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The past is prelude to the future, or How I invented the Internet

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Well, I didn’t really invent the Internet. But I did write an article in the May, 1997 issue of Wine Enthusiast — twelve years ago — that was pretty prescient in its predictive power. (And that is a 98-point alliterative triumph.)

I came across an old copy of the ‘zine last week. Re-reading my article, Wine on the Web, I was reminded of the heady excitement of the mid- 1990s when the wine industry and the Internet collided. But what really struck me was how many of the issues back then are still with us, unresolved and perhaps unresolvable.

By the second paragraph, I’d identified the key: “…vintners sense an opportunity to market their wines…”. I quoted the then-PR manager of St. Clement to explain why her winery had rushed to set up a Web page. “We didn’t have a goal,” she explained. “We just knew we had to be a part of it.” From there, I quoted Peter Granoff, an original founder of Virtual Vineyards (which went belly up; it’s now morphed into wine.com). “[M]ost wineries are still caught up in the Web for its own sake and are struggling to find out what to do.”

Peter, or that PR manager, could say precisely the same things today! It’s amazing that, as far as we’ve come, most California wineries remain well behind the digital curve and don’t seem to know what to do with the Internet, including social media (which didn’t exist in 1997). True, most wineries have a website. But most of them are boring, unfriendly, and not even up-to-date with new vintages (which you’d think would be easy to do with a computer). Wineries should be leading other businesses in forging ahead on the Internet, not dawdling behind.

I also wrote: “There are only two things a winery or wine company can do on the Net….marketing and sales. Although intimately related, they’re really quite different.” I called marketing a “soft activity,” meaning it did not directly make money. Concerning sales, I wrote: “this is the hard part of the transaction. It’s where the customer actually forks over a credit card number.

Couldn’t have said it better today.

I quoted an electronic marketing expert: “The question today is whether the Web’s primary value to business will be as a revenue builder, a cost-cutting device, or a brand builder. I believe that brand-building will win out.” That woman was right. We’re seeing that brand building and customer loyalty are the end products of web sites, blogs and twitter, not sales in and of themselves, much less cutting costs.

In my article I also quoted Granoff as saying it didn’t make sense for mass-produced wines, which are readily available in supermarkets, to sell direct over the Internet. “Why would you buy it on the Net and pay the extra cost of shipping, and then have to wait to get it?” The same is true today. Instead, he and others told me, it would be smaller wineries that would benefit from DTC sales. (Of course, this was well before the Granholm v. Heald 2005 Supreme Court decision.) Let’s hope that day is near when all 50 states allow shipping of wine. That will be the salvation of many small family wineries that otherwise may not make it.

I quoted de Toqueville: “Time has not shaped it into perfect form…and it is almost impossible to discern what will pass away…and what will survive.” He was speaking of America in the 1830s, but we could use those exact words about the Internet right now.

Dept. of Oops

The Associated Press is reporting that “A man suspected of breaking into a Maine restaurant will have to get used to jailhouse food after workers at the eatery discovered lobsters and wine missing – and the suspect asleep on a bench. Police said [name withheld] broke into the Portland Lobster Co. through a rear window and stuffed his pockets with cash before chowing down on the better part of 11 prepared lobsters worth about $300. He washed it all down with a white wine…”

Same thing happens to me when I eat 11 lobsters. I just wanna close my eyezzzzz and drifffftt… By the way, I went to the Portland Lobster Co.’s website to see what white wines they have. I hope the thief washed his crustaceans down with the J. Lohr Chardonnay because that’s what I would have picked.

And you thought “Sonoma Coast” was too big

The TTB in its wisdom announced its latest Frankenstein AVA yesterday. Quote from the PDF: “The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) published a final rule in the Federal Register establishing the Upper Mississippi River Valley viticultural area.  This viticultural area consists of 29,914-square miles…”

In other words, just your typical tiny little appellation.

Thirty-thousand square miles! That’s 175 miles on each side. Here’s the truly pathetic part of the press release: “We designate viticultural areas to allow vintners to better describe the origin of their wines and to allow consumers to better identify wines they may purchase.” Yes, it’s truly helpful to the consumer to know that the wine hails from somewhere in the upper Midwest.

missvalley

Your wine comes from someplace in here

  1. aimee m. says:

    making a Web site is easy. maintaining a Web site is HARD.

    i can’t help but think that one of the many reasons why wineries (or other businesses) have quickly thrown themselves online but then stagnated is just that — the Web’s not a billboard or broadsheet, it needs to be fed. And feeding requires time and money, if not above all a general sense of who you’re talking to, and why. Without all that, it’s just another bit of digital graffiti that is quickly forgotten.

  2. Jeff A. says:

    “We designate viticultural areas to allow vintners to better describe the origin of their wines and to allow consumers to better identify wines they may purchase.”

    …um, Calistoga Cellars? Oh wait….

  3. One thing that really is frustrating about many wineries is the juxtaposition how much effort they’ll put into a website and how useless it is. There will be Flash graphics and all sorts of widgets. But if you want to know anything about the wine itself, you’re out of luck.

    Napa-style wineries are one of the worst offenders in this regard. Generally they’ll speak only in vague superlatives about their wine, and some go so far as only to tell you how to get on a waiting list. Maybe this sort of exclusive air draws in a segment of customers, but maybe it also is annoying if you’d like to know what you’d be buying.

    This is fine for them as long as they have customers lining up for allocations. But I’d like to be treated as more than a status-chasing lemming. Tell me something, anything about the wine. Lab stats, OK, that’s a start. How about when it’s harvested, elevage techniques, barrel cooperages and so on? Telling me your grapes come in at 28 Brix on November 25th with a pH of 4.1 and are aged in 100% new oak will tell me a lot about the wine.

  4. Minor nit: Virtual Vineyard did not go belly up. It received a large infusion of cash from VCs, part of which Granoff and gang used to purchase the wine.com name from Dave Harmon who was the second owner of the URL. The original wine.com closed after the investors decided to pull the plug, ironically not unlike New Vine Logistics whose investors have ceased putting money into the fulfillment house. I say “ironically” since NVL (now New Vine) had begun its life as wineshopper.com and merged with wine.com. Somehow the fulfillment engine was able to pull itself out of the wine.com wreckage and become NVL. wine.com has had several lives after Peter G. moved on to his current venture (Ferry Bulding/Oxbow Wine Merchant).

  5. Hah!

  6. To add even more irony, I should have mentioned that wine.com III– or is it wine.com IV– has just announced, as most readers here know, that it has created a new fulfillment division that will do just what New Vine was doing before it gave up the ghost.

  7. Tom, I saw that. Interesting.

  8. That’s an incredible amount of lobster to eat. Are we sure that name withheld isn’t the famed gurgitator Kobayashi?

    As for wineries being slow to the punch in the digital space, I phrase it this way. How many of us are olympic athletes? My point being, there are always going to be the small percent with the will and drive to take on the task and achieve the highest honor. The majority will be happy just to be competing in the first place, jogging at their own pace wondering why they always stare at someone else’s back.

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