How Wineries Will Fail in the 21st Century

As some of you know, I’m in the process of helping to write a book. It’s not my book, per se, but I’m one of a group of authors that are helping to create a massive global wine atlas that will cover the world’s major wine regions. I’m the guy in charge of Sonoma and Marin counties.

I’ve spent the last couple months doing a lot of tasting, a lot of digging through my past tasting notes, and a lot of reaching out to wineries to verify addresses, etc. And what I’ve experienced in the process is quite shocking.

The American wine marketplace has changed and is changing dramatically. I can’t speak with full authority about the global marketplace, but I suspect some of the same changes are occurring everywhere. The way that people learn about, buy, and experience wine is changing, thanks to both demographic trends and technology evolution, as well as fundamental shifts in the distribution, marketing, and economics of the wine industry.

What this all means for the wine world is not fully clear, but one key fact has begun to be quite apparent. In order to survive, wineries are going to have to fundamentally re-think who their customers actually are, especially here in the United States.

Since the beginning of the modern wine industry in this country many, even most wineries only needed to care about who their distributor was and the strength of their brand in the marketplace (in addition to the quality of their product, of course). The strength of their brand and the power of their distributor mostly determined how much wine they sold.

No longer. These days it’s hard to even get a distributor to carry your wine, and if they do, they’re not likely to do a whole lot of work to sell it. Mostly they’ll expect the wine to sell itself (better have big points). And for the last 18 months, if your wine is over $50, well then you can pretty much just forget it unless it has 97 points (or something like that).

The way to sell wine in the 21st Century will be to build relationships (and a lot of them) with end consumers. The customers of the 21st Century are the Millennials. They’re young, they’re wired, and they’re used to getting what they want, when they want it online, and that includes communicating with the people, and yes the brands, they care about.

Wineries need to start connecting with people. Building an intimacy that really is not there now. And that doesn’t mean selling your wine only on a mailing list. Having a highly allocated wine that is sold to mailing list customers is not the same as actually building relationships with them (though I do know a few high-end wineries that do a great job of establishing relationships with all their buyers).

So back to my experience calling and e-mailing more than 150 different wineries in Sonoma county over the past couple of months. I was astonished to find how many wineries didn’t answer their phones during their stated business hours; didn’t return phone calls even when the message made it clear that the topic I wanted to discuss was an opportunity for publicity; and didn’t return e-mail messages asking for information.

Granted, I’m a journalist, not a customer waving dollar bills saying I want to buy a few bottles, but if I were a prospective customer and got this kind of response, I certainly would have had a hard time spending my money.

I’m happy to say that at least all the wineries had web sites (which wasn’t true until just a couple of years ago). But many of the sites were out of date (meaning they didn’t actually list the winery’s current releases); a few failed to list phone numbers or e-mail addresses; and probably close to 50% of the wineries that offered public tasting rooms hadn’t bothered to place themselves in Google Maps so that customers could easily find them.

In short, though my experience is not necessarily a perfect test, in my opinion many wineries are failing to facilitate even the most basic relationship with an individual consumer. And if they continue to do this, I predict that in the absence of very high scores from the critics, they will find their customers going someplace else.