Napa Valley robot ‘sommelier’ spurs debate on AI in the wine business

“He doesn’t break glasses,” Maria Reznikova said, citing a bonus with hiring her new staffer — a robot “sommelier” that has become quite an attraction for gawkers shopping on Calistoga’s Lincoln Avenue.

Resembling more of a server or a busser, the RobinoVino robot came online at Maria Concetto Winery in November.

“He’s a boost and definitely helps with business,” Reznikova said, estimating a 30% increase in foot traffic since the robot entered the scene. “Look at all the people looking in.”

Outside, a crowd gathered at the tasting room window on a recent Saturday afternoon. Reznikova smiled and said she expects to get a return on her $50,000 investment soon, and then some.

RobinoVino poured the winery’s 2021 cabernet sauvignon, a full-bodied red. Paul Supplee with California Wine Tours waited at the robot’s mini bar to sample the array for the tour guide’s guests on upcoming trips.

“Would you bring people?” Reznikova asked.

“Yes,” he replied enthusiastically, as RobinoVino put on a show with nods of “thank you” mixed in with a few dance moves. “This will definitely bring people in the door.”

Reznikova has plans to approach her supplier from Naanjing, Jiangsu China to inquire about installing an artificial intelligence speaking program. That way, “Robino,” can be used for food pairing to accompany events such as the wine tasting room’s Sunday karaoke nights. Maria Concetto has introduced other offerings such as caviar, cheese and chocolate tastings.

The style of the events fits right in with the décor of the three-year-old tasting room, filled with cushy lounge chairs, soft mood lighting and chandeliers. A flight of four varietals with RobinoVino costs $75.

Reznikova, who sources grapes in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties for winemaking out of her Redwood Valley facility, has two human staffers working alongside RobinoVino to serve up a range of varietals. Beyond sparkling wines, the winery specializes in Chardonnays from the Sonoma Valley and pinot noirs from the Russian River Valley.

The winery owner, who is Russian, developed her taste for wine while sipping in Germany. A 32-year quality assurance veteran who once worked for the U.S. State Department, Reznikova decided to retire at the start of the pandemic.

The coronavirus outbreak represented a watershed moment for people, Reznikova included, to take stock in their lives. It also prompted some changes for places looking to attract their share of people itching to get out and anxious for a return to normal.

Downtown Calistoga was no exception. Its tourism-based tax revenue surged with visitors demonstrating pent-up demand after being stuck home during shutdowns and masking-up periods.

Calistoga’s transient occupancy tax totaled $6.4 million in pre-pandemic 2019. The tax is collected on bed-and-breakfast, inns and motels, hotels and resorts room short-term rentals.

In 2020, the city reported $3.3 million in transient occupancy tax revenue. For the fiscal year 2022, ending June 30, it was $12.7 million.

“I think Calistoga has rebounded nicely, and we’re expecting more visitors in 2024,” Calistoga Chamber of Commerce CEO Eric Reichert said.

“To increase visitation, we need to find a way to differentiate ourselves,” he added, referring to competition between tasting rooms and other towns in the Napa Valley. Part of that equation involves touting attractions to coincide with venues billed at excelling in stimulation as well as rest and relaxation.

Take this summer’s mural creation in Calistoga at Grove 45, an olive oil company that has undergone an expansion in 2023 that involves wine tasting. Motorists on Silverado Trail pulled over often to get a gaze of the muralist at work.

“Napa Valley is an ocean of vineyards. We (in Calistoga) try to focus on wellness, then we touch on entertainment,” Reichert said, adding he’s convinced RobinoVino “helps Maria Concetto differentiate itself from other wine tasting rooms as well as other towns.”

Case in point: “We’ve seen people walk by and stop,” Reichert said.

If RobinoVino is programmed to recommend wines in tasting, what will that do to a line of work with one of the hardest titles to capture — sommelier, a wine steward that studies intricate details and nuances to all varietals.

“I definitely think he is more of an attraction,” Reichert said in responding to the inquiry. He deferred to those who are most versed in the craft.

“No, a lot of consumers are looking for that personal experience from the somm, the story telling, the smile on the somm’s face and the gleam in the eyes,” said Liz Thach, president of the Wine Market Council based in Napa. “At the same time, I think it’s clever and fun and novel to have a robot pouring samples of wine.”

Still, the Sonoma State University professor of Wine & Management joked: “Somms will stay red-blooded.”

Erik Segelbaum, who is the founder of the GoodSomm wine club, agrees with Thach that the specialized wine trade will remain human.

“I’m not concerned about robots taking sommelier jobs. There’s an aspect to wine and food pairing that can never be duplicated,” said the Denver advanced sommelier, who also serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s wine educator.

With multiple variables to consider, most sommeliers must distinguish and interpret what diners and tasters are seeking. For example, a taster declaring the wine is “sweet” could mean sugary instead of flavorful.

“Most consumers don’t have the knowledge (to make that distinction),” he said.

A robot’s computer-based response only works on the input given. If the input is incorrect, the answer will also be wrong.

“No amount of AI or machinery can replicate that and provide an emotional experience (to wine tasting),” he said.

He did agree that robots pouring wine may amount to a fun, attention-getting attraction for enthusiasts.

“It’s more of a curiosity,” he said.

And at least the one stopping people in their tracks at the Maria Concetto Winery has captured enough interest on Lincoln Avenue to bring people in. Once seated, customers will learn that despite RobinoVino’s lack of humanity, he’s programmed to copy our sense of humor.

Post tasting, RobinoVino took his long arm to reach for a glass labeled “tips are appreciated.”

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, tech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. She can be reached at 530-545-8662 or

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