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Drinking Out Loud

Killer Wine App

How wineries should be telling (or selling) their stories to customers—instead of relying on their labels

Matt Kramer
Posted: January 19, 2010

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.

Stewart Lancaster
beaver,pa —  January 19, 2010 1:54pm ET
I agree. The wines I buy from the LWS tend to be those I have read about or know, or wines that provide a note about them and a wine score.
Andrew J Grotto
Washington, DC —  January 19, 2010 2:13pm ET
Wine shops could learn a lot from successful hipster record stores: offer a great selection of interesting, even idiosyncratic wines; hire passionate and knowleagable salespeople who know their stuff but respect their customers' intellects and egos; and encourage people to try for themselves before they buy. The wine shop you visited should have the wine equivalent of a bank of headphones and liner notes availabe for customers to review.

Funny you mentioned the Android barcode app. I bought an Eris over the weekend, and the first app I downloaded was a barcode scanner so that I could scan wine barcodes. I played with it a bit this weekend. The technology works great - the phone's camera had no problem reading barcodes. It had a harder time matching the barcodes to particular bottles of wine. I found that the more widely available a particular wine is, the more likely the software would find the accurate match. Also, since the data conveyed by UPC labels is to some extent user-defined, it is not always accurate and certainly not standardized. (CellarTracker users will already be familiar with this problem.)
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  January 19, 2010 2:39pm ET
"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."

Matt, (I bet you saw this coming!) Your piece on Killer App. wine info was very interesting and tantalizing, but in our own defense and that of the motivated members of the trade, I must protest the lack of one word in the above. "most" or "many" wineries and retailers are simply not doing the sell job. Here at the Wine Connection we try very hard to tell those stories.

History, geography, economics, personal politics and many other factors shape the wines on our shelves and we feel it is vital to supply the customer with as much of that information as is possible, in person preferably. I like to think that we are the killer app.! But you are correct in general, shelf talkers (many of ours are our own notes) are only three sentences long at best, and it is not always possible to help each customer when the shop gets busy (oh, for six clones at Christmas time!).

But I wonder, many wineries really do have lousy websites, as you say. Will these same sorts supply vapid or out of date info in a whole new way? You bet!
Still, those that wish to succeed may take the bit in mouth and run with it. What an interesting age we live in.

Richard Scholtz
Austin, TX —  January 19, 2010 3:40pm ET
I'm dreaming of a day when you walk into your local wine retailer and the first thing you get is a tablet pc. Wander the store, find a bottle that piques your interest, and either enter a unique ID number or scan the UPC. You then get all the information on the wine that is available, including food pairings, notes by the store owner/manager, and all the geeky technical data that you care to read. I have a feeling this day is rapidly approaching.
John E Myers
Pueblo, CO —  January 19, 2010 5:57pm ET
I found your article very interesting. I am a retailer and very passionate about wine and about exposing others to wines that are not mass-marketed. I agree that wineries are relying on the graphics of a label instead of good information about the wine. My experience as a wholesaler and retailer is that people want to learn about wine, and they want to feel comfortable about their buying decision whether in a store or restaurant. My experience is most people are not real concerned with things like the Brix, soil composition, or acreage. They want to know how dry or sweet, light or full-bodied, or what foods it would compliment.
I have created a bottle tag that visually provides this kind of information so that the customer can make a comfortable decision regarding the wine. This is a huge help with foriegn wines as it can de-mystify the label. It won't offend the wine geeks either. The electronics are cool, but this a great step forward right now until the thousands of wineries get on board and embrace the advances in communication.
Rachael Lamkin
San Francisco, CA —  January 19, 2010 5:59pm ET
What I'd really like to see is a genetic tree app (or like the dating tree Alice created in the L Word). The particular wine you know you like is the parent and you can trace offspring (similar but with certain fixed variants). So I know I like X wine but want something more like a St. Laurent for the evening, I can follow the the offspring line to suggestions. Seems like an easy app, no?
John Lawrence
Michigan —  January 19, 2010 6:59pm ET
Isn't the problem with this idea the fact that much advertising is false or misleading, or both, and that many self-proclaimed critics are incompetent? Consumers have to weigh information from both sources (and others as well) to arrive at good decisions. Simply having more information merely increases the need to sift out the useless portions. Might be a good way to find a route to a highly reviewed pizza shop, though.
Matthijs Visser
Calgary —  January 19, 2010 9:24pm ET
What's interesting from my perspective as a consultant involved in many database-driven, online reporting solutions, is how easy it would be to develop an App like this:
- Setup a database that will hold all the details we want to capture (including food pairings, ageability, WS ratings and tasting notes, etc.)
- Provide a template (e.g., a straightforward spreadsheet) for wineries and/or distributors to provide the information in
- Setup an automated loader that uploads these spreadsheets into the database
- Develop a slick interface (either via a mobile website similar to Wine Spectator Mobile or a stand-alone app) allowing consumers to search for the info they're looking for while shopping
- Any additional features (like the search feature described by Rachael above) would then be easy to add as well

Now, all we need is for an industry leader to take charge of this initiative in order to collect this information and make it available to the consumer. Interested, Wine Spectator?
Michael J Korpal
pasadena ca. —  January 19, 2010 10:07pm ET
I feel confident that I know california varietals,styles,and regions.All I need is a winespectator rating tag with vintage and a score of 88 or higher.
Gary Stewart
Simi Valley, CA —  January 20, 2010 10:43am ET
I am the winemaker at a small upstart winery and we are currently planning our release. Your article answers so many parts of our frustrations. Labels are the first frustration. Dealing with TTB we as a winery are very limited on what we can say or include to our customers on the label. TTB treats the consumer as if none of them has an IQ above Zero, and almost forces us to give up on trying to pass any information onto our potential client. Second is passing information onto the Waiter or Clerk who will help describe your wine. This information usually stops at the buyer and we have no way to pass this along to the seller, and once again the communication breaks down. After reading you article I am going to start acting like Steve Jobs and see if I can’t “Think Different.”
Thanks - Gary, Four Brix Winery
Mike Diercksmeier
chicago —  January 20, 2010 12:41pm ET

Good idea. Ole Imports has done this exact thing for a few years now- http://www.oleimports.com/hearmeout/index.htm
G Lira
Sierra Madre California —  January 21, 2010 1:02pm ET
The future is here for at least one winery, Chateau des Charmes located in Ontario Canada has the QR Code on the back label of selected wines. The QR code enables you to take a picture of the label which then sends you to the Chateau des Charmes website where you will be given valuable information regarding the wine, tech notes, tasting notes as well as food pairings and the best type of glasses to use for the specific wine! It really is a useful tool for consumers and it demystifies the buying experience for the consumer. I agree wholeheartedly with the article, tools such as this need to be used and appreciated by more wineries.
Perry Rankin
Healdsburg, California —  January 21, 2010 1:11pm ET
As a retailer in a store where we rely on our knowledge of the wines we represent and hand sell them accordingly I can tell you that many wine consumers need and want the "permission to buy" they are given by a Wine Spectator, Robert Parker, or Stephen Tanzer score. I can offer a great wine for weeks and months with no rating and sell a marginal amount of it. Let Mr. Laube anoint it with a favorable high score and I can't usually fill all the orders. While we respect our potential clients right to not be "hard sold" we also appreciate their alacrity when it comes to allowing us to share our passion for a specific bottle with them.
Thanks ~ Perry, Thirty Four North Wine Merchant
Tyler Mcafee
Houston, TX —  January 21, 2010 1:51pm ET
Matt, there's an app available to Droid OS called Google Goggles. You take a picture of anything with your smart phone. The app analyzes the picture and returns the most likely results of what you took a picture of. Currently the results returned are Google search results, but this could easily be tied to a wine database containing label images and all kinds of other information. Producers (or consumers) could add as much information as they wanted to.
Doug Badenoch
Bozeman, Montana USA —  January 21, 2010 7:26pm ET
A good wine shop will be able to provide tasting notes, food pairings, similar wines as well as major wine magazine ratings. In grocery and drug stores the critter label gets the consumer to lug the bottle to the check out stand with no human intervention. As much as electronic gizmos are fun, there is no substitute for talking with an informed retailer. Looking a customer in the eye and shaking her hand cuts down on the BS and is a lot more fun and HUMAN than texting and consulting an unknown source.
If everyone consults a website, I don't have to hire passionate, well-versed wine experts. I could hire the indifferent Starbucks rejects to run the till and my store would turn into the very thing you reject. Maybe I'm a troglodyte but knowledge and expertise are available without dialing another (damn) cell phone.
Julie Vinette
Massachusetts —  January 21, 2010 8:38pm ET
I think that having information explaining the wine is VERY useful- but I am SHOCKED that a critic like MK didn't even buy a bottle in a shop that carried so much "unknown" wines. Where's the sense of adventure? If you truly love wine, you go to a shop, read (or don't read) the labels/the reviews and 'take a chance'. Isn't that what life is all about? What if you knew all the 'pertinent' details about your spouse before you married her? If she were pre-labeled (by her Mother- or an expert), would you take the risk to go out on that first date? Information is good- but wine criticism is -at best- only opinion, whatever your level of expertise.

I say: if you don't have enough information, buy it anyway. There are SO MANY incredible wines out there that there's too little time to really worry about the details. Think: 'blind date'. It can be a dud, or the start of a hot affair!

I, and my staff, do our best to know what the 'info-tags' in our store don't. AND, finally: anyone who solely relies on WS or Tanzer reviews for everything they buy needs to live a little and trust their own tastes!
Didier Ghorbanzadeh
Germany —  January 22, 2010 9:02am ET
100% agree with Julie!!
John Lawrence
Michigan —  January 22, 2010 10:09am ET
To pursue Julie's metaphor a bit further, when it comes to wine, I like to "try before you buy". Unfortunately, here in Michigan there is no wine tasting in wine shops, and organized tastings are few and far between (and often include food, making the event pleasurable but costly). I'll occasionally take a risk on an unknown bottle, but not often. I want at least a few people out there to have tried it and liked it. But as far as the "killer apps" out there, what's the rush? I'm too old for a "hot affair," or to expect one from a bottle of wine.
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  January 23, 2010 10:18am ET
Ah,shades of the Piemonte traditionalist-modernist debates--moving from making to selling wine. (From his post, Doug seems to be more in the neo-Luddite camp than the troglodyte--long may neo-Luddites flourish!) To me, the issue is less the means of getting the information and more the quality of the information. The more I learn about our e-info world, the more I question its overall quality/accuracy/agenda. I have a couple retailers and a couple of wine writers whose judgments I trust; I know their palates and can interpret/apply to my own tastes; they don't push wines but rather share their own explorations. Anyway, I raise my glass to Louis Pasteur's quip: "A bottle of wine contains more philosophy that the the books in the world." Salute!
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  January 27, 2010 12:05pm ET

Great blog! Let's not forget the otherside of the equation however. How about all those backlabels, written by the winemaker, that go on forever telling how the wine is next to a sexual orgasm and a true gift from the wine gods with all the flavors and finishes to match?!

Yes, we would like more info, but what comes from the winemaker is often biased, at best.
Marchetti Company
Cleveland Heights, Ohio —  January 27, 2010 2:28pm ET
We are a wine importer and pride ourselves on having information on all of our wines up on our website before the wine hits our warehouse (www.tmarchettico.com) that both the trade and consumers can easily obtain. Our site is constantly being updated with the new wines and reviews to keep it current.
Our challenge is the small suppliers who we work with (some of them barely speak English) have never sold a bottle of wine outside of their region. Technical information and geeky stuff is oblivious to them. We do have the fortune of opening the wines and writing tasting notes for our sell sheets and shelf talkers! As for Matt not buying anything why support a store where the clerk can't get off their chair to and offer to help?!
Kenton Erwin Consuling Llc
Portland OR, USA —  January 27, 2010 7:42pm ET
Matt, it seems like you were describing Square Deal, in Portland OR. They do a lot right, but also have some fundamental challenges, too, in my view.

Why a killer app? Sometimes old analog solutions are all that is needed. How about a nice paper printout, beside each wine, which gives lots of pertinent information? There's nothing too difficult about that. And it's quicker to find and digest than any of the above electronic solutions.
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  January 31, 2010 5:32am ET
I tend to go to wine shops where there is variety and user friendly wine information.. .and helpful, knowledgeable staff. I esp. like a store called TOTAL WINE near West Palm Beach, FL. I believe there are other TOTAL WINE stores, but not sure. They have a very organized store, by varietal and by region. They have plenty of shelf talkers (descriptive text labels) near each display. They also have a list of recommended wines for the week - each staff member notes their individual recommended wine and why. There are also videos on different monitors across the store - for tips on selecting YOUR wine. Nice stuff!

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