Wine, Millennials, and Algorithms
A couple of weeks ago Bloomberg Businessweek ran an article about Verve Wine, a new e-commerce site with 1000 bottles for sale and a new way to help consumers discover wines they might not otherwise come across without guidance. But not just any consumers- this new approach is scaled to millennials.
According to the article, Verve’s founder Dustin Wilson one of only 230 master sommeliers in the world, “ is targeting millennials who now drink almost half the wine consumed in the U.S. and are more likely to trust an algorithm than a human using incomprehensible adjectives.”
Like Vinfusion, another new approach whose aim is to make it easier for us to enjoy wine- featured in The Economist – (see my comments on it here)
Verve also addresses the suddenly pressing need to by- pass the traditional language of wine in order to give the consumer more useful tools they can relate to for discovering wines they’re not familiar with-and of course drive more sales for those selling wine.
It took me a little time to warm up to Verve’s premise because the attack on the traditional language of wine, railing against its “mystique” and “this high end snooty thing,” that the respective articles in these magazines take- gives the impression they’re using the same prepared talking points to dismantle the usual criteria with.
But what kind of “incomprehensible adjectives” used to describe wine are we talking about?
In a random search on the web the site Wine Folly came up. They list 40 common adjectives used to describe wine along with their accepted meaning in wine circles.
Some of the examples include:
The word Crisp with wine is more often used to describe a white wine. A crisp wine is most likely simple but goes really well with a porch swing on a hot day.
Sommeliers and wine experts cringe when they hear this term while the rest of us delight. Jam is delicious and it is part of the PB&J experience. In wine, jammy indicates a wine with a cooked berry sweetness that is syrupy and often is used to describe American wines like zinfandel, grenache, cabernet franc and Australian shiraz…don’t be a hater.
When a wine writer pairs down his lengthy description of flavors and characteristics of a wine into one word, he uses dense. Dense is favored for use in bold red wines such as cabernet sauvignon, Côtes du Rhône and Brunello di Montalcino but usually isn’t a positive characteristic in other wines because it implies that wine is handicapped.
While the different words describe the complexities and nuance of various wines they aren’t from an alien tongue. This is the language of wine-now go out and speak it. You read, you sample you note and repeat.
This scenario reminds me of screen writing. There are those who will take endless courses, keep buying books on the topic and take all kinds of webinars on the subject. But what do the successful pros like ‘David Mamet or Brian Koppelman recommend? Reading Scripts, watching films and writing. That’s the formula.
As society takes on more of the millennial world view do we have to wonder if everything will be about taking the highs and lows, the mistakes and the discoveries, the disappointment and the joys out of cultivating a love for wine (or anything else).
In the case of Vinfusion, the machine highlighted in The Economist article The traditional language is not only gutted but the actual cultivation methods –the art to blending -is totally dismissed as well- giving the final product something of the nature of “swill.”
Thankfully Verve doesn’t get rid of all the language of wine. They use a smattering of terms like acidity, alcohol level, and tannin level in their evaluation of your tastes to come up with wines that give a structural form to your tastes as in this example from their press release:
These are the legacy descriptions Verve uses but shifts the emphasis from the more subjective approach to wine adjectives to terms which focus on the structure of the wine.
This approach has everything to do with the founder Dustin Wilson. He has good pedigree having been the head of wine procurement for Eleven Madison Park, a famous restaurant in Manhattan, as well as, the star of a documentary called Somm-tracing his path to master sommelier.
And unusual for an e-commerce startup- Verve actually has a shop in Manhattan where consumers are encouraged to come in for a sit down with an onsite sommelier who, after conducting a Q & A with you about your tastes-will then feed the answers to the “custom software” which will spit out recommendations for you.
From the Verve website:
Verve Wine is a new place to buy wine online. We curate delicious wines that are thoughtfully and carefully produced from around the world, and deliver them to your door. We will also have a flagship shop in NYC where we’ll host wine tastings, classes and events.
Since there’s only one brick n’ mortar location online users will have to make do with a form they fill out online and submit to the algorithm-driven program to find the best wine selections for them.
But to my mind there’s something of a bubble – an insular feeling about the parameters he’s sketched out to reach millennials.
The whole idea of having a physical location where millennials or anyone else is going to come in and do a consultation seems to be at cross purposes with the stated purpose of this approach in which Wilson says consuming wine, “has become more about camaraderie than having this thing on a pedestal.” Doesn’t the physical store and the way they go about trying to expand your tastes in this manner imply a gallery type situation-a “pedestal?”
I don’t know many millennials who would consider taking this route with their wine purchasing. And when you consider the fact that most of the wines on their site sell between “$25-$50” it becomes even harder to imagine millennials flocking to this site.
Special occasions… maybe. And maybe Verve will be used for educational purposes-something like the showrooming that takes place with physical stores. But most avid wine drinkers are not spending this much for daily wine consumption. I would suggest that $7-$10 is more likely with $10 to $20 the average for more well off consumers.
While I do think Verve is on to something –they haven’t opened yet-getting enough traffic to both their store and their online site is going to be interesting to watch. I think it’s going to be an uphill battle.
And that’s because there are already so many upscale grocers like Whole Foods, New Seasons, Central Market in TX, and Kroger’s Main & Vine carrying fine wines why would most people spend time online or in the Verve shop when they can just as easily go into one of these stores and peruse the selections and usually get help with staff in the department.
It’s hard to compete with say going into Trader Joe’s with a bottle you bought there and telling them, “This just doesn’t work for me,” and having Traders just take it back no questions asked.
This personal connection is what I feel in the end allows grocers with well thought out wine selections to excel-taking what they can from Verve’s approach and incorporating it into their own cultivation of wine consumers. They already have the platform and traffic they’re only limited by their imagination.