Uncertain times mean it’s time to change
Something is happening out there in the wine industry, and by that I mean everything from wineries to wine stores, wine magazines and restaurants.
You can feel it in the air, like the first tang of chill in advance of the coming of Winter. It’s the taste of change, innovation, experimentation. As people realize — belatedly or not — that the old ways no longer work, they restlessly seek new ways of doing business. Gropingly, for there are no road maps into this dark future, they feel their way forward, grabbing an idea here, an idea there, brainstorming, trying to come up with a 2.0 or a 3.0 plan that will get them through the uncertainty and, just perhaps, land them on top.
I saw evidence of this yesterday at my San Francisco tasting group. Our leader, Gary Cowan, of Fine Wines International, had a little video cam set up on a tripod on the table, a first for him. After suitable jokes about Homeland Security and black-boxing our faces, Gary explained that he’s now putting videos up on his website, to help him sell his wines.
One of us, a restaurant guy, quipped, “To sell wine nowadays, you have to play with gadgets.” To which Gary replied, in all seriousness, “The days when a retailer just ordered wine and waited to sell it are over.”
He might have substituted, for the word “retailer,” “restaurant” or “winery.” No longer is it enough to make and sell wine and then expect the world to beat a path to your door. (Well, unless you’re Lafite in China, that is.) Today, sellers have to reach out to their customers, and they have to do so in ways that may be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable for them. In Gary’s case, that not only meant learning how to use a web cam, it meant mastering iPhoto. In other words, he had to develop a whole new skill set.
Restaurants likewise are learning to be creative and pro-active, especially high-end eateries. The Fifth Floor, a very tony San Francisco restaurant, has started a new consumer program, Sommelier for a Day, in which, for $250, ordinary folks get to hang out all afternoon and evening with their Master Sommelier, Emily Wines, followed by dinner. This a little beyond the ordinary routine of a fancy restaurant, but by all accounts, it’s earned them loads of P.R. and perhaps even helped stabilize the bottom line. In this, Fifth Floor’s out-of-the-box thinking brings to mind Rodney Strong’s “A Really Goode Job” contest of this past summer.
Wineries also are going online, reaching out, innovating. The Napa Valley Vintners has turned into the Cirque du Soleil of winery associations, constantly on tour showing off their wares. They’re Twittering, with 1,410 followers and growing, and Facebooking, with 2,705 fans. Winemakers are lining up to do a star turn on Gary V.’s Wine Library TV the way actors with new movies vie for a spot on Letterman and Conan.
It’s not just here in media-saturated America. Even in staid Bordeaux, the winemaking community needs to resort increasingly to “wine tourism, aerial rides over the vineyards and posh picnics among the vines,” advises the legendary Bernard Magrez, proprietor of Chateau Pape Clement and Chateau La Tour Carnet.
Aerial rides over the vineyards in Bordeaux! Sacre bleu! Is nothing sacred?
K&L Wine Merchants, a Bay Area fixture for 30 years, just announced the launch of a new mobile site to give its customers search access to its catalog. They know they can’t sit back on their keisters and wait for people to come into the store. My own magazine, Wine Enthusiast, has one of the fastest-growing iPhone apps, which gives users access to our database of nearly 75,000 wine reviews, in addition to vintage charts and other wine information.
These are all examples of how new technologies and creative new ways of thinking are the silver lining around the cloud of this recession. It’s basic Darwinian selection: those who adapt to the new order will survive and thrive, while those who don’t are doomed to go the way of the dodo bird.