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Taking the digital plunge, and being green: K-J goes to e-tasting


In 2008, Kendall-Jackson’s winemaster, Randy Ullom, visited 20 of their top U.S. markets — including Vancouver, Dallas, Chicago, San Diego and Phoenix — as well as selected overseas ones. He would fly to wherever he was going, meet and taste wine with influential critics, distributors and key retail accounts, spend the night in a hotel, then fly back to California. All very 2oth century: time consuming, expensive, and imposing a big carbon footprint on the planet’s environment.

Then K-J’s PR team came up with the idea of what they’re calling “e-tasting” (after considering tele-tasting and video chat). “Now, we can do tasting without leaving our homes or offices,” Ullom says. If your computer has a built-in webcam, K-J’s tech guys will walk you through the set-up for a remote visit. If it doesn’t, they’ll send you a free webcam kit and help you set it up. Randy pre-mails you the wines to taste, you agree on a mutual time to call, and voila, there the two of you are, split screen, talking with each other. “We’re mimicking what we’d do face to face in real time, across the table. We still have a table, but there’s an electronic distance between us,” Ullom says, adding, “There’s complete and full interaction.” As someone who has tasted with Ullom many times, at cost to both, this was a revelation.


My tasting with Randy

Ullom began the e-tastings 6 weeks ago, and the team has been on a fast learning curve. At first, they couldn’t make it work with Macintoshes (which is why our first appointment had to be postponed). Then the IT guys figured that one out. Now, the sky’s the limit for what K-J can do online. Some of their ideas, maybe slow to some but cutting edge for wineries: To hit up every one of K-J’s markets in 2009, not just the 20 or so Ullom can fly to. “Every state, every big metro city,” he says, “and we hope to take it international as well. Imagine the carbon footprint of flying to Dubai.”

Beyond e-tasting is the terra incognita of social networks. “Twitter, Facebook, they’re all things we’re looking at,” Ullom says. “You can talk to thousands of people.” They may start with K-J’s club members and see how it goes. Ullom’s also been experimenting with a blog, which for a lot of winemakers is something they haven’t been comfortable with, yet.

“It’s virgin territory out there,” Ullom says of the Internet, “but this is the wave of the future. You have to get onboard, go to a new frontier, where no man has gone before, take a stab at it, as opposed to doing nothing. I was resistant to email 12 years ago,” he grins, “and now, it’s a way of life. Who knows where this is going? But it’s going, that’s a fact.”


Where no man has gone before

  1. Wineries need to think of the internet/social media as a way to provide customers with soap opera-like entertainment and not to provide customers with Parker-like tasting notes and food pairing recommendations.

    I’d rather see KJ promote their Vanimal than listen to a winemaker talk about terroir. (click on the middle video “Chase Vineyard Zinfandel” when he throws ice in his zin!)

    Will KJ get this fun content in front of people with facebook and twitter?

  2. I like the interaction and appreciate KJ’s focus on this (and other things they are doing with the millennials-see May WE) though I suspect within nanoseconds this will be relegated to someone else due to demand.

    Winemaker blogs are pretty scattered. Oddly, some of the heartfelt best are in Bordeaux. I an not a fan of “entertainment” on wine websites. I’d prefer they get rid of the flash. Do the spirits websites succeed with their targets (completely dedicated to entertainment)?

    This KJ concept, however, is a good way to handle wine bloggers and helps KJ quickly decide who gets the samples. A clever solution to a problem the industry is struggling with.

    I’ve written about and appreciate the carbon footprint (and better to cut a flight than a job) but tasting in the clouds is not the same as being in a cellar or at a table one-on-one.

    So, would I give up a flight to see their properties in Sonoma and Lake (etc) for a webcam? Will have to mull that one over…

  3. Kathy, what you say it true for those of us who report best from cellars. But sommeliers, distributors, wine store owners, etc? They may not be into it to the degree we are, and an e-tasting may make perfect sense.

  4. Lisa Mattson says:

    I’m surprised to see that it’s taken a big wine company like K-J this long to roll-out e-tasting programs. Perhaps it’s because they needed to get approval through the legal department — or they wanted to develop the right technology with their IT team. Regardless, it’s a good move. Hopefully small wineries and wine companies will realize that there are some easy, affordable options for e-tastings and bringing winemakers into the homes of consumers and trade alike, such as Ustream.TV or We have been experimenting with both for a few months, although our focus has been on consumers versus trade. We are going to stream a winemaker live to a public wine tasting in San Francisco next week, Wine 2.0, via a web cam so that consumers can ask him questions about the wines they are sampling. We have a winemaker who is conducting sales meetings on the East Coast from his home in Sonoma via Skype. The whole social media and streaming video world is rapidly evolving and a great way to reach target audiences. But you have to be ready for the technology glitches. It’s all still new.

  5. There’s definite merit for this. I understand Katy’s point of view as well. There are people who are always going to want to experience the property and tasting room first hand. However, there are just as many, if not more, who would be content to have an interaction which saves them the flight. I appreciate Ullom’s attitude toward the current technological trends. As with anything new, you just have to get your feet wet and not be embarrassed to make a few mistakes along the way. Those are the types of people who succeed, let alone the types of wineries.

  6. Hugh Gardner says:

    Brilliant! It’s a wonder the wine industry didn’t think of this years ago; still it’s a good thing that Kendall-Jackson is finally getting this ball rolling (leave it to PR types to do something smart every once in a while). To Kathy’s concern that it would preclude her from visiting their properties, I don’t think that’s the idea. I imagine they would still welcome wine writers who make the trip. I read that the e-tasting saves the winemaker from having to travel all over the place; if the wine writer wants to trek around, that would be up to him/her. In any event, the use of this technology (finally!) does solve the problems of time, expense and waste. Also I would assume it gives the winemaker more time to do what winemakers should be doing–making wine. Bravo!

  7. This is a great evolution of a similar arrangement I organized over a decade ago with Mumm Napa Valley then Winemaker Greg Fowler via videoconference with leading UK journalists. The only issues with these sorts of “long distance” tastings, of course, are bottle variation, differing time zones, and that the technology does what it is supposed to do. Regardless, it would be great to see key trade buyers do more of this. With available technology, it seems so elegant and simple.

  8. Steve,

    Been doing this for a while at Pacific Rim but only for internal use. That is the way we do team tasting and meet with the team (I just did one yesterday on Dry Riesling). Has definitely raised the level of connection with our small team of 13 people.


  9. We did a key account satellite tasting at venues around the country a few years ago, EXPENSIVE! I work for a Cali winery and live in the midwest. Getting sales reps to Napa/Sonoma is a 3 day trip. I think this is a great way to set up distributor training events as well. Comments, questions could be texted or twittered in.

  10. Steve: We’ve been rocking the blog since ’04 and started with Facebook (through my millennial tasting room manager’s account), and we’re wrestling with the idea of Twittering. I haven’t yet, though “I have twatted.”

    I’ve got to say this idea caught me by surprise – why hadn’t I thought of this before? I have the technology and the chops to make it work. And it is obvious, and a no-brainer so far as cutting expenses and carbon footprint (which I am committed to doing in other ways).

    But we’re not K-J. We’re a little stealth brand with a 2500-case production. Randy Ullom can tell K-J’s wholesale and retail accounts “let’s do e-tasting” but I seriously doubt I can command similar attention.

    What do you think? Is this a viable, playing field leveling technology for all producers? Or just a tool for the big players?

  11. John, do you travel much for marketing? I think most winemakers/winery owners do. So if an account or someone else wants to sit and taste with you and it involves long-distance traveling, why not just ask them if they’re willing to do an e-tasting? The answer is, yes, I think this is viable for everyone. I get invited to many tastings and can only attend 1% of them. E-tasting would allow me and the winemakers much more “face time” even if it is in digital form.

  12. Wineries desperately need innovative solutions to make market visits more efficient. Visiting with trade buyers and distributor staff around the country is costly in both monies and emissions.
    Like most alternatives, this one will not replace all physical market visit meetings but is certainly a useful addition to the toolbelt.


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