Fossett’s cellar at the touch of a screen

“The wave of the future.” That’s what Keswick Hall sommelier Richard Hewitt calls Fossett’s new iPad-based wine list. (Photo by Jon-Philip Sheridan)

A 100-year-old estate with a croquet lawn and a snooker room isn’t where you’d expect to be handed an iPad when being seated for dinner, but Keswick Hall’s gone new school, taking Fossett’s leather-bound tome of a wine list digital.

Sommelier Richard Hewitt and his team started the project last September to “innovate and expand the guest experience at Keswick.” Not that any diner, no matter how regular, could ever tire of Hewitt’s 750-label list that wins an award of excellence from Wine Spectator every year, but they wanted to be the digital forerunner in an otherwise analog arena. Being able to educate yourself and explore a list in depth at the touch of a finger is what Hewitt calls with a laugh “the wave of the future!”

Once Keswick settled on a company to do the programming (they consulted with four), they supplied a spreadsheet listing each wine with its price and bin number. The tech company then added the wines’ descriptions and labels. Three partially programmed iPads arrived in January, but with another 100 entries to make for beer, cocktails, and after-dinner drink selections, it’s only been in the past month that the gadgets have been making the rounds in the bar and dining room at Fossett’s. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Guests who are iPad literate especially like using them and it’s been hard prying them away!” said Hewitt. But even the media shy are finding them easy to navigate. And because the devices are blocked from any surfing beyond the list, there’s no need to wonder if your companion’s tweeting during dinner.

I had fun scrolling through the list that’s first organized into seven categories: 1) By-the-glass/Half-bottles, 2) Champagne/Sparkling, 3) White and Rosé, 4) Red, 5) Richard’s Picks, 6) Cocktails/Beers, 7) Dessert Selections (Madeira/Port). After choosing from this menu, I could home in on my preferred wine by selecting a region, varietal, or price. From there, I could get even more specific if, say, I selected Pinot Noir and then wanted it to come from the Cote de Nuit in Burgundy. I clicked on the vintage and found out what else happened on that year in history. If I’d been trying to decide between a few options, I could have created a consideration list to simultaneously compare the profiles of several wines. Currently, only about half of the selections include a complete description and label, but it’s a work in progress to which Keswick’s devoted.

“People want to be in control of what they order and how they order it,” said Rick Butts, Keswick’s general manager, who also finds that the iPad experience removes a lot of the intimidation that is too often associated with ordering wine at restaurants. Guests can find a price that fits their budget without having to point or whisper to a sommelier, and then can simply hand their server the device displaying their selection without butchering the Premier Cru’s pronunciation. It also means that the server is more likely to return with the correct bottle since they have a label to refer to when fetching it from the dark cellar.

Forms of interactive wine lists began appearing at restaurants in bigger markets as early as 2001, but it was the release of the iPad in April 2010 that accelerated the trend. Now, just two years later, more than a dozen technology companies are dedicated to digital wine list software and programming. Their two most persuasive sales pitches come in two shades of green. Environmentally, it saves paper. Economically, it increases wine sales by 15-25 percent. It’s all too soon for Hewitt to speak in numbers, but he has noticed that diners using the iPads are unearthing much more unusual bottles. “I walk away thinking, ‘Wow, I haven’t sold one of those in a while!’” he said.

But does having a virtual sommelier at your fingertips mean that the flesh-and-blood ones will become redundant? “Diners will always ask for Richard—he is beloved by so many customers,” said Butts. With a quarter century of experience as a sommelier, fluency in several languages, and a published book to his credit, he could probably tell you what happened in a given year in history just as well as that iPad. Besides, someone’s still got to open the wine.