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Written by Nikitas Magel   

An Interview with the Creator of Wine Search Engine Able Grape

purple_keyboard_smallA wine snob.  A tech geek.  An unlikely pair, perhaps.  But in engineer-cum-wine-enthusiast Doug Cook, they're actually one and the same.  Fueled by his talents and background in web search technology, and steered by his knowledge and passion for wine, Cook has succeeded in his ambition to create the internet's first search engine dedicated to the world of wine: Able Grape.  Though I'd first met the technologist at the 2008 Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma, California, it wasn't until some time later later that I sat down with him in the streamlined and hip interior of San Francisco's CAV Wine Bar to learn more about the workings, usage, and significance of this new online tool.  What I learned was not only how powerful, concise, and robust Able Grape is, but how feature-rich and easy it is to use for enophiles and neophytes alike.

NM: In your own words, tell me: what is Able Grape?

DC: The short answer would be that Able Grape is Google for wine geeks.  My goal is to replace Google as the search engine of choice for anyone who's a professional in the wine trade or a serious, passionate wine consumer.  I want it to be the first stop for people who are looking for trustworthy wine information on the internet.

NM: Now let me play devil's advocate: why do you feel it necessary to create a search engine specifically geared towards what amounts to a niche audience?  Is there something you're providing through Able Grape which you feel that Google cannot or will not address?

DC: Yes.  As to why I felt it necessary, I'll answer that by telling you why I built Able Grape in the first place.  My background is originally in search technology.  My previous gig was as engineer and eventually as Vice President of Engineering at a company called Inktomi.  We were around a couple of years before Google, building search engines.  At one point, we were building most of the search engines on the internet; we were powering AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo —all three at the same time, for a while.  Inktomi eventually got bought by Yahoo.  About a year after that happened, I decided it was time for me to take a break: I'd been working on search engines for a long time and wanted to get away from the big company experience and work on other things that I'm passionate about.  I wasn't sure if that would be wine, but certainly wine was a big passion of mine.  I'd taken many wine classes; I'd been a pretty serious wine geek for a long time.

After I quit, I suddenly went from working my butt off all the time, to having all this [free] time, and I didn't know what to do with it.  So, I thought, "Okay, let's do something hard" and went to get a professional certification in wine, initially just for fun.  I got the diploma with the WSET [Wine and Spirit Education Trust].  While I was studying for that, I would always be trying to look things up on the internet, and [often got into situations where] I'd say [something like] "Okay, what is this grape variety really like?"  I look at one book and it says one thing; I look at another book and it says another thing; I look online and I see all kinds of different things.  I never knew really what to trust.  It was really hard to find geeky, trustworthy, in-depth content [on wine], especially using Google or Yahoo.  Trying to find official sources of information, like for a particular appellation, I'd try to find production regulations — "how many hectolitres per hectare is Alsace Grand Cru supposed to be?"  If you look in a book, it might be right, but then the law may just have been changed.  If you look online, you might find a bunch of different numbers but you never know which one to trust because there's a lot of consumer sites and there's a lot of sites that are out of date.  I spent a lot of time trying to dig through the content that's on the internet, trying to find which sites were really trustworthy, which ones were official sources of information for a particular wine region— trying to find good information.  There's tons of retail content, tons of consumer content, and tons of commercial content where[by] people are just trying to make money on Google and Yahoo by picking up traffic.  Digging through that, sometimes you're searching through 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 pages of results — 50 pages down in the results — before you find the official source of information on the [search] query that you're looking for.  And in some cases, some of these things are not in Google at all; they're just not there.  For example, the Institut National des Appellations d'Origin (the INAO) that has all the laws for every single appellation in France — their website is not in Google!



 

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