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Wine Online: How The Internet Is Revolutionizing The Wine Market

· May 27, 2015

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Think of the wine trade and what image comes to mind? Probably a bunch of old men having a point-scoring chat about carbonic maceration, in fancy accents. Well, you’re wrong: the Internet is changing what we drink, how we buy it, and how we talk about it.

One of the most basic changes is transparency — especially of pricing. In the same way that a quick search allows one to have a good nose at the price of anything from neighbours’ houses to transatlantic flights, websites like New Zealand’s Wine Searcher, Vinopedia and Bring A Bottle let you track down that elusive Saint-Veran at the click of a mouse. If you have price transparency, the next logical step is an index: the online exchange Liv-Ex tracks 25 million sets of historic and current data to show the market value of fine wines.

If you’re more into buying a bottle of something cheap and tasty on the way home on Friday than keeping wooden cases of Lafite as an investment, the same applies: with so much information available, it’s simply easier to find what you’re looking for. Anyone can, and does, write about wine now: there are a plethora of blogs for everything from vertical tastings* of niche Bordeaux to the best wine to unwind when you’ve spent all week managing three children and a household.

“Before, the main decision tree for buying wine was colour, country, price,” says Helen McGinn, the author of Knackered Mother’s Wine Club (that’s British for “exhausted moms”). “Now, there’s this wealth of stuff online, from a recommendation on Facebook, to blogs.”

She started writing a blog in 2009, after working as a wine buyer for a major supermarket. She’d been writing a weekly wine email for friends — and missed writing the labels for the backs of the bottles. It grew into a book and newspaper column.

“I find it extraordinary,” how much the Internet has changed the way people shop, she adds, especially in terms of how accessible it has made learning about wine, which “has a tendency to be a bit master-student.”

Then there’s the data aspect. The Tasting Room, a U.S. site, is a “Pandora for wine” which sends you six mini bottles to try — then they send you wines each month based on your preferences. Tipsi is an app which builds on your taste history to give recommendations, geared to choosing in restaurants. It claims to be a “mobile sommelier for the millennial generation” — with the added bonus an app can’t have a ridiculous hairstyle, unlike actual millennials.

So far, so “traditional industry goes online” — but the issues regarding wine go to the heart of the challenges facing regulators and businesses online. Wine has some of the oldest, and toughest regulations about what can and can’t be written on a label: it all started in France hundreds of years ago.

It’s easy to mock the Internet’s obsession with lists, but think about the 1855 Bordeaux classification by which French wine producers in the region are ranked: the syndicate of brokers were the BuzzFeed of their day. Now, the classification would be called something like “Our favourite 21 chateaux in Margaux, ranked in order of awesomeness,” or “Five blended reds you MUST drink before you die.”

It’s this same fastidiousness about labelling which led wine producers worldwide to clash with ICANN, the body that manages the naming system of the global  Internet. ICANN allocates top-level domain names, such as .com or .paris or .edu, to registrars, who in turn sell domains (like bbc.com) to registrants. One proposal to ICANN, a couple of years ago, was to create new top-level domain names for .wine and .vin, but a row was uncorked last summer. Fine wine makers argued that unscrupulous companies could buy — for example — www.champagne.wine and then use it to sell sparkling wine which did not in fact originate from the Champagne region of France. The fight even brought together New World and Old World rivals, with French and Californian producers equally angry.

“There has been some progress since last summer,” says ICANN spokesman Jean-Jacques Sahel. While the contracting process for .vin and .wine is on hold, “the relevant parties involved have been working on devising a mutually acceptable mechanism to offer safeguards to a reserved list of names.” The relevant domains would only be assigned to organizations which hold the appropriate rights, and if this is finalized, ICANN would make sure everyone behaves themselves. Mr. Sahel adds it would be “difficult to suggest a specific timeline for resolution,” adding both sides are showing goodwill.

Then there’s tax. For a start, wine is subject to excise duties which vary wildly between the different EU member states, as well as VAT. On top of that, there have been many recent controversies about how to tax online companies, with France in particular saying tech giants like Google should pay tax where profits are generated. But what about buying French wine online? Where was that profit generated? Does it matter whether you bought that wine online, or from a charming little cave in Puligny-Montrachet? Difficult questions.

Moreover, winemakers are aiming for different things. Of regular wine drinkers in the UK, 55% are women, so forget the stereotype of an old boys’ network: new girls are drinking most of the wine. So what better to help with marketing than finding out what women like? Nine years ago, Feminalise, an all-female wine-tasting competition started in Burgundy. This year, nearly 700 women tasted 3,700 wines, awarding medals to their favourites. And where do they find new wines and tasters? Online.

“Once we’d made it possible for producers to enter their wines and pay online, we got wines from outside France,” says Stephanie Brisson, head of global marketing for Feminalise. The competition reworked its website and contacted tasting associations worldwide. Previously a primarily French competition, this year there were women from 15 different countries including Japan, Argentina, Lebanon and Estonia. “Going online has helped us grow internationally,” Ms Brisson concludes. Cheers to that!

* Vertical doesn’t mean you stand up while doing them (indeed, you may not by the end) – it’s different vintages of the same wine. Horizontal means different wines produced in the same year. See — you can demystify anything about wine online 😉

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