Last week I walked into a wine shop that indulges itself in two wonderful luxuries. One is its specialization in small-production, artisanal efforts. No stack-cased critter wines for them.
The other luxury is that the shop occupies a large area, allowing the wines to be cradled in open wood crates arranged in long rows on the floor. Space is abundant, unlike at most wine stores, where bottles are squeezed into vertical racks, which in turn are shoehorned into a small shop space.
The store was empty except for one clerk sitting at a desk. As I strolled along the rows of open crates, each crate plumped with a dozen bottles of the same wine, I examined the labels. Many of the wines—most even—were unknown to me, at least as far as the producer was concerned, and occasionally more than that. (Do you know what Rousette is? Me neither. I looked it up when I returned home. It’s a white grape native to the Savoie region of eastern France near the Swiss border.)
Most of the wine labels, especially the back labels, were uninformative—which is generally true of most wines everywhere. (European wines are the worst, as many Europeans consider a back label to be almost insulting to their self-perceived wine intelligence.)
Back labels today are usually just variations of the late Alexis Bespaloff’s legendary answering-machine message: “I cannot take your call right now, but if it’s an emergency, white with fish and red with meat.”
As I looked around the store, I realized that not a single wine crate bore a sign that told me anything about the wines within.
I might note that I’ve had the same frustrating experience in certain hip-hipper-hippest restaurants that specialize in offering unusual or esoteric wines but blithely don’t give even a single line on the wine list that helps us understand what we might be ordering. It’s challenging enough tasting wines blind. But blind wine-buying? At restaurant prices, no less? As movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn famously said, “Include me out.”
Excuse me, but how do you expect to sell anything—let alone obscure wines from equally obscure producers—without telling us anything? Why should I fork over 20 or 30 bucks for a wine about which I know absolutely nothing? I walked out of the store without purchasing a single bottle.
As one-time manure salesman (I kid you not) Arthur “Red” Motley proclaimed, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something.” Beyond the bulk level, where price is the sole attraction, wines sell when there’s a story. It’s as simple as that. And somebody has got to tell (or should I say “sell”?) that story.
What we need is a storytelling killer app. And it’s right in most peoples’ pockets: It’s our cell phones.
Imagine this scenario: You’re in a wine shop or a grocery. You’re scanning the shelves looking at wines. The clerk is busy or just doesn’t strike you as especially knowledgeable or potentially helpful.
Anyway, there you are in front of a bottle of wine that looks appealing—maybe the price, maybe the variety, maybe the label, whatever. You turn the bottle around to the back label and you read: “Let us tell you about the wine you’re holding in your hand right now. No sales nonsense, just solid information about this wine. Call us toll-free at 888-BE-SAVVY. Then press #769.”
So you shrug and figure, “Why not?“ You whip out your cell phone, call the toll-free number and press #769. And you listen. “Hi. This is Suzanne Smart, the owner-winemaker of Smart Vineyards. Thanks for calling. Para español, pulse uno. The wine you’re holding is our 2010 Chardonnay. It comes from three vineyards, all in the cool Russian River Valley district of California’s Sonoma County. What makes this wine different is that I didn’t want to use much oak.
“Here at Smart Vineyards we wanted to create a Chardonnay that would pair well with simply prepared seafood, so we backed off on the oak and also made sure that this wine is completely dry. You’ll find it to be tangy, with citrus notes and a succulent texture. We’re really proud of our screw cap, too. By the way, Wine Spectator gave this wine a score of 89. If you’d like more technical details about this wine, we’re happy to tell you. Press #111 for all the geeky stuff—and thanks again for calling.”
Now, that wasn’t so hard, was it? And it’s hardly futuristic. After all, at least three-quarters of all adult Americans now have a cell phone. Of course, things can get much more high-tech than this. For example, there’s mobile or 2D tagging. You point your cell phone camera to a bar code or other tag on the label, and you’re immediately connected to a website (or a text message) on your cell phone browser.
Another alternative is something called mobile image recognition, still in its youth (though Google's December introduction of its Google Goggles visual search app for Android phones may soon bring it into the mainstream). Here again, you would use your cell phone camera and focus on the wine label. The image is sent as a picture to software that matches it to a pre-existing image in a database. Then the content—the story, if you will—linked to that image is instantly sent back to your cell phone.
Interestingly, you can get the critics’ side of the story much more easily. For example, WineSpectator.com offers its subscribers Wine Spectator Mobile, which is a version of WineSpectator.com optimized for Internet-enabled smartphones, PDAs and other mobile devices.
The key point is that wineries and retailers are simply not doing the sell job. They’re waiting for others (magazines, critics, bloggers, newspapers, word-of-mouth) to do the job for them.
What’s more, when wineries and retailers do offer information—typically on a website—what we’re told is mostly blather. There’s astonishingly little detail or transparency on most winery websites that I’ve visited. And they’re only rarely current, often with tasting notes on vintages that are two or more years out of date.
Allow me to give you an example of what I, anyway, think is a pretty good winery website. It’s from a small Barolo producer called Brezza, which, in the past five years, has transformed its wines quite spectacularly (but that’s another column). Take a look at their site: www.brezza.it.
It’s in three languages (Italian, English and German). There’s a terrific level of easily accessible detail about each vineyard, telling us the size of each plot, its elevation, soil composition, clones, trellising, vine spacing and density, planting dates and yields. There’s a detailed explanation about their use of Vino-Lok “glass corks.” Of course, there’s a history of the winery and the family that owns it. You get the picture.
This, in my opinion, is what a good winery website looks like. It’s not fancy. It doesn’t have spoofy sound tracks and weird motion sensors that make you think your cursor has gone bipolar. It’s the Dragnet school of information ("All we want are the facts, ma'am") leavened by the producer’s attractive personal story.
You can buzz all you want about social media, but nothing beats substance. Ironically, in an age when seemingly everything is being Twitterized into molecular insignificance, we also have with our cell phones the potential to learn vast amounts about the wine we’re holding in our hands and considering buying.
But is this killer app being deployed? It is not. Instead, wineries continue to rely on a piece of paper four inches long and three inches wide—one-third of which is already occupied by a bar code and warning verbiage—to help make the sale. It’s so 15th-century.
Gutenberg might be proud. But imagine what Steve Jobs would do if Apple owned a winery.