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Winemakers blend tradition and technology

7:54 AM, Dec 3, 2012   |    comments
Founders Alan Baker and Serena Lourie at Cartograph Wines in Healdsburg, Calif.(Photo: Martin E. Klimek for USA TODAY)
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Live video chats where winemakers discuss the nuances of their latest vintages.

QR codes on wine bottles that provide food-pairing ideas with a scan of a smartphone.

Winery-hosted Twitter tastings where participants try wine at home and then discuss it virtually in tweets.

The Old World trade of winemaking is experimenting with social media, iPhone apps, QR codes and other digital advances to bolster sales and solidify customer relations.

For tiny wineries such as Cartograph Wines in Healdsburg, Calif., sites such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube provide an ideal platform to engage customers.

"It makes an actual difference that we're doing the direct communication through social media," says co-owner Alan Baker. "That's why we stand out."

He and partner Serena Lourie use social media to share photos of their grape harvest, to answer questions about their tasting-room hours and to provide details on great restaurants in their area.

"Good wine is simply the starting point," Baker says. "If you make good wine, you've got a shot. But this is about creating a relationship with people."

Taking a cue from customers

The winery industry has taken a cue from its tech-savvy customers.

Many wine drinkers now Google a vintage to get more information before plucking it from a store shelf. Restaurantgoers tap into wine blogs to get reviews before making a selection from a wine list. And social-media users are open to wine suggestions from online friends.

Wineries have "put a lot of work into their websites and social media, so you can understand their story and click a button and order that wine," says Cyril Penn, editor-in-chief of Wine Business Monthly.

Many are also using social media to court the digitally connected Millennial customers who were born after 1980. People 21 to 24 are more likely than average to consume wine, according to an October wine industry report from research group Mintel.

"This is a plus for the (wine) category, which may see growth down the line, given that this group has the most years of buying ahead of it," the Mintel report says.

In general, the wine industry is robust.

Total wine sales in the U.S. from all production sources hit a record 347 million cases in 2011, up 5.3% from 2010, according to data from wine industry consultants Gomberg Fredrikson & Associates, provided by the trade association the Wine Institute.

The estimated retail value of the 2011 sales is $32.5 billion.

Some medical studies have shown that moderate wine consumption can be healthy, which has helped fuel sales.

"Per capita consumption of wine has increased in the United States over the last five years, largely as a result of new knowledge on the potential health benefits of moderately consuming wine," says an August report on the industry from research organization IBISWorld.

Learning curve

While more wineries are adopting new technologies, the transition has been far from speedy.

"The wine industry, generally speaking, is slow to adapt to technology," says Penn. But as they see the potential to boost sales and brand awareness, they are increasingly opening up to it, he says.

Nearly 95% of American wineries surveyed by ABLE Social, a digital marketing firm, are on Facebook. Three-fourths are on Twitter.

Winemakers use those sites to tout their events, interact with trade clients and connect with potential retail customers, according to the ABLE survey.

They also use digital connections to tell the personal side of their wineries and their individual brands.

Castello Banfi winery, located in the Montalcino area of Tuscany, provides detailed online information about Banfi Vintners founder John Mariani, who first opened a wine business in New York City in 1919. It also has biographical information about his Italian aunt - and business namesake - Teodolinda Banfi.

In addition, the website has a video that offers information on the winemaking heritage of ancient Italy.

Wine is "a purchase that people put thought into," says Cristina Mariani-May, who is co-CEO of Banfi, which is both a wine producer and an importer.

"At the end of the day, it's the stories about the wine that differentiate them," she says.

An app from Hahn Family Wines lets users learn about the winery's history, watch winemaking videos and read the winemaker's descriptions of the growing season and harvest.

Users can also buy Hahn's wines directly through the app or use it to find restaurants and retailers that sell them.

"Marketing has gone mobile," says Hahn Family Wines President Bill Leigon.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery produces videos on an array of food- and wine related topics, such as how to make a pie crust and French macarons, and posts them on its website, blog and social-media feeds.

"We deliver more than just a look at our wines," says Jordan Vineyard & Winery CEO John Jordan. "It's integrating ourselves into the lifestyle of people who love food and wine."

With such digital advances, winemakers no longer have to rely on writers at publications such as Bon Appétit or Wine Spectator to share details of their recent vintages, he says.

"It's become a conversation with the customer directly," he says. "You don't have to go through those traditional media sources anymore."

His winery has an in-house department that uses high-definition video to create its food, wine and hospitality-related content.

"We can come up with an idea for a video in the morning and write it, edit it and post it the same day," he says.

Jordan is such a big believer in integrating traditional winemaking with technological innovation that he gave every employee an iPad as a holiday gift two years ago.

"Part of it was a thank you," he says.

But he also wanted his staff to be comfortable with the latest technological advances, he says. "I wanted to make sure that top to bottom, we were making that transition to being very tech-savvy."

USA Today

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