How Machine Learning Narrows Down Choices for Martha Stewart’s Wine Club

No single person could sample millions of bottles of wine, after all

While Martha herself has the final pick, culling through millions of new wines every year is a job for technology. Courtesy of Martha Stewart Wine Co.

Just about this time last year, Martha Stewart, Snoop Dogg and special guests Paris Hilton and R&B artist Tank were getting into the holiday spirit on an episode of VH1’s Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party. Standing on a set decked out with holiday regalia, Snoop proclaimed that it was time for a libation, then asked, “Martha, what will you be making for us to drink today?”

“It’s mulled wine,” replied Stewart, standing before a stove of gleaming pots. After running through the basics of cooking up a sugar syrup with star anise, Stewart deftly emptied an entire bottle of wine—a 2017 Marquis de Bacalan sauvignon blanc—into the pot. Amid the distractions of a whooping audience, Snoop’s commentary and Hilton’s jeweled fingerless gloves, you can almost miss the plug that Stewart delivers as the camera zeros in on the bottle.

“This is the Martha Wine Company,” she says.

It’s the Martha Stewart Wine Company, to be precise. But odds are that few in the crowd failed to grasp that the sauvignon blanc she was using on the show was among the many offerings of Stewart’s retail empire.

martha stewart sitting at a table holding a glass of red wine with bottles to her right and snacks like olives and oysters and shrimp to her left
Founded three years ago, the Martha Stewart Wine Co. gives members a chance to “enjoy the wine Martha serves to her guests and family.”

Since the launch of Martha Stewart Living magazine in 1990, the 79-year-old connoisseur has channeled her inimitable combination of hostessing brilliance and business savvy into a retailing colossus built with merchandise that bears her name or imprimatur—from wool rugs to enameled cookware, floor lamps to coffee beans. Plenty of celebrities license their names to products, but as a domestic doyenne whose nod can instantly ascribe the virtue of good taste to nearly anything, Stewart has a name that transcends mere endorsement, and extends it across almost every category.

So it was inevitable that Stewart’s product line would come to include wine. Founded in 2017, the Martha Stewart Wine Co. sells bottles “that have been hand-picked” by Martha herself, according to the web site. Customers can buy one bottle at a time or sign up for a club that ships a variety of different wines monthly. “I am confident,” Stewart said in a statement, “that we can teach consumers how to pour the right wine, and enjoy the right wine, at every occasion.”

Not your average endorsement

Unlike the other products in the Stewart pantheon, wine is challenging to sell in ways that bath towels or spice rubs are not.

For starters, there are a lot of wine brands in the world (3 million by one estimate). Wines also possess so many individual characteristics that many consumers have little idea how to evaluate them. An oft-cited 2008 study from Constellation Wines found that nearly a quarter of consumers admit to being “overwhelmed” by the wine choices they encounter in stores and that they “like to drink wine but don’t know what kind to buy.” This is probably why, according to Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute, 80% of Americans simply choose a wine based on price.

Stewart’s wine company fills an obvious need pretty conveniently. Members who join get the option make a six or 12 bottle selection every six or eight weeks. Most of the bottles come in at $20 or less, arrive right on your doorstep and carry no risk. “If you don’t love your wine,” the company promises, “we’ll replace it for free.”

It all sounds so simple, yet the viability of the enterprise rests on solving a daunting logistical problem. How exactly is Martha Stewart able to trawl the world’s vineyards and taste millions of bottles of wine just so she can recommend the 100 or so bottles at any given time?

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.