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Next-Gen Community Building and a Flash in the Bottle

Columnist: Christina Julian
December, 2011 Issue

Christina Julian
All articles by columnist
We know the story. The bubble burst, the economy tanked, then we all got “friended.” Social networking has all but engulfed our last remnants of spare time with no signs of waning, and Wine Country is no exception. Not surprising, given millennials’ use of technology when it comes to buying, bargaining and chatting about wine and food preferences. Still, Wine Country took its sweet time to react. When I moved to Napa Valley nearly three years ago, wineries saw the worth of a robust website, but few were convinced of the merits of social networking as a core marketing tool. There were the early adopters like Murphy-Goode—its “A Really Goode Job” contest leveraged a viral video and blogging contest to promote the brand (see "A Really Goode Story," June 2010)—but such adventurers were far from the norm.

Flash-forward to present day, and it appears the valley hasn’t only taken notice, but has also acted. Most wineries have Facebook pages and many lean on Twitter feeds and blogs to connect with customers. But there’s a contingent that believe we could still do more when it comes to community building as a means of supporting lesser-known wine brands. Enter the next generation of social networking.

This year brought the first-ever Tedx Napa Valley, a day devoted to “empowering leaders of every level.” A tall order, and one not easily verified in person given the tight attendance cap and $100 entry fee. More accessible are some notable local ventures that aim to challenge the current social networking model.

Up until now, the emphasis has been more on virtual chatter, less on moving product, which some argue is the pitfall of social networking as a mechanism for increasing sales. While deep-pocketed wineries have the luxury of high-priced brand awareness campaigns that leverage social media, boutique outposts need to sell wine. St.Helena-based ToutSuite saw a way to feed the niche by developing a platform that extends the community experience through live “salons” that connect members with today’s tastemakers. ToutSuite goes beyond flat Facebook-style interactions by letting users engage with product “makers” (vintners, chefs and beyond) during scheduled, live, interactive video suite streams. When the ToutSuite platform moves out of beta in 2012, community members with a web-enabled microphone or webcam will be able to interact with those in the live studio, ultimately becoming part of the archived footage that posts after the live airing.

This style of networking includes “social commerce” with an embedded product purchase feature that lets viewers taste alongside the featured guests. “No one has capitalized on the increasingly compelling intersection of social media, e-commerce and video,” says ToutSuite Social Club co-founder and CEO Susan Quinn. She likens aspects of the platform to Yelp in that users can follow the likes and dislikes of trusted friends. Quinn is no stranger to streaming video, having developed live text streaming in the late 1990s as founder of Wordcasters and co-founder of the San Francisco Webgrrls. “We’re scaling the face-to-face relationship by making it possible for the maker to reach many more people. These products are great. What makes them special are the stories and the relationships,” says Quinn.

Sip, share, feast it forward

One point most of the industry seems to agree on is how the country’s economic state has driven the need to find deeper ways to connect and enhance business relationships with consumers. For some, like Katie Hamilton Shaffer, this includes going “beyond the bottle,” to forge lasting connections (a tenet of Tout’s model as well). Hamilton Shaffer’s roving TV show (“Feast it Forward,” in pilot phase; uncorks local hidden gems and gives an insider’s view on smaller, family-owned wineries. She extends the mission to include “paying it,” or what she’s dubbed, “feasting it forward.” The show is billed as, “philanthropic living for foodies and winos,” embodying the same campy style that she and partners Thrace Bromberger and Nancy Otton infused into the trio’s ToolBox wine label. The show also ties in product sales and placement, with a twist—a portion of product proceeds go back to show guests’ philanthropies of choice. The program will follow local vintners, wine and food fundraisers, and sneak peeks into the “off the beaten” Wine Country path.

A flash in the bottle

Another niche that’s cropped up as a result of the economy are flash wine sales sites. A notable local rendition, Last Bottle, is playing up its locals advantage, with roughly 30 percent of its members coming from California, many from Napa and the greater Bay Area. Cory Wagner of Blicker-Pierce-Wagner Wine Merchants (collectively known as BP Wine, which caters to higher-end collectors and enthusiasts), together with two partners, started the Last Bottle flash site with the aim of bringing wine to people at affordable prices. Wagner likens the site’s appeal to Trader Joe’s. “[Trader Joe’s] presents special deals on things you can trust. They’re not your standard brands, but you know they’re good. That’s what we’re doing. Making premium wines more accessible.” The site sells wines from all over the world, offering special deals that are often gone in a “flash” (most wines don’t stay on the site longer than 24 hours).

Some have argued these flash sites stand to extinguish the very same type of boutique producers that ToutSuite and Hamilton Shaffer’s model are promoting. Wagner counters the concern along with the perceived abundance of flash wine sites. “If you look at the retail market, there are tons of online retail outlets leaving consumers free to choose what works for them. While we might be selling great deals, they’re not close outs, we’re not the last stop for these bottles. A lot of bottles we try don’t make it because they’re not that great.” Wagner and his partners sample between 30 and 100 wines per week with less than 30 percent of the bottles being selected for sale.


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