It’s hard enough to get wine experts to agree on what one wine or even kind of wine might pair with a particular dish. How are you going to create an automated way to do this for 25,000 recipes?” Ms. Cury says. “That was the challenge that Snooth, with our coordination, was able to meet.”

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