The digital revolution is spreading across the wine world — whether the industry is ready or not.
More than 450 wine-related applications are now available on the iPhone and other mobile devices — more than six times the number that existed only 18 months ago, according to a recent survey.
Last year, people on Facebook, Twitter and other social media had 14 million online conversations about wine, providing recommendations, reviewing vintages and suggesting the best wineries to visit, said Paul Mabray, chief strategy officer for VinTank, a Napa consulting firm.
Social media and mobile technology, which have garnered widespread coverage for playing a key role in the Arab uprisings, are now quietly usurping the wine industry's traditional marketing powers and fueling a revolt among the hordes of casual wine drinkers.
“As an industry, we can no longer ignore digital,” Mabray said. “We now live in a Google economy.”
Mabray and others are pushing wineries to develop strategies that incorporate the widening arsenal of digital tools such as social media, data management and company-wide integration of workflow technology.
Some wine executives, such as John Jordan at Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Healdsburg, are already more than two years into implementing their digital strategies.
“It's a constantly evolving, messy thing,” said Jordan, the winery's chief executive officer. “But technology makes it possible for a company to really become customer centric.”
Some executives are struggling to adapt to the fast-changing online landscape, a place that increasingly influences everyday consumers, Mabray said. But they don't have a choice: this is the future of the industry, he said.
People can now use their phones while standing in a grocery aisle to research the best wine to purchase. Mobile applications make it easy for them to read online reviews, watch videos of North Coast winemakers, or get recommendations on what wines to pair with the cheese already in their cart.
“People aren't doing this for their soap purchases,” Mabray said. “But they're doing it for wine.”
While some of these new programs are still rough around the edges, people such as Mabray and Jordan believe that wineries need to co-evolve with these technologies in order to engage wine drinkers and stand out in a crowded marketplace.
Fortunately, wine executives are not powerless in the struggle. Sites such as Cruvee.com let executives monitor what people online are saying about their wine brands. They can also use the site, which doubles as a clearinghouse for digital data, to fill in information about their wine brand so that mobile applications can easily grab all the data and relay it to consumers, said Mabray, whose firm operates the website.
“The wine industry really needs to focus on how they manage their data,” he said.
Because if they don't, someone else surely will.
Consumers can now access more than 1 million user-generated reviews and winery profiles on www.cellartracker.com, or pull out their iPhones to use a mobile application such as Snooth that scans a wine bottle's barcode to provide instant reviews. The mobile application Hello Vino offers suggestions for the best wine to pair with anything from pineapple and ham pizza to Cornish hen prepared for Thanksgiving.
The marketing strategy of focusing heavily on key influencers in the industry is a thing of the past, said Lisa Mattson, communications director at Jordan.
“I think the future is reaching the consumer where they buy the product,” Mattson said.
Every-day wine drinkers are no longer beholden to the recommendations of wine writers, sommeliers or wine retail specialists. They now have each other — a mobile conversation happening right in the grocery store or restaurant booth.
So Jordan has begun creating unique wine content, such as videos about harvest or winemaking, aimed at being interesting and educational to wine lovers. The winery wants people to use information from the videos in conversations with other wine drinkers, and in doing so it hopes the Jordan brand is slipping into the dialogue.
Jordan hired Mattson in November 2009 to lead the winery's digital efforts, and she has gained a reputation in the industry as a thought-leader on technology and wine.
“We don't have the big budget of a large winery. And we don't have a big sales force,” Mattson said. “We have to use technology to be more efficient and compete.”
That message is increasingly sinking in across Wine Country, but many wine veterans are still slow to implement technologies such as customer relationship management software, which is commonly used in other industries to track the buying habits and preferences of individual customers who have made purchases in the past.
“Fewer than 10 percent of wineries have CRM software,” said Mabray, whose company tracks the use of digital technology in the industry and conducted the mobile application survey. “That's really kind of a sad statement.”
Wineries can use that type of digital information to send personalized messages and sales promos to customers via their Twitter accounts, Facebook pages or even with old-school email.
At Jordan Winery, the use of technology has become ubiquitous. Winemakers can control the temperatures of fermentation tanks from their iPhones, or host Skype video chats with oenophiles in Atlanta or Little Rock, and every employee conducts daily business from an iPad.
Jordan's sales team uses iPad presentations to push their brand to retail outlets and distributors, and with a few taps on the screen a sales representative can move from the sales pitch into the order form.
The winery has built custom videos to be used on digital wine menus — most often displayed on iPads in swanky restaurants. The roughly two-minute videos let Jordan's winemaker, Rob Davis, describe his wine's profile at the very moment a customer is preparing to choose what bottle to order.
Chicago Cut Steakhouse is one restaurant using iPad menus loaded with a video of Davis.
“Within 45 days, our sales at the restaurant increased 17 percent,” Mattson said.
The winery will even shoot custom videos for retailers who want content to show on their website or in their store — so long as the store agrees to buy a certain amount of Jordan wine.
Wineries are trying other methods to enter the conversation too. Dry Creek Vineyard is putting QR codes on its wine bottles, which let a customer standing in the grocery aisle scan the code with their smartphone and be instantly brought to a Dry Creek Vineyard webpage.
“As a brand, you have to be part of that dialogue,” said Bill Smart, director of communications at the Healdsburg winery. “It allows us to be more customer centric.”
Scanning the winery's QR code, which looks a bit like a thumbnail-sized TV tuned to static, takes people to a short video of the winery's owners talking about their wine.
Dry Creek Vineyard began thinking hard about its digital strategy in the last year, Smart said.
“There has been sort of a lightbulb moment here,” he said. “Now its about making this stuff happen.”
The winery plans to build a mobile website designed for viewing from a smartphone, and it is working on integrating customer relationship management software, Smart said.
“It's not an option,” he said. “As a business in today's world, you can't sit on the sidelines and not engage in the social world.”