It’s hard to talk about wine without evoking the tokens of tradition: ancient terroir, age-old techniques of production, vineyards held by single families for successive generations.
The world of wine characteristically embraces permanence over progress, a sense of aristocratic reverence over a democratic spirit of reform.
Nevertheless, the way wine is bought and sold, and even appreciated, is necessarily changing as more and more commerce predictably moves online.
I had the opportunity to chat recently with one of the pioneers of Internet wine retail, Gary Vaynerchuk, the creator of Wine Library TV, a daily webcast devoted to all things vinicultural. Vaynerchuk was one of the prime movers behind not only selling wine online but also harnessing the potential of social media to promote more esoteric varietals to new customers.
According to Vaynerchuk, the tectonic shift in the wine industry has been brought about by a “democracy of information” that shifts the balance of power “away from the gatekeepers and towards the masses.”
While this consumer-centric revolution poses new challenges for wine retailers to remain competitive in an increasingly open market, it encourages wine drinkers to “stretch their own palettes,” discover new wines, and mine their Twitter and Facebook accounts for clues on what to try next.
Information about wine is no longer rationed out by “Parker and the Wine Spectator crowd” whose reviews once essentially predetermined what sold and what sunk. One consequence of this is that wine appreciation has become more hip, magnetizing a much younger generation to connoisseurship.
These shifts generate new opportunities for wine retailers to aggressively expand but also pose unique challenges as well: “ I don’t think people realize how hard it is to be good at having a relationship with the end-consumer. It’s very, very hard to be good at that.... They’re going to have to figure out how to tell a story, they’re going to have to figure out how to deliver a truly unique experience...”
Does this portend the end of the traditional wine shop? No, but they will have to learn quickly how to adapt to a rapidly evolving business environment:
“Physical stores are going to go away eventually in the way that we know them now. They’re going to have to deliver other experiences and other things. And so, you know, I don’t think superstores like Wine Library or Zachys or things of that nature are going out of business anytime soon.”
And as the consumer embraces a spirit of experimentation, the market will splinter into distinctive concentrations of interest: “I see more and more niche wine stores popping up...I think there’s a lot more specialization to come. I think there’s going to be a Gary V. of Napa. I think there’s going to be a Robert Parker of Rhone Valley. I think there’s going to be a Wine Spectator of Central Tobago. I think niche expertise has still not flourished the way that it can, and I think people are missing the opportunity.”
And no wine drinking community is better positioned to reap the benefits of this sea change than the American one. While Americans lack the storied heritage of wine appreciation their European counterparts rightfully lay claim to, they have much more expansive palettes as a result of more cosmopolitan offerings. “I actually think that if you are an American wine drinker, that you have a dramatically more interesting view of the wine world, a more expanded and challenged palette. I am appalled at going to Barossa Valley or to Rioja and asking what they think of Gigondas, or Corvina, or Chateauneuf, or Chenin Blanc from South Africa, and getting answers from ten-year wine makers that say, “Oh, I’ve never had one.”
And so the average American wine drinker is simply superior to the average European one? On this score, Vaynerchuk pulls no punches: “I actually don’t even think it’s close. I think the US wine consumer specifically is the best wine consumer in the world.’ In fact, the greater exposure to a much broader selection of international wines means “that a serious wine person in France has a more limited palette, in my opinion, than a casual one in the US.”
In general, Americans have become much more savvy about the way they eat and drink, both more discerning and demanding.”We are definitely eating and drinking better as a culture in the US, and it’s become more European that way, and I think we will continue to.”
Vaynerchuk has seen the blossoming maturity of American consumption with respect to beer as well: “Microbrew’s been happening in a big way in the early ‘90s too. I mean I remember thinking, “Should I learn about microbrews instead of wine?”
Given the historical preference in the US for beer, a turn towards the market dominance of wine would be a powerful sign, both economic and cultural, of the seismic transformation cyber-retail has wrought.
Is the overtaking of beer by wine a real possibility in a country that has always chosen hops over grapes? Vaynerchuk delivers his prediction with all the precision of a tweet: ‘Yes, absolutely. I’m sure I will see it. I feel very good about that.”