The internet is abuzz with the fast-growing wine subscription startup Bright Cellars and its machine-learning algorithm that matches members to wine based on their personalized taste quiz. While the subscription service was founded on technology and data, personal interaction still plays a monumental role in the company’s ingenuity. Beyond the work of Bright Cellars’ algorithm lies Gretel Bubnik, resident Wine Director, and certified sommelier.
Gretel is not your average sommelier. For starters, she is a young female working in an industry that has historically been male-dominated. Her interest in the wine world began while studying abroad in Italy, and continued to grow as she spent time working in a Door County, WI, winery’s tasting room. This experience exposed her to new wine varietals and the tasting method, which sparked an even greater attraction to the wine industry. Upon Bright Cellars’ debut in Milwaukee, WI in 2015, Gretel discovered a position where she could put her passion for wine and background in Graphic Design and Marketing to work.
She began preparing for the Introductory Level Sommelier Examination in 2015 when she started her career with Bright Cellars. She soon after passed her Certified Sommelier Examination in 2016. The journey to becoming a Certified Sommelier takes time, energy and practice- which is evident to anyone who has seen the documentary Somm on Netflix. The stages for the Certified Sommelier Exam are similar to those for the Master Sommelier Diploma Examination that is reviewed in the film. To earn the Certified Sommelier title, one must pass the first two exams in a series of four- an arduous process that is broken into three segments: a blind tasting, a written theory exam, and a service practical. The Master’s course is considered one of the hardest tests in the world with a pass rate of only 10 percent for the theory portion alone. The Advanced Sommelier Examination holds a pass rate of 25-30 percent, and the Certified Sommelier exam a 64 percent pass rate.
Employees at Bright Cellars are offered an internal exam composed by Gretel that closely mimics the Introductory Level Sommelier Exam. This practice exam helps prepare them for the introductory course. Their wine education also consists of weekly tastings and classes, where they discuss wine varietals, regions, production and service methods.
When asked why Bright Cellars chooses to study for the exams given by the Court of Master Sommeliers instead of a different entity, Bubnik says “We chose this course because it’s very service-oriented. As a wine club that focuses on matching wine with each member’s individual taste, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, we have to make sure that everything about the individual experience is exceptional – from the wine itself to the customer service.”
Although Bright Cellars focuses solely on their wine and cheese subscription services, sommeliers are expected to know about several other food and beverage options. In addition to knowing how to present wine, the proper service methods for brandies, liqueurs, and other spirits is required. Somms must also be able to discuss the contents of a restaurant’s menu and wine list while recommending pairings. This knowledge helps Gretel, along with her associate, Courtney Hill (who is a certified cheese professional and is currently studying for the Certified Sommelier Examination), comprise the pairings Bright Cellars offers through The Tasting Board, their cheese subscription subsidiary. This personalized service mirrors Bright Cellars, offering unique artisanal cheeses from some of the world’s most highly regarded creameries.
When asked if there is anything she hopes to see from the subscription model, Gretel’s first response was: “In general, I hope we can allow people to feel comfortable trying wines out of their comfort zones. We match our members based on their individual taste, and because each person is unique, some people are discovering really remarkable wines that they otherwise wouldn’t have picked up off the shelf. Our Lost City Bonarda is one of the most frequently repurchased wines in our club, but it’s a varietal that doesn’t get a lot of distribution in the US, so many people haven’t tried it before.”
Amongst her other daily tasks, Gretel is responsible for tasting and categorizing the wines in Bright Cellars’ growing inventory.
Gretel explains, “All of the wines that we taste and select for members’ monthly matches get categorized by body, acidity, sweetness, bitterness, astringency. Then we pull out certain flavor tags, and all of that information gets put into the algorithm.”
Having an individual with experience and knowledge of wine, like Gretel, ensures that members receive the best choices for their tastes in each order. Feedback given by members on their online profiles also improves the algorithm’s matching abilities. This combination of modern technology and personal interaction is what continues to set Bright Cellars up for success.