While Chris Mercer has a healthy scepticism for online fads, he believes Twitter could be more than yet another means for people with little to say to say rather too much. As its business applications begin to be exploited, he suggests Twitter may be worth a second look.

It is easy to become lost in the fog of excitement that surrounds the digital age and its self-appointed pioneers.

A tangle of jargon, such as 'web 2.0' or 'widgets', is often intermingled with lofty sentences devoid of all specifics. After all, why dwell on specifics? Isn't it obvious that to any half-wit the internet age will march resolutely onward? We have left behind the American Century and entered the 'Geek Millennium'.

Within the social networking phenomenon, Twitter has emerged as the new kid on the block, the next big thing.

Like a welding of Facebook, instant messaging and e-mail, Twitter allows its members to write brief updates, known as 'tweets', to 'followers' on their activities. At first glance, Twitter can appear as nothing more than a crutch for self-obsessed media types, longing to inform others on the trials and tribulations of another drab Tuesday in the office.

What is much more interesting, however, is Twitter's growing use as a business tool, particularly in terms of marketing and building professional contacts.

One of Twitter's big strengths is its ability to pull together people with the same interests, and the drinks arena is no exception.

For PR and marketing professionals, there are a number of possibilities. Cathy Warren of Green Row Communications, which handles PR for The Company of Wine People, tells just-drinks that she believes Twitter "is fast becoming an essential component of any marketing campaign".

She adds: "I use Twitter on a daily basis to update my followers on client work that I may be undertaking, coverage results, or any news articles that I find interesting. Whenever I am talking about a client, I will include a link to coverage or to a relevant website to drive traffic."

Using Twitter to drive web traffic appears to be working for Green Row, which also uses the network to link through to its consumer wine website, www.lovethatwine.co.uk. "Interestingly, we have found that Twitter is now the highest referral site to our own website, www.greenrow.co.uk, as a direct result of these Tweets," says Warren.

Several news and media publications, including just-drinks, are already using Twitter as a form of RSS feed, 'tweeting' news updates to interested followers and linking back to the story. Tweets are also searchable on Google, offering businesses and publications the chance to boost their ratings on the search engine giant.

The concise nature of Tweets - one is allowed a maximum of 140 characters - also makes Twitter a useful tool for delivering news and updates to mobile devices.

While using Twitter as a traffic driver to other websites is useful, one of its other big advantages comes in building contacts. For journalists and businesses, this means an opportunity to engage more closely with readers and customers respectively, as well as swap ideas.

Early entrants to Twitter have built up strong networks of followers across the food and drink spectrum, from journalists to consumers and fellow PR professionals.

Of course, the strength of your network will depend on the number of people in your sector actually using Twitter. Concrete figures for Twitter membership are hard to obtain, but it is estimated that there are between 4m and 5m members. So far, membership is heavily skewed toward the US, the country that spawned Twitter in March 2006.

Some in the wine world have begun to take network-building on Twitter to a new level.

Back in January, just-drinks visited an online wine tasting via Twitter, hosted by Bibendum at its annual tasting day. At first glance, the sight of 10 people sat round a table and fidgeting with mobile phones in their laps in between sips of wine appears a little odd.

But, then, why not? After all, what is really the difference between writing up notes on a tasting and 'tweeting' your comments instantly to a string of interested followers? The difference is possibly about 30 years in age.

"We started out with wine bloggers who wanted to taste wine together," says organiser Rob McIntosh, who blogs on wineconversation.com and who is also brand ambassador for several Rioja wineries, Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco, Criadores de Rioja and Bodegas Carlos Serres.

"This gives the consumer a view of what's happening inside a trade tasting, so they feel more involved," McIntosh continues. "This will help these wineries get more exposure and the bloggers get to taste some more wines."

The followers are clearly interested. At one point immediately after the January tasting, the event briefly rose to become the number one most-followed 'trend' on Twitter, even overtaking the inauguration of President Obama, which took place the day before.

McIntosh believes that the "online wine culture" is still in its infancy, largely because "there aren't yet any experts for social networking in wine".

There is, he adds, obvious potential for the drinks industry to use social networking to reach a new demographic of consumer, and particularly those in their 20s and 30s. And, because you can see who is following you, the results are more measurable.

Asked to sum up Twitter in a nutshell, McIntosh says: "Twitter is like a conversation in a pub. I can talk to my friend but everything we say is still public. Anyone on that table over there can join in if they hear something they are interested in."

While a lot of ideas on the web become subject to overblown hyperbole, Twitter may be worth a second glance.

You can visit just-drinks on Twitter at www.twitter.com/just_drinks.