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The International Wine Industry
A Luncheon Address from Jancis Robinson
Tuesday, 17th February, 2009  - Jennifer Graham

Jancis Robinson the London based wine writer says; "The wine industry is missing a huge opportunity to forge deeper relationships with consumers using new technologies such as PodCasts and wine blogs."

That was the blunt message delivered to 280 wine writers and industry executives in Sydney during a lunch on the 4th February. She suggested the delicate communications between wine writers and producers has been superseded. "You don't need any outside publisher or editor to get a decent platform for communicating about wine", she said. Today the domain of all former parasites (a reference to wine writers as "parasites on the wine trade", in the Oxford Companion to Wine) is online.

Robinson's assertion comes amidst revelations that she had just got the sack from a South African Wine magazine via email before leaving Britain, where the UK Sunday Times column is also shrinking, and wine has disappeared altogether from women's magazines. "There's just not that much wine advertising," she said, "at least 4-colour wine advertising that publishers like to bring in the revenue." Mainstream press in the US is dumping its regular wine columns and journalists, LA Times, SF Chronicle, NY Times, AMEX Food & Wine - all paring back to old wood, with remaining deans and doyens competing for shrinking column centimetres in the weekend food supplements.

Thus Robinson considers herself lucky writing for the Financial Times, since the late eighties. "Over recent years the fine wine market has certainly been alive and burning", being "allowed to write a lot about smart stuff every week because there is a healthy load of ads from people who sell class growths and top Burgundies."

Her Financial Times column communicates lesser known, hard-to-get information about smaller merchants, smaller quantities, because "it's nice to give those wines a bit of oxygen [to the domestic market]." But the global financial crisis has left a sagging Pound, creating a paradoxical situation where major business for UK fine wine traders at the moment is selling Bordeaux back to Bordeaux (because it's all so nice and cheap, and cool storage conditions in Britain are attractive to international wholesalers). Robinson notes Britain is "a horrible place to live but a lovely place to keep wine."

The combination of these major elements of change inform Robinson's rhetoric: Do you measure a wine writer's success by the area of the column, the number of ads or resulting sales? When an article is published in the San Francisco Chronicle her feedback is enormous. "Perhaps its because [that news source] is more online and people are more ready to push the button and send something through, and it's fun. Anyone who can get online can pontificate about wine, it's very very easy to set-up a website or become a participant poster on a wine forum and establish your identity in that way."

Robinson believes wine writers have lost that isolation from criticism because of the vast amount of forums and blogs around the Internet where people can write and criticise: "Oh you were so wrong about the 2005 such and such … we are finding consumers are increasing holding the whip hand as well as having a readership or audience."

Citing WineLibrary, a Springfield, New Jersey (US) wine store with a popular interactive Web site, Robinson describes Gary Vaynerchuk, a white Russian in his 30's as "way over the top", and if you want to see the future, have a look at WineLibrary.

"Wine on TV is shrivelling, wind gently rustling the vines - lovely photographs, lovely pans, a bit of banter and that's about it except for the occasional reality drama like Chateau Monti, or Oz Clarke and James May. Watching wine on TV the bottling line is by far the most captivating thing, and typically wine tasting is not a spectator sport. But this guy's got it, addressing wine to young people through his daily TV show, he does it 'utterly unlike me'.

The store's e-commerce Web site has expanded to include blogs, reader wine reviews, and something called WineLibrary TV, which features videos of Vaynerchuk talking in a highly personal, in-your-face style about a range of wine topics. Vaynerchuk has helped grow his family's small wine shop into a US$60 million enterprise by aggressively adopting the latest technologies.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people in the wine business are really blowing it," says Vaynerchuck, who launched the feature because he feels the industry has too long bowed to a handful of elite critics whose opinion means nothing to the average wine drinker.

Most people lend more credence to the opinions of other consumers, something wineries and other segments of the wine industry have been slow to recognise and face.

"Now everyone has got an opinion. Everyone's got their two cents. Every person you cross paths with in this industry you need to fear, and you need to embrace," Vaynerchuk said.

People are writing so much on the Internet today about products that their ramblings today surpass the words generated by all other traditional media.

The importance of "peer-to-peer" reviews to consumers' buying habits has grown significantly. In 1977, 67 percent of consumers cited worth-of-mouth recommendations as the single greatest factor they relied on in deciding whether to buy something. Today, that number is 92 percent. The proof is everywhere. Seven of the top 10 references to Barossa's Torbreck wines on search engine Google are consumer-generated references.

About 73 percent of people who shop online leave comments behind to share their thoughts and experiences with other consumers. The implications of these trends for wineries and myriad other businesses is that consumers expect the company to respect and engage them about their opinions.

Criticism of companies and their products are now front and centre for everyone to see, and companies should welcome this online discussion instead of fearing it. Some wineries become so paralysed by the idea that someone will post something negative about their wines on their Web site that they don't add such functions to their site. But smart wineries that are making good products should realise that they have nothing to fear from an occasional jab from consumers.

Vaynerchuk agrees. Wineries that are complacent and unwilling to engage new consumers in their own language will soon find themselves left behind. "Get out of your comfort zone and embrace change," he said. "If you are scared, you are going to lose, and losing sucks."

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