The pandemic has reshaped the wine landscape forever. While the undulations of our vineyards remain largely intact, the change in how we interact in this world now has more peaks and valleys. For an industry, historically reliant on fostering community and building relationships in a traditional manner, the past two years have ushered in a new reality. We ask three experts for their opinions on the impact of digital in the present and how it is shaping our future. Pauline Vicard of ARENI Global, heads a wine think tank tasked with thinking about the future of fine wine. Amber LeBeau not only thinks digital, she lives it, as the founder of virtualwineevents.com while super sommelier Hendrik Thoma MS has an undeniable digital presence. We asked these unique personalities for their insights.
ASI: Do you think Covid necessitated fine wine producers to use digital marketing and communications as a sort of short-term band aid or has it simply pushed wineries, as whole, to embrace a platform that was inevitably going to be an integral part of their future? How are fine wine producers successfully building and supporting community using digital platforms? Why is it important?
Pauline: The latter, it’s pushed them to embrace the platform. The tools that have been developed and implemented this year were in most cases planned before Covid, something that the estates wanted to do at one point, Covid just accelerated their implementations. This being said, there is still a lot to be done in order to really capitalize and lever growth with digital. Wineries and retailers have used digital for two main reasons during COVID: build and maintain awareness (occupy the space, thought leadership), and grow sales. They will continue to use digital for both now, but they still collectively have a lot of work to catch up on the “digital debt”.
Now that the COVID storm has passed, wineries (along with retailers, importers, restaurants and every link of the supply chain) will have to make sure that digital is integrated in their long-term marketing plan. There are a lot of digital tools and tactics. Wineries have to make sure that they have an overall strategy with digital at the center it. They will need to make sure they have the right skills within their team to lever the power of implemented tools. They may have a website now and an e-commerce platform, but who is there to maintain and grow it? There was a lot of what Paul Mabray calls “digital debt” prior to Covid, and there is still a lot of work to be done.
Wineries will need to find the right balance between digital and physical/ real life interactions as notably in the ‘fine wine’ sector customers expect a certain level of “friction” and the personal, human touch and advice, guidance given by wineries is useful for fine wine consumers. For example, wine merchants will still to need to make a phone call to catch up. Personal contact is still super important.
Everyone will also need to make sure their message works on digital platform and via social media. As such they will need to find ways to cut through the digital noise. Digital is a great way to work on awareness, but now competition is fierce and there is a lot of content out there. They will need to work on the language and tone of their voice (thinking of a global perspective) and find the right partners and gate-openers.
Amber: COVID certainly lit a spark under wineries to start thinking outside the box which helped speed the adoption of digital tools. Of course, in the haste to quickly do something, anything many wineries did adopt a haphazard approach to digital marketing and online events that predictably had mixed results. For the ones that kept with it, learned from their missteps and what their peers were doing, they will find ways to continue to use social media and virtual wine events effectively and expand their global reach. But there are certainly many wineries who did view digital as a short-term band aid and couldn’t wait till things “got back to normal” so they didn’t have bother with Zooms, FB (Facebook) & IG (Instragram) Lives anymore.
However, the big thing is that consumers have gotten use to these platforms and now have more expectations of accessibility with wine producers from the comfort of their homes. Those expectations are here to stay and will have long lasting impacts on the wine industry.
The most successful virtual events I’ve seen have been “behind the scenes” IG lives that give consumers a peek behind the curtain and the mystique of wine to see the real people, love, sweat and tears that go into wine making. What may seem mundane and routine to those of us in the wine industry like racking barrels or bottling can be fascinating to consumers who never thought about the many different hands and decisions that go into making their wine.
From a community POV, especially as we’re transition more into “back to normal” round table and winemaker panel events around a particular theme such old vines, clones, a regional expression of a grape variety, are far more successful than individual winemaker virtual tastings. I have a few theories on why but would need more time to get into them.
Hendrik: We know the ‘wine bizz’ is based on analogue communication and relationships. If you want to be successful there you should stick to the same rules, just using the new platforms and channels. In that regard not much has changed, but your radius is much further. If you are not playing on that field, fair enough, but you need to know that you are missing a chance to build relationships.
To cultivate community, we use all social media channels and since they are all different peer groups they all need a different approach. The ‘wine bizz’ is a people’s business, so they are all important.
ASI: Cultivating communities is fundamental to the human condition. From an anthropology perspective wine and other food and beverages were fundamental to the early development of human society as we know it. In an increasingly digital age, how do you suggest fine wine producers (or in the case of Amber and Hendrik, who do you) need to view community differently?
Pauline: Yes. In a digital age, the fine wine producers are directly in front of their consumers, even if they don’t sell direct. So they have to make sure that their message comes across, and they need to build a real conversation, not just a push of information. In order to have a proper conversation and engage with a community (group of people gathered by a “reassuring between us”) they need to have an idea of how their story could resonate with the community (or what part of the story). The need to understand how their language and code might be perceived by the community they are targeting and they need to have an idea of the community’s history and interest. It’s something that coffee does really well, as it starts from people’s common interests and coffee is the excuse for them to gather together.
It requires first an open mind and a will to talk with people not at people plus a bit of research. This where the concept of gate-opener (we asked for Pauline to elaborate later in the interview) is important.
In terms of communities, they can be local or international, and depending on where you are, you might have to work on your local communities (ie France selling to French, having to adapt their pricing and experience).
Amber: People are becoming more and more aware of what they put into their body and I think that shift in thinking impacts wine a bit more than the anthropological view of community. When wine is viewed as a commodity like soda or milk, virtually interchangeable, the bar is much lower (is it affordable? Is it not expired? Is it organic? Is it from a brand I recognize? etc) The more concerned people are about the quality of what they’re ingesting the higher that bar gets but those concerns still circle around the basic quality of the product.
But as we’ve seen in fine dining, such as farm to table concepts, as well as increased interesting community support agriculture, people are becoming more aware of the people (or community) behind their food and that is to the benefit of the wine industry. From a wine business point of view, the unique selling point of every winery is their people and so I always encourage wine marketing to put their people at the forefront of their efforts.
So that it is a little bit of a community but from a different angle.
Hendrik: The key is interaction, fun, passion, and humbleness. Tell your own story and find out what is important, not only for you, also to help the other side.
ASI: Pauline, in a recent article in relation to this idea of building communities within the fine wine space of gate keepers and gate openers? Can you explain these terms as it relates to the digital wine world and where to do sommeliers fit in this landscape?
Gatekeepers works through traditional models: they are leaders with followers, whose actions and recommendations will have an impact on their followers. They can increase wine sales by recommending specific wines to their followers. While they can offer a brand access to a specific market or demographic, they don’t determine the level of engagement their followers may have with the brand.
Gate openers are leaders who are embedded inside their community. They understand the community’s shared ethos and can work with a brand to build a network of relationships based on trust and loyalty. When working with gate openers, it is particularly important for brands to understand and respect the dynamics of the community, including its culture. It’s important not to push products onto communities, but approach in the spirit of working together.
Sommeliers, for example, are traditional gatekeepers, by listing or not a wine they can give it a market, an audience, a reputation.
Gate-openers go a step further. A somm needs to ask the question what is the somm’s community (ie local neighborhood, cultural community, online community)? What are they interested in what do they need (might not be related to wine at all)? How can those interests and needs, that are particularly well-known by the somm as he/she is a part of that community, be matched with a wine brand interest and needs? How could they build a program based on that, that will turn out to be a win-win-win for everyone? Specialty coffee and barista again were a great example through the crisis.
ASI: In terms of relevance in this the fine wine digital landscape how can sommeliers position themselves to be integral players?
Pauline: Sommeliers are a natural bridge between producers and consumers, food and wine, education and experience as their job in the physical space is to provide all of the above. They are trusted by producers and trade for their tasting skills, and they are trusted by the consumers for their tasting skills and impartiality to quality. They also should naturally know how to adapt to their audience and to each category of clients. And this could work greatly in a digital environment, but also requires a bit of an entrepreneur/business mind as you have to build your reputation and know how to monetize.
Brands will need to cut through the noise too, and to make sure that their wines get in front of the right audience/community with the right story, and sommeliers, if they have a visible image (personal brand, speciality, tone of voice, appeal, client data base).
Amber: The digital realm is a continuous conversation with multiple voices that falls on multiple ears. Sometimes it feels like it’s only the loudest voices that get heard but the truth is that it’s the most persistent. Everyone in the industry, from wineries to sommeliers, can choose to take part in those conversations or stay quiet in the corner. If you want to be an integral player, you need to choose the former and stick with it.
Hendrik: Nobody is closer to the product than a sommelier, so this is the most trustful source. But don’t play with your trusted content as it is your digital currency. The net is fast.
Introducing Pauline Vicard, ARENI Global:
Pauline Vicard co-founded and directs ARENI Global, a research and action institute dedicated to the future of Fine Wine, gathering top international experts in a think- tank format. Growing up working hands-on in her family vineyard in Burgundy, Pauline broadened her vocational commitment to wine by joining the regional wine body and French Embassies in Cuba and Norway. She then created a successful corporate wine event and education company and was named France’s largest official on-trade union wine educator, before moving to London to lead ARENI. She is currently studying to be a Master of Wine.
Introducing Amber LeBeau, Spitbucket, virtualwineevents.com:
Amber LeBeau is a self-described “geek who drinks and occasionally writes about what I’m drinking and geeking over”, as well as the founder of virtualwineevents.com
Her path of geekdom has led her to the Society of Wine Educators where she earned her Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) in 2008 and to the Northwest Wine Academy where she earned degrees in Wine Marketing & Sales and Wine Production from 2010-2012. In 2014, she passed the Wine & Spirits Education Trust Level 3 exam with distinction and is currently working on the WSET Diploma.
Amber has worked at restaurants, grocery stores, wineries and wine shops so according to Amber “I’ve been around a few blocks.” She launched virtualwineevents.com during in April 2020.
Introducing Hendrik Thoma MS, Wein am Limit:
In 1999 Hendrik Thoma passed the Master Sommelier exam in London. A formative period was his time spent as head sommelier at the Hamburg Hotel Louis C. Jacob. For 13 years he designed the wine program and, with his unconventional manner and innovative ideas, made the five-star hotel an international pilgrimage site for wine fans. Hendrik Thoma gained a lot of experience over the years, but above all the decision to convey his passion for wine in a new way was realized, focusing on lesser-known labels, and more unusual bottles from the edge of the horizon. Hendrik also wanted a more intensive collaboration with characters who live their winemaking trade with love in traditional family businesses.
In 2009 Hendrik decided the time was ripe to become self-employed and finally to create the conditions for being able to think, speak and act freely. Over the years Hendrik has received many awards and prizes and he has expanded his range of activities more and more. As a columnist and author, he regularly writes articles for various magazines, he has appeared on television in many formats and he advises the gastronomy and wine industries. Inspired by social media legend Gary Vaynerchuk he created his own show “Wein am Limit.”
Hendrik’s outstanding gift is to reduce complex wine knowledge to the essentials and to make it understandable with provocative ease for everyone who is passionate about grape juice. It was through him that the term “vinotainment” was coined. He lives and works in Hamburg.