The Balkanization of Wine

The Journey

It's been a bit since I wrote my last email. Much has happened. And catching up in detail would make it a TL;DR. So in the spirit of brevity, I'll focus on highlights of what we're doing to transform wine online. We're creating the world's preeminent wine discovery platform. That means collaborating with beta testers (like you) who can guide us. It also means finding a name that captures what our platform does. But a great name means little if we haven't developed our story and goals. So I've captured some of the chapter headings here. Sharing is central to our story. We need to give merchants the tools to transform the way they connect with wine lovers. And we're rolling out free access to those tools. And importantly we have to build a world-class team to define the challenges we must overcome. And answer them. All at a furious pace. So how are we getting on? 

We Have Better Beta Testers

Last month we put out a request on social media for beta testers. The response was overwhelming. Our team meets with select members one-to-one. Asking critical questions. Validating or disproving our assumptions. It's important work for the world of wine. But we have fun communications too. And we're launching benefits for all our beta testers soon too. If you want to sign up, please head to the URL below . . .

It's All In Our Name

Drumroll, please! We found a name. Not only the right name but a GREAT name! I'm so over the moon and the credit is due to the fantastic work of Lexicon Branding. When you need a world-class company name, hire David and his team. I can't recommend this firm enough. Thoughtful, considerate, thorough, and great fun to work with. The name of our wine discovery platform is Pix. Discover the new brand at Pix.wine.

So why Pix? Our story is simple. It answers the most fundamental and most common everyday challenge faced by everyone in the world of wine. A question that everyone faces from their first bottle to the next acquisition of the largest collector. And millions of people in between. WHICH WINE SHOULD I DRINK? The act of drinking wine ALWAYS starts with someone picking which wine you're going to drink. The name Pix captures other parts of our story that matter to us -

  • We wanted a name that embodies digital-first innovation. We are going beyond the traditional wine tropes of using wine or grape terms.

  • Pix is simple and perfectly suited to a platform that will be the ultimate wine utility. At the same time, it implies curation. Something at the heart of our ratings, reviews, and editorial program. Each adding a layer of wine discovery on top of the powerful search engine.

  • Pix is here to build a bigger tent for wine. To make wine and wine culture accessible and enjoyable for everyone. Pix is easy to say and easy to understand. It embodies the spirit of wine that appeals to wine lovers of every type who want an answer to the question "which wine should I drink?"

  • It does what it says and it says what it does. On the web and mobile. When you are searching for wine Pix, use our site. When you are in front of an aisle or a menu, our app will help you make the right Pix using your camera.

Watch us at the forefront as our team works tirelessly to unlock wine online.

More Tools To Do The Job.

Pix will connect wine lovers to the wines they love. But we also need to give merchants the tools to transform the way they connect with wine lovers. This is why we have finalized a partnership with Commerce7 giving their customers Emetry Pro for free. Emetry Pro pulls data in real-time, analyzes it, and pushes key insights back into Commerce7. This gives you incredible customer segmentation. It predicts wine club retention and more. We securely exchange data through our only bi-directional integration. So all our key insights sit directly within the Commerce7 software. This tool has been the beating heart of Emetry for many years. And we will keep investing heavily in this integration. This means Commerce7 customers have the best customer insights to help their wineries retain happy customers and generate more revenue.

We have some smaller good news for wineries using Vinsuite, WineDirect, and Bloom (Shopify) too. You'll be able to use our LITE analytics software for FREE from January. I'll let you know more after the Holidays.

Erica Duecy

You've probably seen the press release, but the illustrious Erica Duecy has joined our team as Chief Content Officer. We believe content is a central part of our new wine-discovery platform. Connecting buyers and sellers. Building a global community of wine lovers. Erica will tackle everything from editorial to informational to programmatic content on the site and on the app. Erica has a tremendous job ensuring we’re pushing the boundaries of customer engagement through a myriad of touchpoints.

Jay Spaleta

And in case you missed it, Jay Spaleta, formerly of Wine Enthusiast, joined us over the summer. Jay leads our sales organization focusing on helping our customers improve their sales and grow their audience. What started as one of the most challenging sales jobs (selling software to wineries) has become one of the most straightforward; recruiting wine sellers' participation on our platform.

Time to take Stock

Finally, let’s take a moment to talk about startup executives and entrepreneurs' health; both physical and mental health. It takes a special breed of human to survive in the fast-paced, high stakes, anxiety-ridden, roller-coaster of a startup. I'm not speaking only of hustle culture, but also of the adrenaline-driven state of a startup.

What fuels us is an insatiable drive to build, disrupt, transform. It follows us home. It consumes so much of our waking thoughts. We skip sleep, exercise, healthy diets, and moderation in a race to transform the world. It’s too easy to slip from healthy to unhealthy in the startup journey. At Pix and the companies I’ve previously helped build, we always promoted balance. We know it's a marathon not a sprint. To avoid burnout, we employ a myriad of techniques to create and maintain equilibrium as a team.

Everything in moderation, including moderation, is one of my consistent quips. But I was reminded of that mantra in a very abrupt and severe way this month. Call it too many years of startup CEO. Call it unhealthy eating habits (and not enough fiber). Call it 2020. Whatever you call it, I ended up in surgery during a resurgence of COVID in California. To all my fellow startup friends, take it from me: Make extra time for your health and for your family. That doesn't diminish your passion. But balance is necessary to endure the race. Because the only way to make your vision real is to be of sound body and mind to carry it over the finish line.

Observations - The Balkanization of Wine Data

Part of our job as the Pix team is to define the challenges wine lovers face. And look for answers. We're a team of wine lovers. Wine is a time machine in a bottle. A journey to a time and a place in the past. And wine comes to define a time, a moment, a place, in the present. Shared with friends and family. Opening this time machine not only draws out the past. But also links itself with the present. Creating something even more magical. Now not all wine carries these mystical powers. But let's imagine it does. And there are LOTS of new wines every year.

Wine is one of the SUPER long-tail industries. Like books, music, and movies. But it is the only SUPER long-tail product that is a consumer-packaged good. Last year alone there were 166K new wines released in the U.S. Each of these wines will be good on the shelf for at least 2-3 years. Many far beyond that. Mapping these products and all their metadata (similar to IMDB) is a daunting task. Assuming you could do it, tagging all metadata at $3 for the full product set in the US, would take a budget of at least half a million dollars a year.

But simply cobbling together the data for a single product from a single producer is daunting. It's only in the last 2-4 years that major wine companies started using Product Information Managers – PIMs / Digital Asset Managers – DAMs (like Salsify, Akeneo etc.). Before that, it was virtually impossible to collect the labels and product descriptions in organized data outside of a PDF shelf talker or spec sheet. Today the transition has begun. But very few companies have started the change. That leaves tens of thousands of wineries without organized information.

There is no one place to go and get the world’s wine data.

Data has been one of the critical blockers for anyone attempting to build a wine app or wine website. Fortunately, we have more experience than most. In 2010 at VinTank we tried to match social media conversations to individual products. We found that ALL wine-tech companies were spending 50% to 70% of their resources on this problem via cleaning, scraping, or creating content.

We tried a program called YWYW (Your Wine Your Way). We channeled Stewart Brand and his iconic saying, "information wants to be free." We tried to help wineries put this data into a central database. This then fed data to retailers, wine apps, and competitions. We fueled over 30 competitions, partnering with Enophile Online. Yet it was always a chicken-and-egg challenge. Wineries wanted to know how many partners were participating before entering data. Partners wanted the complete library of data before integrating. We only achieved an extensive adoption by around 800 wineries when Facebook built tabs on pages, allowing third-party apps to plug in data. Unfortunately, Facebook abandoned tabs. And VinTank's free lab experiment was shuttered so we could focus on the revenue-generating business.

Another innovative project came from one of the original wine-tech innovators, Andre Ribeirinho. This was AVIN. The AVIN was a unique 13 digit number. It acted like an ISBN for books, but for tracking wine. The AVIN began as a project to help clean the data in the social tasting note site, Adegga.com. Per Andre, "The goal of AVIN was to have one single database of structured wine information that any system could use. An input-once-use-often kind of system. AVIN failed for two reasons: a wine industry that didn't — and mostly still doesn't —  see digital as an important part of business, and it also failed because we didn't attach a commercial value to it."

And another data project died an untimely death.

Since then, there have been a few upstarts that set out to organize data. Most struggle with the same problems: Chicken or egg and monetization. Some claim to be good actors but are looking to extract a heavy toll. While others are rife with dirty data. The one glimmer of hope comes from the LWIN project from LivEx. To date, LWIN has 89K products in the database and any company can use the data for free. Kudos to the LivEx team for this contribution to our industry.

But despite the LWIN, there is still no solution. Which presents a critical barrier to any company trying to build an app or a website focused on wine.

Yet there is data all over the web.

There is data that has been built and rebuilt by hundreds of companies, publications, writers, and more. It lives in the carefully manicured walls of CellarTracker. And the gobblygook of other platforms. It lives in the mountain ranges of images and notes within Vivino. And down in dark, shadowy valleys of wine journal apps haunting smartphones with their lack of engagement. There are abandoned sites. Dormant apps. And old blogs. Data lives in retailers' and wineries' websites. The good groups of data are, perhaps rightfully, guarded, and protected with care. Yet nowhere will you find a single source of truth.

The data is Balkanized. A fractured landscape, pockets of isolated territory, scattered across the internet. Each bordered and heavily policed. Looking suspiciously at the next. Each pocket, each territory, creating small bits of value. Yet with no cross-border trade agreement. No EU, no NAFTA, no WTO. And no added value. No methodology for interpolation.

You could even say the internet broke wine discovery. This statement from Alder Yarrow has always haunted me: "We live in a bull market for free content." I used to use this in my slides to wineries on how they stand out with their content. In a world where every brand and company floods the airwaves with noise. Combine volumes of free writing with digital's ability to measure marketing and you see how the internet has contributed to the continual erosion of crucial categories of content in print publications. Today almost all wine publications sit behind a paywall for some or most of their content. Each paywall stands like a border post. Guards extracting a toll before you can pass through to the promised land (they promise) lying beyond.

Another comment by Tim Carlisle sent me into a long day of contemplation. Tim said, "Is there something there about the state of global wine production, the number of interesting wines being produced etc., etc. .... but I also wonder whether discovery is hidden? Writers behind paywalls not in print - and nobody subscribes to all of it."

With no free trade across the Wine Balkans, we choke the ability to add value. To introduce wine lovers to new wines, to new varieties, to new regions. Even wines from innovative producers in the real Balkans. How will new wine lovers find new wines if there is nobody to show where they are? If every discovery comes at the cost of paying a toll. Slipping a few notes to the border guard.

The feudal nature of wine data is one of the most significant impediments to wine online and the industry's future.

What I’m Reading

Expand Your Network

  • Scott’s Galloway’s, aka Professor Galloway’s, insights about the internet and big tech are illuminating and often accurate.

  • Looking for local Napa news, Sarah Klearman is great new voice and a great source for insider information about wine country.

The Sr. Director for Marketing for Aviation Gin is both talented and, not surprising, incredibly clever so Adrian Molina is a great follow.