Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author.
A few years ago on a trip to Bordeaux, I encountered an Enomatic machine in a small, boutique wine shop in St. Emilion. This machine, an Italian invention, protects a bottle of wine under a blanket of inert gas and serves portions on-demand, from a 1 oz pour to a full serving. It’s been a revelation to the industry, and allowed myself as a consumer the opportunity to sample various high quality, pricey Bordelais wines that had probably been opened for days, yet showed no sign of oxidation. It truly is remarkable technology and something I would buy if money were no object; a blind tasting of three bottles at home usually drives us to overindulgence in fear of leftover wine quickly spoiling.
When Firefly Fine Wine and Ales opened on Cambie Street in April 2007, they included an 8-bottle Enomatic machine as an integral part of their customer experience. Their Maple Ridge location purchased an Enomatic machine in March 2010. The investment in these machines is not trivial as the cost runs over $12,000 a unit. We spoke to Bruno Gerves, the Director of Retail Operations for Firefly Fine Wines and Ales, about their motivation to install the Enomatic machines. “We really focus on small, handcraft wine and beer and want our customers to be able to taste as many products as possible,” he said. “Big brand names are everywhere around the world but they are more ‘industrial process’ products. Wine can be amazing when they are really from mother nature and we want to ‘educate’ our customer to a wide range of wines.”
For a retail store, the Enomatic technology preserves an open bottle of wine for up to 3 weeks with little sign of oxidation. It means no waste from pouring leftover wine down the drain after a tasting, and for the consumer it offers an opportunity to taste a range of wine beyond set tasting hours, as found in most stores. “We always have 8 bottles open in our 2 locations,” Gerves said. “Anytime, our customers can taste up to 3 differents wines when they shop at Firefly. We limit at 3 to stay in the Liquor regulation in BC. Once again, it’s really interesting to be able to offer our customer [the opportunity] to discover some new, different product.”
In the US, the Enomatic technology has been wholeheartedly embraced: a Whole Foods location in Fairfax, Virginia, has ten machines installed, and allows customers to use a card system to purchase tasting credits and sample as much as they like. According to a Dr. Vino blog post, you can even taste a $600 bottle of 1996 Domaine de la Romanée Conti Echezaux for $30 an ounce.
What has the reaction been from customers at Firefly Fine Wine and Ales? Gerves answered, “They love it! It’s so easy, so fresh, all the time. They don’t have to show up in-store during tasting hours. The program in the enomatic offers them always something different, they can discover some unknown grape variety, or a different blend, and of course a lot of small farms/wineries with no marketing budget. So much to discover!”
By all accounts, Enomatic machines are here to stay and will become prevalent in fine wine retail stores looking to offer the Customer the best buying experience possible. However, Firefly Fine Wine and Ales have hit a roadblock with the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch (LCLB). Despite the lack of written regulations regarding the usage of Enomatic machines (which are far too modern for their antiquated guidelines), they’ve offered some directives to Firefly on their usage. According to Gerves, “In the BC tasting regulations, every store has normally to dump in the sink every left over wine after a tasting and absolutely 30 minutes before closing the store.” Another source told us that the LCLB will only allow each customer to have two 1 oz pours, but not four 0.5 oz pours. In addition, staff must all carry a Serving It Right certificate on their person; it’s not enough to have the certificate on file. Finally, tastings are relegated to plastic glasses.
Clearly the LCLB don’t understand technology, relegating a marvelous device to usage as a display stand and dispenser for wine that stores can afford to dispose of. Perhaps they don’t want non-government wine retailers to be able to expand their customers’ wine knowledge by drinking beyond the bulk wine offerings that they parade at their government store tastings? I’ve personally had more than two 1 oz pours at a government liquor store (of cheap plonk, no less). And, forget about those drunkards using proper glasses for their 10th pint of beer on a Friday night at the Roxy; the LCLB would prefer fine wine tastings be diminished by plastic cups, in addition to the environmental waste produced. My mind is absolutely boggled by the idiocy of these directives.
“Our idea in investing in an Enomatic machine was to be able to open some more ‘expensive’ bottles,” Gerves said, “which customers normally don’t get to taste in-store. Because the wine stays fresh for a few weeks, we can offer a really extended tasting program, if we don’t have to waste everyday a lot of wine.”
Regardless of your best intentions, Firefly Fine Wine and Ales, and all other retailers endeavoring to bring the British Columbian wine culture kicking and screaming into the 21st century, the BC Liquor Control and Licensing Board clearly has the opposite agenda.