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Better than the real thing?

Virtual wine tastings over Microsoft Teams are helping one Italian winery strengthen relationships with trade customers and, for the first time, make direct contact with wine lovers. James Goulding reports

With its veneration of terroir and, on its wilder fringes, a belief in biodynamics and the importance of the lunar calendar, not to mention the linguistic and procedural tics of wine appreciation, the wine industry can seem, to outsiders at least, as fusty as an old cellar.

The truth is very different, and in recent years producers have embraced technology at every stage of the wine-making process, from the use of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors for monitoring environmental conditions in vineyards to wine preservation technologies that keep wine fresh in opened bottles. It is, after all, a $300 billion industry.

One area where technology has arguably had least impact is in the marketing of wine to the trade, a process that is still dependent on face-to-face contact with distributors, wine sellers and influencers at trade shows, wine fairs, comparative tastings and cellar tours.

Some of the most important of these are held in Europe in March, April and May. This year, with lockdowns and travel bans across the continent, key events in the wine industry calendar couldn’t take place, forcing winemakers to explore alternative ways to market their latest vintages.

Virtual wine-tastings over collaboration solutions like Microsoft Teams, with wines couriered to participants, have become a popular option.

Virtual tastings
The 5,000-acre Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona estate in Montalcino, Tuscany had been exploring the possibility of virtual tastings since September 2019 with the help of Milan-based IT services provider Si-Net. It conducted its first digital wine tasting before Covid-19, but, like businesses in other industries, found that the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of new processes.

It now uses virtual wine tastings to communicate with trade customers, opinion formers and, for the first time, end users.

Gabriele Gorelli_wine expert and business consultant to Ciacci

According to consultant and wine producer Gabriele Gorelli, these Microsoft Teams sessions haven’t just enabled Ciacci to introduce its new vintages to the wine trade during lockdown, they have also allowed it to cultivate different and, in some ways, better relationships.

“We lost two major trade shows in March and April, ProWein in Dusseldorf and Vinitaly in Verona. We realised that when we went to those big trade shows, we were all on tight schedules and became very tired moving from one stand to another, from one booth to another, from one pavilion to another. People had less time, less attention, less empathy and less effective relationships,” he said.

Virtual tastings, in contrast, let people experience wines in the comfort of their own home or office, in an unhurried manner, with more time to ask questions and to find out about the wines and ultimately to develop stronger relationships.

Gorelli adds that Microsoft Teams has also enabled Ciacci to engage with consumers, who can then buy wine (and the estate’s olive oil) through a new e-shop, at a time when cellar tours, of which it normally conducts 6,000-8,000 a year, are not possible.

“What we realised after lockdown was that we had to shift focus from the trade – because the outlets were closed – and start dealing with regular customers, consumers who were buying comfort wine to drink at home. The launch of the e-shop of Ciacci is an interesting way to reach new, loyal consumers who want to buy a bit a Tuscany,” he said.

After the success of its virtual wine-tasting, Ciacci, with the help of Si-Net, is planning to develop its online activities further, expanding what it does at wine fairs with subscription-based tasting events and virtual tours of its cellars.

Many businesses have used video meetings in Microsoft Teams and other platforms as a stop-gap measure. Others, like Ciacci, are using them to move forward with new businesses models and new forms of customer engagement and have no intention of going back to the old time-consuming, travel-intensive way of doing things. To paraphrase Gorelli: “Why spend more time to achieve less?”

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2020