Sip, sip, hooray

Houston entrepreneur makes a splash with wine-selecting technology

Houston-based VineSleuth created a custom algorithm to match you with new wines based on wines you've had in the past. Courtesy of VineSleuth

Amy Gross wants to find you the perfect wine. In fact, she wants it so much, she built her company, VineSleuth, around the concept that technology and machine learning could find the best wine to match individual palates.

VineSleuth's custom algorithm is backed by research from sensory scientists at Cornell University, and relies on both data collection and machine learning to determine specific wines that will match an individual customer's tastes. Flavor profiles from thousands of wines are incorporated into her database, and none of those are based on the typical wine scores you'll see in magazines or reviews of wines.

"We have a team that tastes and analyzes wines and inputs their findings. Then, we have a team that codes all of that data," she says.

VineSleuth's technology can be easily overlaid on a restaurant, grocery store, or other vendor's existing web platform or app to provide a tailor-made experience for customers.

"Take a grocery store setting for example," says Gross. "A customer logs into the store using their loyalty card, and their past wine purchases come up. Our technology can analyze those and point to different selections in the store's inventory they'll enjoy."

Think of it as using big data and machine learning to deliver big returns for wine drinkers.

Gross has been deliberate and incremental in how she's grown her company, and she just got a major boost: back in September, she won the 2018 Start Here Now competition, a combination business pitch event and incubator aimed at encouraging women entrepreneurs. She took home the $10,000 Silicon Valley Bank Grand Prize, as well as an app-design concept prize to help her improve the app she created, and a media and PR consultation.

"It was such an affirmation," she says. "To have them validate our work and my future plans."

Planting the seed
It was a slow and steady growth for Gross, who started work on VineSleuth in 2011. But her wine journey started before that.

"My now-husband asked me out on a date, and I'd just graduated college," she says. "I wanted to be sophisticated, so I ordered the house chardonnay. Well, after four or five dates, I started paying attention to what I was drinking, and I developed my palate."

She and her husband and friends of theirs enjoyed exploring wine together, and on a trip to Napa in 2009, Gross noticed something. All six of them were drinking the same wines — mostly Cabernet Sauvignons from Oakville — but they had remarkably different reactions to them.

"I thought, wouldn't it be great if there were an app that told me what I wanted, not what was 'good?'" Gross says.

While she wasn't sure then how to create such an app, she knew she needed to build up her wine knowledge. She started learning about wine in earnest and launched a wine blog. That gave her access to wine vendors and wine makers.

And then, several things happened in steps. Her brother-in-law wrote a basic algorithm that would collect taste profiles and other details from wines, but Gross needed something more. A neighbor who was an applied mathematician took that original algorithm and built on it.

"When I felt brave enough to show it, I shared it with the owners of some wineries I'd developed a business relationship with in the Finger Lakes," says Gross. "They loved the idea, and it turns out one of the winemaker's wife was a sensory scientist at Cornell. At every key place along building this business, it's been about relationships."

Still fermenting
Gross did create an app, but she admits it's not quite where she wants it to be, so she'll likely tweak it over the coming year. In the meantime, she's focused on the B2B future of VineSleuth. While she says the technology her team has created is currently being used for wine, she knows it's possible to take it and expand its capabilities to beer, chocolate, spirits and other consumables.

Building the business has been both an adventure and a learning curve for Gross, whose background is in journalism and PR. But even though she doesn't come from the technology or STEM side, she says her journalism work made her a great researcher – which is exactly what she needed to build VineSleuth. She's also a driven and detail-oriented project manager.

"My team once called me the den mother, keeping everyone on track," she laughed. "And in a way, I am. But I'm also watching the future of AI happening in front me and I really love hanging out with the brilliant people on my team. This is a blast."


Amy Gross is also working on a consumer-facing app, called Wine4Me, that helps users keep track of their favorite wines and gives recommendations for new wines. Courtesy of VineSleuth

Houston's DataCon can help prepare business leaders for the digital revolution in AI and machine learning. Getty Images

Looming on the horizon is a data tsunami coming towards us at breakneck speed. Companies have worked hard to keep up, creating digital transformation, taking manual processes from desktops, clipboards, and the paper paradigm to the Cloud. We're now sitting on huge quantities of idle bits of information called dark data. It's over collected and unused data that has the potential power to create decision-making brilliance.

Business leaders are attempting to optimize siloed data – unrelated data collected in databases and spreadsheets or obsolete apps, to make critical decisions. We currently connect these siloes with other systems using a data processing step called ETL – Extract, Transform and Load. Take the data from one place, transform it so it can relate to another data resource and then load that data to another place for analysis. It's a big, time consuming, intermediary step we have figured out how to circumvent. "NoETL" technology is the next-generation magic wand of machine thinking and it's a game-changer.

As non-technical business leaders, we rely on our partners in IT to give us meaningful data that charts our course. They've been our faithful navigators. We've made the recommended investment in IT infrastructure and technology and counted on receiving analytics that will result in winning outcomes. It's now time to sit down at the table and have new conversations with IT leadership around AI.

A tectonic shift

We are now in a new place. AI has come upon us quickly and the promise of ROI is great. There are new technologies that give business leaders advantages never before realized. Data science is the new crystal ball to the future of business. Automation and machine learning are taking historical data to a look ahead using algorithms and mathematical modeling. It's a new predictive mindset. What business leader wouldn't want that crystal ball?

The real assets of your business exist not in better machines but in your current data stores which are like coal mines waiting for data science to turn those lumps of coal into data diamonds.

There are new vocabulary words associated with data analytics. Data science thought leaders are preparing the way for businesses to have learning opportunities and to know which resources to tap for direction in creating new competitive dynamics. Don't wait too long to be curious. The early adopters are already a step ahead and the competitive marketplace is changing in unexpected ways.

Leadership resources for the implementation of AI

Legacy businesses with data lakes are ripe for action. Who should lead the charge? It's up to the C-suite to have intentional conversations around data science. It's up to leadership to be ready to speak and understand new concepts and vocabulary combined with leaps of faith needed to join the new world order of information.

Learning resources 

Proactively look for learning opportunities. There are no excuses for not taking the initiative. No matter where you are in your career – this isn't something to linger about.

One upcoming seminar around AI and automation collaboration and education is DataCon Houston. It's an annual conference that brings important concepts around AI and Automation to business leaders. The target audience is not IT professionals, although there will be some in attendance; it's meant primarily to help the C-suite and non-technical leaders know where to begin and where to find that new vocabulary and translative resources. AI will affect every person in every business, and we must be ready for the cultural shifts that will come with the technological shifts.

Authors and thought leaders — George Danner, Dave McComb, and Gerald Kane will be speaking at DataCon October 10, 2019. In addition, Javier Fadul, director of innovation for HTX Labs will be speaking about XR and data visualization and its use in training employees and creating safer workplaces. Stefanos Damianakis will be teaching machine learning 101 and Juan Sequeda, principal scientist of data.world will present his UltraWrap NoETL patented technology.

Solving the unsolvable

The future of decision-making will render in blinks of an eye. Problems we thought unsolvable will suddenly have answers. Business leaders must get behind the leap of faith required for our own companies and push learning and understanding forward across the organization at all levels. AI and machine learning are the vortex of change. Are you ready for AI?

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Suzette Cotto is CEO of Innovate Social Media, a digital marketing agency specializing marketing for startups in the medical, technology, and energy industries. For more information on DataCon Houston 2019, please visit: https://incitelogix.com/datacon-houston-2019/