Wine has traditionally been a pleasure to be shared, from bottles sipped over an intimate dinner to tastings and clubs that bring out the crowd. Now, with the rise of digital technology and social media, the crowd isn’t limited to just consuming, or even a specific region, and wineries are starting to use crowdsourced investments, opinions and winemaking to build brand awareness and get consumers involved.
Naked Wines, an online wine retailer that debuted in 2008, has been making headlines with steadily increasing profits, reporting record sales of nearly $8.6 million each month as of this summer. The company crowdsources members who invest approximately $30 per month in a wine producer and are then able to purchase the wines at wholesale prices. Growing to approximately 220,000 members from the U.K., Australia and the U.S., Naked Wines was shipping more than 25,000 bottles of wine to its members every day, reported a story published by The Telegraph this summer. Naked Wines has said it expects continued sales growth in 2014. Profit, however, will remain steady as the company will “invest everything we can in new wines, winemakers and customers,” said founder Rowan Gormley in The Telegraph story.
U.K.-based food retailer Tesco has involved consumers in a different way. This summer, it hosted a tasting of about 100 of its wines in an effort to get ideas for words to use to describe each of the wines to consumers.
“We are aware that all the wine descriptions we use at Tesco come from people who are very close to the wines, whether they are the supplier, the winemaker or a member of the Tesco wine team,” said Master of Wine Laura Jewell in a story published on Harpers.co.uk. “The team is keen to get descriptions from people tasting the wines with a more impartial point of view.”
Locally in the U.S., two West Coast wineries launched crowdsourcing projects this year, giving people around the world the chance to get virtually involved in the process from start to finish. Columbia Crest in Eastern Washington is making a Crowdsourced Cabernet and giving virtual winemakers a chance to have a say in each step of the process, said winemaker Juan Muñoz-Oca.
“We felt for the longest time that people that are into wine love to hear the details and nuances of making wine,” Muñoz-Oca said. “What’s mundane to a winemaker, things like barrel selection and so forth, can be fascinating to those people. Also, we are in Paterson, Wash., a little bit out of the way, and we felt like the technology and social media make it very easy for us to extend that excitement to people without having to drive three hours to the winery.”
Further south, in Sonoma, Calif., La Crema Winery launched the Virtual Vintner Experience, giving the public a chance to decide whether to make a pinot noir or a chardonnay. The crowd chose the red, the first of about a dozen decisions they’ll vote on throughout the process. Some 6,000 people voted in the first round, and the number of people registered has swelled to 20,000 since, said Jason Hunke, spokesman for parent company Jackson Family Wines. Today, they’ll get a chance for more input, as the winery kicks off a contest asking people to write tasting notes describing what they think the Pinot Noir will taste like, he said. Their notes will be compared to the ones written by La Crema winemaker Elizabeth Grant-Douglas.
“La Crema has a very active and engaged digital community — our social media and blog audiences are quite large and very hands-on,” Hunke said. “We do ongoing programs that speak to what’s happening with harvest, as well as more lifestyle and entertaining content, all the while keeping wine education a thread along the way.”
Unlike crowdsourcing in the way small businesses are using it to find financial backers on sites like Kickstarter, the wineries’ efforts don’t involve direct investment. Virtual winemakers don’t commit to buying any of the wine, although they’ll get a chance to purchase some of the final product when it’s ready in about 18 months.
Instead, the crowdsourced winemaking is more about building brand awareness for the wineries and extending interactions into the digital world. In addition to the voting, both wineries have created social pages that extend the campaigns. La Crema’s Virtual Vintner page includes explanations of the process, tidbits about winemaking, short videos, plenty of luscious photos and an invitation to follow further via Tumblr.
Columbia Crest’s Crowdsourced Cabernet page offers real-time webcam views of the vineyards, weather conditions, updates and other wine-related content. The site also includes a map showing all the places that have wine fans who have signed onto the project.
Crowdsourcing is an invention of the digital age, but wineries have long built their reputations and sales with in-person events such as tastings and wine clubs that help them foster loyal followings, said Allen Balik, wine collector and co-founder and President of Club Essence — Savor Life Through Wine.
“Most wineries want to enhance the physical meeting with customers and potential customers and have fashioned a variety of activities (blending, stomping, picking, etc.) in conjunction with winery visits and tasting programs,” he said. “Other than communicating the event or recapping it after it has happened I don’t see social media replacing these hands-on experiences.”
Both wineries have active on-site tasting and event schedules, and wine clubs. The crowdsourced efforts won’t replace those, but it may enhance them by raising awareness among a more far-flung audience.
“Through this, and as we come up with voting categories and people engage with the process, they’re being exposed to the conditions in which we grow the grapes in Washington,” said Columbia Crest’s Muñoz-Oca. “It’s a really cool place to grow grapes, and Washington could use more awareness.”
Whether digital efforts will attract new buyers and in-person visits remains to be seen, and it’s likely to pay off more handsomely for some than for others, said Balik.
“It takes a personal touch and an acutely effective person running the ship to have much value,” he said
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