Joakim Sternberg is not your typical wine geek. Or your typical software geek.
Oh, he qualifies on both counts, in his roles as Target's lead iOS engineer by day and avid consumer of "the good stuff" by night. But unlike so many ardent experts in both fields, Sternberg is incapable of talking the topics to death. Instead, with palpable passion and endearing eloquence, he brings them to life.
He also brings them together. The Sweden native and Edina resident created the program for the Vinopad, an iPad that restaurants use to let guests thumb through their wine lists visually, and the Vinopal, an iPad app that gives wine collectors a seriously looky "bookshelf"-like way to sort through their treasures every which way. Both are intended to enhance wine experiences, which apparently never has been a problem in Sternberg's personal life.
That centers around "creating great memories involving fun friends and fun wines." He recently celebrated his 50th birthday with friends from here and the homeland by cooking Wagyu steaks over a fire pit and sipping four vintages (1952, 1961, 1966, 1982) of one of the world's great wines, Château Latour.
Last year, before a private Upton 43 dinner in honor of acclaimed Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson, Sternberg pondered how to make the evening special for the visitor from his homeland.
"How do you impress a guy like this? You can't. So I thought it would be nice to do something charming and endearing," he said. So he found out Nilsson's birth year and rounded up four stellar wines from 1983 to bring along.
And bonds were formed, as so often happens when Sternberg is out and comes across another aficionado who takes wine — but not him- or herself — seriously.
"It's that feeling you have when you meet a fellow wine lover and have a great wine with you," he said. "It creates an interesting intimacy, an instant happiness, sitting with someone and talking. [It's] a mind-set of caring less about technicalities around the wine-drinking process, but rather being able to focus on and enjoying the moment as it happens.
"Both of you know exactly that passion of drinking and sharing really good wines, and in that meeting you always feel very generous. You're turning the asset of a bottle of wine into happy memories that will last forever."
That approach has altered the way Sternberg augments his collection.
"I used to care about having the 'right' kind of bottles in my cellar," he said, "but as years pass by and with them the realization that 'all things shall pass' — both bottles and bottle owners — having a bunch of great bottles sitting around in a wine cellar means less."
The intrepid collector
Sternberg showed a knack for making wine fun all the way back in his college days.
While Sternberg was attending the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, the school was charged with fetching wine for the banquet following the Nobel Peace Prize awards. Moët & Chandon was providing the bottles, which meant trekking from Stockholm to Épernay, France, and back (1,100-plus miles each way), plus working around laws in several nations and with very limited travel funds and balky transportation.
"The only feasible solution was to fill the institute's very old orchestra bus with student volunteers [because] there were strict limitations on how much alcoholic beverage could be brought between the different borders, as I remember it only 2 liters per person," he said. "We were a scruffy-looking crowd, but as we closed in on the Moët & Chandon office, we stopped the bus and every one donned a suit and tie, then walked around the corner to the main entrance with the bus safely out of sight.
"Once there, we got the royal treatment. They thought we represented the actual Nobel Prize Committee. We, of course, had little interest in correcting their misconception, but hurried the rest of the visit so we could leave as soon as possible before our hosts found out."
These days, if you're a wine drinker, Sternberg wants to get inside your head.
He and his partners launched the Vinopad and Vinopal in 2010. Since then, the Vinopad has found great success in country-club restaurants throughout the land, and the VinoPal app gets between 80,000 and 100,000 monthly sessions, Sternberg said.
But, as ever with someone bearing his creative chops, there are new worlds to conquer — in this case, an app that makes it easy for consumers to make a great selection from an oft-daunting restaurant wine list.
"Vinopad is for restaurants and Vinopal for collectors. I want to do something more for a consumer and really help consumers feel comfortable and relaxed in an intimidating situation," he said. "I'm trying to figure out and predict what an individual would want to drink, to create a generalization based on you telling what you like, and mapping that to the wines in a restaurant."
Ideally, Sternberg's app would even help people find a wine outside their usual bailiwick, perhaps using a truly futuristic practice.
"Maybe they have not tried a lot of Italian wines, but with their profile, we can match their tastes and use others' taste as a proxy. It's like what do they do in 'Star Trek,' a Vulcan wine meld, you're melding with someone like you," he said.
OK then. Sternberg is hoping to find an investor for this complicated task, adding with a chuckle, that "finding wine lovers who are willing to invest money is very hard."
In the meantime, he's quite content with his job at Target, developing iPhone and iPad apps. After all, he has reached the pinnacle of his profession.
But as it turns out, what Joakim Sternberg does best is living.
Bill Ward writes about wine at decant-this.com. Find him on Twitter: @billward4.