How can technology help consumers choose their wine?

How can technology help consumers choose their wine?

In this month's review of drinks NPD, Tom Vierhile considers how wine companies are helping consumers make their wine-purchasing decisions.

One would be hard pressed to find a consumer packaged goods category that offers more choice than the wine sector. Wine-Searcher, a searchable online database of wine, lists more than 7m wines. The combination of different grape varieties, wine-growing countries and regions, vintages and wine styles nearly guarantees confusion and complexity.

But, promising tools offer new ways to cut through the category clutter.

One of the fundamental problems with wine is that product sampling can only go so far. It is not realistic or advisable to exercise the "try before you buy" concept before every wine purchase. Not only do laws governing the ability to sample wine before purchase vary by location, but sampling generally requires human assistance. This human factor means that the 'typical' wine consumer that is buying a bottle of wine when it is convenient for them is most likely not going to be able to sample the wine first.

How important is sampling to the purchase process? A 2013 Datamonitor Consumer survey found that over 68% of consumers globally either "tend to agree" or "strongly agree" that an enjoyable sampling experience will encourage them to purchase a product. Sampling closes sales.

But, there are ways around the sampling conundrum, as Napa, California-based Beringer Vineyards has found out with its new 'Taste Station' concept. This shelf-mounted unit allows the consumer to sample different Beringer wines any time of day without human help or assistance. Beringer’s Taste Station flavour strips dissolve on the tongue, much like Listerine brand’s Pocketpacks breath strips. But, instead of dispensing breath freshener, Taste Station strips offer a "fruit-forward" taste of three different Beringer wines: Chardonnay, White Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The strips are non-alcoholic so they can be enjoyed anytime. The strip dispensing units are self-contained, and have their own built-in trash dispensers so that store aisles won’t collect spent foil pouches used to contain the flavour strips.

The Taste Station concept was developed by a shopper marketing agency called TWINOAKS in partnership with Treasury Wine Estates – the owner of Beringer Vineyards. The team expects to place Taste Stations in 1,000 Kroger supermarkets across 20 US states in the first half of 2015, with additional retailer expansion expected down the road. Beringer is hoping to attract new consumers to the market and aims to reach out to the nearly one in every five consumers said to be overwhelmed by the complexity of the wine market.

According to Constellation Brands2014 Project Genome, which sought to explain wine-purchasing behaviour by grouping consumers into six different categories, 19% of North American consumers were said to be "overwhelmed" by the wine market. The third largest of six consumer segments, this "overwhelmed" group was nearly twice as large as the 10% of the market deemed to be "enthusiasts."

Intimidated or not, "overwhelmed" consumers still drank a respectable amount of wine. Constellation put their per-capita consumption at about seven glasses of wine per month, lower than the nearly 12 glasses per month consumed by "enthusiasts", but respectable, nonetheless. Maybe wine is an antidote for confusion.

Wine sellers attempting to close this consumption gap may want to take a look at the growing market for wine apps, which seek to de-mystify wine. The most popular wine app may be Vivino, a smartphone-based app that recently surpassed 9m downloads since its launch in April 2012. Featuring a database of around 5m wine labels, Vivino allows users to take photos of wine labels and restaurant wine lists. Using proprietary image-recognition technology, the app matches these images against a database of existing images and wine brands. Consumers accessing Vivino’s new Restaurant Wine List Scanner can receive instant wine ratings and user-generated prices and reviews so they can act on both, in real time.

Reviews and recommendations matter to consumers. According to Technomic’s 2014 WineTAB Report, personal recommendations are actually a bigger influence on product choice for wine purchased in a restaurant environment than price when a consumer has committed to ordering wine. Technomic found that around a third of consumers (36%) said that a staff recommendation influenced their decision of which wine to order, compared to 15% who said a lower price relative to other wines was a factor in their wine selection.

Another novel way to make wine buying less intimidating comes from Canadian company Quini. This Vancouver-based company has come up with a fun and interactive way for consumers to rate wine and share their findings by rating five different aspects of the wine consumption experience – eye (the look of wine), nose, mouth, finish, and an overall opinion toward the wine in question. Quini uses a question-based rating concept that lets the consumer shape flower petals representing each of these components to eventually produce a five-petal flower called the 'Quini Bloom', which is a visual representation of the user’s interpretation of the wine’s flavour.

The height of each petal represents the wine’s numerical score for each taste element, while the width of the petal captures more subjective qualities like body or finish. This system is promoted as being more engaging and better able to capture the true nuances of the taste of wine than typical numeric or star-based wine rating systems. Developed by wine experts and scientists, the Quini rating system and Bloom graphic enable highly-personalised wine recommendations and help bolster consumer confidence.

While these tools are unlikely to make the traditional wine tasting session obsolete, it is clear that innovation in wine selection tools is evolving rapidly to help consumers deal with the daunting explosion of choice in the wine category.