Engineers make think of automation only on factory floors and production processes, but now it's now spreading to wine dispensing.
Over-the-counter wine sales are far from ideal, from both the seller's and the customer's point of view. Investing in a whole bottle can be quite a commitment in a bar, so wine tends to be dispensed by the glass - but this presents a problem. Even properly stoppered, an opened bottle keeps fresh for only a few days, as the air inside gradually oxidises the wine. It is therefore quite usual for wine to go to waste, making bar owners reluctant to offer a wider variety of more expensive tipples.
It's different in restaurants of course, where a table of diners can order bottles more easily - but there is still plenty of demand for wine by the glass. So here again freshness is an issue, as is restaurateurs' tendency to limit by-the-glass choice to the house red or white - the varying quality of which is the stuff of urban legend.
And what if it's a special occasion and you want to push the boat out? At the moment, many bars and restaurants would baulk at opening a bottle of quality wine for tasting without some certainty that a customer will buy the whole bottle.
But now the industry is beginning to adopt automation-based systems that can keep a range of wines fresh for up to 30 or even 60 days, and which in some instances allow customers to serve themselves. The number of bottles these systems hold varies widely - for base units it's usually four or eight, but retailers like the Kensington Wine Bar and Selfridge's in central London have up to 50 on display.
Which automatic wine dispenser?
Various systems are on the market but their functionality is broadly the same. Each bottle is connected to a pouring system driven by compressed nitrogen or argon that also purges the air from the bottles to inhibit oxidation. Above each bottle, on the front panel, there's often an LCD display that shows the wine variety (including brand, year and region), the different quantities available and on some models their price.
The systems track the quantities of each variety of wine poured, and how much gas has been used, and warn when either is getting low. As a spokesperson for US company Napa Technology, which makes the WineStation range, explains, 'Our system will track the exact amount of liquid poured to the nearest 5ml. For example, if 150ml of wine is requested but only 100ml is left in the bottle, the system will detect that only 100ml has been poured and will only charge the customer for that.
'The system also has inbuilt gas transducers that measure internal gas pressures. There are two pressure levels - a low-pressure warning and a low-pressure shut-off - and if the pressure falls below the low-pressure level, warning indicators are set and communicated to the staff. Wine can still be poured until the low pressure shut-off pressure is detected, at which point there are additional warnings and wine dispensing is not allowed.'
If bar or restaurant staff are operating the machine then they ring up the bill and take payment, but in other situations - such as wine tastings for the public or self-service installations - they can be operated by the customers themselves via the insertion of a smartcard; the card can be pre-paid or linked to a debit or credit card if they want to run a tab.
Each dispensing unit can also be linked, usually over an 802.11 or Bluetooth wireless network, to the back office, where information on sales by variety and customer names and contact details can be fed into a database to build a picture of best sellers and individual preferences - although customer anonymity can of course be preserved.
Further, for nationwide chains of outlets for example, this data can be accessed remotely, either via a browser or secure log-in access.
Fine wines boost
These systems are now well established in the US, but the rest of the world has been catching up fast in the past few years. In the UK, for example, they're proving popular among bar owners and customers. As Martin Justin, senior manager of the City Flogger bar and restaurant in London's Square Mile, which uses the WineStation, says, 'We like the system, and so do our customers.
'We've increased our sales of fine wines by the glass so much in the year or so we've had the system that we've gone from having one of the lowest fine-wine sales in the company to being near the top. The system is drawing in customers who specifically want a fine wine by the glass, and we're also finding they will then sometimes subsequently buy a whole bottle,' he says.
You won't be seeing these systems in pubs though, at least not in the UK and in self-service form. As David Sheedy, managing director of Enotrade, UK distributor for the Enomatic system, explains, 'They're not appropriate for beers, which are already easily dispensed in varying portions, and they're self-enclosed systems anyway.'
Eddie Gershon, spokesman for pub chain JD Weatherspoon, is more blunt. 'You won't see them in our pubs, not in a million years. We're very much a pub company and I think these systems rob customers of the experience of going to a pub and being served by a member of staff.'
Rival chain Punch Taverns agrees, at least in principle, adding that it feels these systems are more appropriate for hotels, airports and other, more anopnymous environments than mainstream pubs. In the light of that, Sheedy makes reference to numerous Enomatic installations on the Oasis of the Seas, the world's largest cruise liner.
'There's a lot of self-service on cruise liners these days, but rather than inserting a conventional chip-based smartcard, passengers on the Oasis have recently been provided with RFID room cards - as in a modern hotel - and it's these that charge wine purchases back to their rooms.' It seems likely then that their wider use in the hospitality industry may be only a matter of time.
Another development, due later this year according to Sheedy, is technology that will allow Enomatic systems to dispense champagne and sparkling wines, whose natural CO2 content has until now precluded their use, although he wouldn't be drawn on the exact method the technology utilises.
And you can even buy entry-level standalone models for use in the home that take just four bottles. Now there's a thought - so, what'll you have?