Sunday, July 13, 2008

Through the Looking Glass: Seeing Online Wine Culture from the Other Side

When I'm with people in the wine business, I'm usually the one on the outside looking in. I try to get a glimpse of the people, places, and hard work that it takes to make a great bottle of wine, then I get online and share that information with you.

On Friday, I had the privilege of participating in Inertia's annual Direct Symposium for their clients in the wine business. The theme was "Innovations for Today's Wine Marketplace" and it fits into Inertia's REthink Initiative to help people imagine new ways to sell and market their wine to you and me. For the conference, Inertia gathered together some of us who are active in the wine web scene to talk about how social media (Twitter, blogs, Facebook, etc.) can be a useful tool for wineries who want to forge closer relationships with their customers. Gary Vaynerchuk was one of the speakers, as was Joel Vincent of the Open Wine Consortium. In the audience were several other blogging and wine friends, like El Jefe of Twisted Oak, Patrick from Iridesse Wines, and Kaz from Wine Biz Radio. I spoke on a panel on wine blogging chaired by Tom Wark of Fermentation which featured Mike Duffy of the Winery Website Report and publicity and marketing specialist Julie Ann Kodmur.

I found myself on the other side of the looking glass this time, listening to questions from smart people in the wine world who are trying to figure out what to do about and how to understand this flourishing online wine culture in which you (by virtue of reading this blog) are participating. Here are a few impressions of what happened, and how I think it might effect how you learn about and buy wine in the future.

People in the wine business know that online wine culture is important. This can't be said enough, because I think there is still a pretty widespread belief that people in the wine business ignore, don't care about, and diminish the importance of online wine culture. I saw no evidence of this on Friday. On the contrary, wine bloggers were included in the category of journalists, people wanted to know how to spread information to customers without spamming people, and there was a great deal of curiosity about how to deal with online comments and criticism with sensitivity and respect.

Online wine culture is really no harder to figure out or more time consuming than email. There was a lot of justifiable concern about how much time it might take to get your bearings in the online wine world and participate in it. I had an a-ha moment when I realized that's exactly how I once felt about email. Now, I can't really imagine not having email, but at first I couldn't figure out how time spent on email was ever going to be productive. Sure, you have to manage your online time carefully so that it doesn't suck all your energy but this is no different from managing the other tasks in your day--and it might free up time you are spending on similar activities elsewhere. In general, I find I waste as much time in a day as I did before--I just waste it in more places, i.e. walking the halls, talking on the phone, hanging out at the copy machine, and on Twitter. And if Twitter saves you from the donuts in the breakroom, it is a good thing!

We are in a major shift from points to personality in the wine world. Foodies made this shift long, long ago as individual chefs and critics emerged as leading personalities in the food world--helped along by magazines and television. In my opinion, that is happening in wine, too, and this time it's being fueled by social media. The shift from points to personalities is gradual, but I do believe that it is real. I think the clearest example of the shift can be found in the popularity of Gary Vaynerchuk's Wine Library TV and the many people who follow him throughout his day on Twitter and other social media sites. But, we should all beware of imitation: there is only one authentic Gary. The message that I heard loud and clear from Gary and from Joel Vincent on Friday was this: be yourself and be honest. Don't try to be like Gary, don't try to be like Robert Parker, don't try to make your wine something it isn't. Do you make a simple quaffer? Say so. Don't market it as a complex monster. Do you absolutely adore Italian white wines? Shout it from the rooftops and make no bones about being biased, biased, biased. Social media is uniquely and precisely suited to letting you be you, so whether you are a consumer or producer you should let your personal preferences and quirks show--rough edges and all--whether you're commenting on a blog, writing a blog, or letting people know about you and your wine.

All of these developments are going to make the world of wine more interesting for consumers and producers. If you are a winery owner or maker and you're reading this and wondering how to get started in social media, you can always contact the folks at Inertia or take a look at Mike Duffy's great tips shared on his blog. And if you're a consumer, let your favorite wineries know that you care about personality more than points and you want to know more about them and how they make the wine you love. Whether you are a producer or a consumer, stepping through to the other side of the looking glass is always fun, and we all need a change of perspective every know and again. Twitter, blogs, Facebook, the Open Wine Consortium--all of these social media sites can help you to get that fresh perspective, every single day.


David said...

sounds like an interesting conference. I've found the majority of wineries that I've contacted to be a bit behind the curve in terms of the web, and responsiveness to bloggers, but maybe that will change.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link love, Dr. Debs. It was a pleasure to meet you at the symposium.

A couple of thoughts:

1. The symposium is a bit of an echo chamber (as far as people there being receptive to the online culture), since that is one of Inertia's hallmarks.

2. I thought you, Tom, and Julie each made some great points, and I hope you'll summarize what you said about what it takes to be a great wine/winery blogger in a future blog post.

And where is Julie's blog, I ask? :) Maybe she can guest post with one of us.

Dr. Debs said...

David, I would agree with you that wineries can be "behind the curve" on this issue, but I certainly didn't sense resistance on their part in finding out more about it--just a sense of being completely overwhelmed since now they feel they are trying to jump on a fast-moving train. And Mike, I see what you mean about the echo chamber, but I was struck by their receptivity--and their relative unfamiliarity with the online wine culture at the same time. This gave me the sense that people may not like it or approve of it--but they know that it's not going away so they have to deal with it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the looking glass - as I'm normally on the other side of your perspective, it was interesting for me.

Yes, I think, we do know about the importance of internet-communication. Even on our side of the ocean in old Europe... And espacially for small structures, like our winery, it's a great chance to talk about what we are doing in our daily work, the fect that we exist beyond points and 1855 classments and even if our garage is more of the size of a dogs shelter:-).

We don't have to wait for a journalist to stumble about our adresse in search of a "newy-scoop", we just need a telephone line with a decent DSL.

Yes, it takes some time to spend in front of your computer, but you can do it at any time of the day, while you are recovering from the glaring summer heat on your hill-slope or in the middle of the night. Not as exhausting as standing behind your small table in a crowded exposition of soandso wines, having payed a tremendous fee to be there, and being snobed by the point-hunters, who rush by for a free-sip of all the other famous labels.

Espacially blogging seems to me a perfect way of telling the (wine-)world that you exist, why and how and what you do, to make the best wine possible in the unique spot (you may even call it "terroir") where you are.

Twittering and the like is perhaps more suited for desk-top people. It's difficult, to send a message on a blackberry, when you have your hands occupied with wine scissors or full of last harvest's yeast:-). Even if sometimes you would like to make participate all the world immediately in the sound of the cigales around you ... you can talk about it later, before you go to sleep:-)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article: I work at Inertia and moderated the web design session at the symposium that talked a lot about social networking. There's definitely an issue of folks in the wine industry not being comfortable with the web/social networking/blogging. There's also seems to be a desire to join the rest of the world in working with these technologies. Once the barrier of discomfort is overcome I think we're going to see a flood of activity from wineries online. The more we all talk about it and educate the industry the sooner that time will come.

Dr. Debs said...

Thanks Iris and Ben for commenting, and sorry for my slow response--I was in Napa tasting wine which is a good excuse, I think! I agree, Iris, that the great thing about being online is that you can do it when you can't bear to do anything else. Also, Twitter is really for people chained to smartphones and computers all day. Ben, I think the discomfort is the big obstacle, but that soon enough the wine people WILL push through it and join in the fun. At least that's what I hope!

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)