As new wine drinkers join the throng, most born to a world of smart phones and social media, it’s clear they expect a bit more than a random bottle grabbed in confusion from a supermarket shelf. Buying disappointing wines, long seen as part of a vinophile’s education, does not work for them. Their intolerance of poor experiences is high. As is their expectation that technology can fix things.
Stepping into the gap between wine dreams and wine reality, ready to improve choices, experiences, human connection and the world generally, is today’s first line of consumer support: new technology.
There are apps that scan labels and make recommendations. Precision drinking gadgets. Online job matches. Chatbot advisers. Vineyard management tools. And much, much more.
So much in fact that, one night over dinner in 2016, four Frenchmen decided to launch what they described as an umbrella identity for high-tech wine geekery (although it’s doubtful they used the word geekery). The result was La WineTech (LWT).
So nascent is the wine technology sector that one of LWT’s original aims was simply to make it easier for wine tech companies to find each other, and for them to be found by users and the media. The group quickly went from four to 40 members. Now there are about 100, from France and beyond.
One of the founders, Vincent Chevrier, describes the original LWT as more of a movement or collective. Version 2.0, launched in September, is more formal. It has been granted the French legal status of association and has at least one new staff member, a new membership fee, a fund-raising scheme and a new set of goals. All of that, says Chevrier, will help make LWT a stronger voice for the sector and its developers.
He says LWT’s three priorities are to promote innovation in the wine sector; to raise its profile and those of its members at events and in the media; and to share business services, for example by building an international wine and vineyard database that could become a foundation for artificial intelligence (AI) solutions.
Another change ushered in with LWT’s formalisation is the ditching of the ‘business to consumer’ and ‘business to business’ labels first used to classify member technologies. These have been replaced by four new categories.
Into the first falls any wine tech, product or service that contributes to the management and financing of vineyards and wine production. Examples would include Vitijobs (which links wine industry employers and job seekers), engineering solutions such as drones or Vitirover’s robot weeders.
The second category is for sales and distribution services (think online wine merchants such as Plugwine, TWIL and SevenFifty).
The third is about recommendations, collaboration, experience and tourism. Examples range from the price search engine WineSearcher and tourism service WineTourBooking to a ‘connected aeration tool’ called Aveine, a pouring device which connects your chosen bottle to a database via smart phone, allowing “perfectly aerated wine” to pour forth.)
The last category is for those providing goods and services that support wine drinking, sales, storage, packaging and tracking. That means anything from ‘internet of things’ cellar management tools such as Caveasy, to AI-enabled chatbots such as Matcha which aim to boost online wine sales by answering buyer questions and offering advice.
Asked why LWT would take off in France, rather than say, a tech hub like California, Chevrier says there is probably a deeper interest in wine among French people than anywhere else in the world. And while the main driver of wine tech innovation has come from those passionate individuals who drink it, rather than the business side, that’s changing.
In the past few years, wine industry interest in tech has picked up, probably because producers and distributors can finally see practical benefits. “There are now examples of services created in partnership with local growers,” says Chevrier, pointing to WiziFarm as an example.
To date, Wizifarm’s agri- and viticultural solutions revolve mainly around two apps: Mission and Petits Comptes entre Agris (best translated as Little Accounts between Farmers). The apps aim to facilitate collaboration between farmers, for example, by enabling and making it easier to track the sharing of equipment, labour and resources.
Interest from France’s wine retail sector is ramping up as well, mainly in an attempt to catch up with tech-savvy consumers. Examples here, says Chevrier, include the recent purchase of advisory app, Wine Advisor by one of France’s leading supermarkets, Leclerc. The purchase basically means the app now appears on the Leclerc site and consumers are advised to download and use it while shopping.
At a more fundamental level, particularly given the reported paucity of public funding (even in France) for wine tech start-ups, the move to formalise LWT can be seen as key to the sector’s future growth and stability.
Part of the funding problem is a general wariness around alcohol. That means that sources like the EU Investment Fund (which is prohibited from investing in anything unethical including distilled alcohol) tend to stay clear of all and any alcohol-related projects.
Asked about wine tech funding, Chevrier agrees it’s a problem but, in the context, not a major one. “Most wine tech projects do not require vast amounts of capital,” he says. Meaning, in short, they’re accustomed to not having any money.
Nor does wine tech appear to generate the kind of private, venture capital-backed accelerators and incubators that food tech does. Instead, the best many can hope for is to be absorbed into one of the foody ones. Or to find private investors.
Apparently undeterred, LWT developers forge ahead nonetheless, their goals often extending beyond simply making a profit into moral missions. Vinsent, VinoTeam and Raisin are three examples.
In Vinsent’s case the aim is to democratise what many see as an elite sales channel: Bordeaux’s En Primeur futures system. The theory behind En Primeur is that it allows buyers to secure supplies of top wines at good prices if they are willing to buy pre-bottling. The Vinsent app, which basically connects buyers to sellers, does exactly the same thing, with a few tweaks.
“Bordeaux’s En Primeur system works well, but it’s a long supply chain, from grower through courtier to the négociant, the wine shop and eventually the customer,” says Vinsent’s co-founder and COO, Gil Picovsky. “We decided we could democratise that system, shorten the supply chain and support client-grower relationships.” All while making the process cheaper and easier.
Still in pilot mode, Vinsent already has about 20 wineries signed up from Italy, Spain, France, the US and Israel, and has been downloaded 4,000 times. To ensure traceability and security, the platform uses block-chain technology.
Another example of doing it better – for both buyers and the planet this time – is Chevrier’s own recently launched app, VinoTeam. It’s a group purchasing tool that allows groups of individuals to share an order, and thereby to lower both costs and the environmental impact of wine delivery. They can also share the benefits if a large order results in a discount.
Equally ecologically minded, but from another angle, is Raisin, born after its founder, Jean-Hugues Bretin, discovered three things: natural wine, the difficulty of finding it and the high levels of pesticides used in the wine industry.
Launched in mid-2016, Raisin has been downloaded 150,000 times, lists 3,600 establishments around the world and is expected to begin making money next year. The money will be generated by charging a fee to the natural wine stockists it lists. The app has many devotees but, perhaps because it’s a bit further along the maturity curve, it’s had some criticism too, mostly about the poor quality of some listings and the difficulty of getting listed.
Bretin says his team is working to improve the quality of listings and weed out those trying to appear “more natural than they are really”. Both human and algorithmic processes are constantly under review to make it easier to spot those that don’t meet the basic criteria of stocking at least 30% natural wines. Second, yes, there are some delays in listing, mainly because about a thousand sellers are waiting to be reviewed and the team is still small. To address that, the app now offers a 48-hour, €15 fast track registration.
Given some of the challenges, from zero funding to picky users, let alone the difficulty of making a profit, it’s perhaps surprising anyone chooses to go into wine tech. And nor are those even the greatest challenges, says Chevrier. So what is? “Finding a truly disruptive business model in a fiercely competitive environment.”
Potential wine tech developers, you have been warned. But on the upside, the ones who break through have a good chance of improving not just wine and wine drinking, but the entire sector and its impact on the planet. Now there’s a motivator.
This article was first published in Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription in print or online.