In a locked-down world, it’s taking some tech savvy and a lot of imagination to keep wine moving.
In what seems like the time it takes to clink glasses, marketing wine, and to a large extent selling it too, has been obliged to move online to survive.
Despite there being several successful online wine retailers that are more than a decade old, the wine trade has notoriously lagged behind in its use of online marketing communication tools. One difficulty is that sharing wine is social.
Most of us prefer to be with our friends when we drink wine or with our colleagues when we taste it. Wine producers and their importers value time together, meeting perhaps once or twice a year to catch up on the latest cuvées and vintages. With the COVID-19 crisis, aside from everyone becoming quite literally isolated, for some weeks or even months ahead consumers can no longer visit winery tasting rooms or discover new wines by tasting in stores or restaurants; and both consumers and trade have lost the chance to taste and meet with wine producers at countless cancelled or postponed wine fairs, being offered few alternative opportunities.
Creative wine entrepreneur Fabien Lainé, who works with French wine producers, laments: “I think wine fairs have been doing nothing at all for producers and appellations to support them so far except cancelling… how is this possible when some have been clients of the fairs for so many years?”
The only trade fair that has so far announced an online opportunity in the form of a virtual wine fair platform is the China Food & Drink Fair, due to have taken place this month in Chengdu. But, as Robert Joseph, wine writer and co-founder of the recently-launched Real Business of Wine webinars, notes: “Creating an online wine fair is a huge undertaking.”
Several independent online initiatives to address the gap have sprung up, some of them adaptations of existing online events, others created by seasoned digital wine marketers.
The Portuguese solution
Working as a digital wine marketer for 15 years, André Ribeirinho is CEO and a founder of Adegga in Portugal. The company advises wineries on their online presence, as well as running wine shows and events, often with a digital element.
Ribeirinho and his team had been planning a campaign in the United States to help Portuguese producers meet importers, but plans were postponed when the wine tariff crisis hit. The company was already working on ideas to facilitate online meetings, when the Prowein trade fair in Germany was cancelled.
Using the budget Adegga had put aside for visiting Prowein, they set about helping producers, who had planned meetings there by creating the online event Portugal Wine Week, which took place last week, when Prowein was due to be held.
Portugal Wine Week had two activities: a two-day live-streamed programme and throughout the week one-to-one twenty-minute online video meetings between winemakers and importers. Originally the winemakers were to be based in hotel rooms in Lisbon and Porto but with self-isolation becoming necessary, at three days’ notice Ribeirinho persuaded the winemakers to participate remotely from their home or winery and taught them how to use the Zoom video application for a live chat and tasting.
“None of the 62 Portuguese winemakers [we worked with] had done a live online tasting before,” he explained.
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Afterwards Ribeirinho received numerous grateful emails from producers, pleased not only to have the opportunity of virtual meetings with importers (there were 80 meetings in all), but also to learn a new skill.
Several have continued doing live tastings with their customers. On the other side, one Swedish importer was particularly grateful to have conducted meetings with seven producers. Some 300 wine professionals registered to follow the live-streamed educational programme, winemaker chats and tastings, which are now available on YouTube. Ribeirinho thinks that the event showed that a massive shift in behaviour by winemakers was possible. However, he cautioned that this should not be seen as a replacement for wine fairs in the future, but instead it showed what complementary events could be done.
Ribeirinho was also one of a panel for the first webinar hosted last week by Robert Joseph, working with digital marketing consultant Polly Hammond in their new initiative. The Real Business of Wine webinars’ stated aim is “to bring together top professionals from across the world to share their expertise and experience on a specific topic with a global community”.
Aptly, its first webinar was titled “Events beyond our control”, and alongside the hosts were Ribeirinho, journalists Felicity Carter of Meininger Wine Business International, and Bordeaux specialist writer Jane Anson (discussing the postponed En Primeur week), as well as Stevie Kim of Vinitaly, Isabelle Legeron MW of the RAW Wine Fair and Ian Ford of Summergate Fine Wines and a specialist in the Chinese market. The webinar was hosted using Zoom, and a programme has been announced with twice-weekly webinars embracing a range of topical wine business subjects. Joseph comments that they aim to attract guests and participants from both big wine business and small wineries.
“The Zoom platform we are using is very simple… I suspect it – or its quite similar competitors – will soon be as familiar to a growing number of people as Facebook is today.” The webinars are recorded for later viewing on YouTube.
Logging the lockdown
A guest on the second webinar, which was mainly concerned with adapting to working from home, was Reka Haros of the small Sfriso Winery in the heart of Prosecco country in the Veneto. An experienced digital marketing strategist herself, Haros, with her husband Pier Sfriso also appeared on the Portugal Wine Week live-streaming event.
The Frisos and their children, have been in complete lockdown for four weeks, with no wine buyers coming to their door, nor any way to ship their wine to waiting customers.
Already active on social media, the Sfriso couple are documenting their quarantine experience on a written and video blog. Their forthright, mainly cheerful, honesty about their situation, originally planned to keep their customers up-to-date, has attracted much attention from the media raising exposure, although of course not solving their immediate problems. Haros stresses: “Now is not the time to push more sales, it is about survival… we reach out and try to hug customers.”
For those trade and consumers who have not yet adopted internet tools to communicate about wine, in this crisis many soon will. Whereas Twitter tastings have been around for years, online tastings are attracting a new audience. The Italians are rapidly adopting the habit of partaking in online aperitivos, and the trend is fast spreading around the world.
There is also a new sense of urgent creativity among wine bloggers wanting to help winemakers in some way. Since last week Frank Morgan, who writes the Drink what YOU Like blog, has been running Virtual Virginia Wine Chats each Monday to Thursday evening. They have evolved from the Virginia Wine Chat live-streaming tastings he has held roughly monthly since 2013, aimed to help the wineries attract interest from beyond the state itself, which accounts for 90 per cent of sales.
When Morgan discovered that wineries were closing their tasting rooms due to COVID-19, and with the need to adopt social distancing, he rapidly changed the format to using Facebook Live from home.
A real community effort, Morgan encourages viewers to buy the wines locally and often negotiates special offers as well as quizzing winemakers about the current stresses due to the crisis along with extracting more positive news. Being on the Facebook platform, commenting is easy and, for example, in the interview with Aubrey and Justin Rose of Rosemont of Virginia, viewers shared where the wines could be bought out of state.
Might this move to digital communications persist in the post-coronavirus wine world when we return to the ongoing, pressing issues of the economy and the environment? After two weeks of what she describes as “house arrest” another Real Business of Wine webinar participant from Italy, Camilla Lunelli of Ferrari in Trentino, mused about how things can evolve for the future asking: “Is all that travel really necessary?”
Robert Joseph and New Zealand-based Polly Hammond have both been aware for some time about the need to lower their carbon footprints. Joseph stresses: “There will always be a human need to meet, but I’m sure we’ll see a process of evolution. Wine professionals were already complaining about having ‘too many fairs’.”
Ribeirinho concludes: “Digital is part of the solution and not the problem… [but] we who work in tech have to make it easy.”