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Jefford on Monday: The Revolution Which Wasn’t

The biggest change in my lifetime? That's an easy one: the advent first of the computer, and then of the internet. How would you explain this to Julius Caesar, Charlemagne or William Shakespeare?

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Perhaps the simplest way of putting it is that it has enabled people all over the world to talk to each other and show each other pictures, instantaneously.

It was inevitable that this communication revolution would affect trade. No less inevitable, though, was that its effects would be exaggerated by the optimistic. The last ten years has been littered with the corporate corpses of those who assumed that the internet would ‘change everything’, and spark a wine-trade revolution which would quickly see bottles on shelves evaporate into the electronic ether.

Wine cannot go viral like a funny pet video or the tweets from an uprising, because it cannot be rendered into digital form. It’s a heavy physical object. It needs lorries, and warehouses, and charge hands with an eye for detail. Wine cannot be indefinitely reproduced with the click of a mouse: when it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s a physical object, moreover, on which governments raise revenue, so its movements are beadily monitored.

The internet has changed some things, of course. It’s made wine choice easier: you don’t have to stand in front a shelf and look at 200 bottles if you don’t want to. Most wine-drinkers still end up shuffling uneasily in front of laden shelves, though, because the alternative requires a measure of advanced planning, domestic storage and consuming restraint which it is unreasonable to expect of the impecunious and the uninterested.

It’s made specialist retailing easier, since the internet is the perfect tool for reaching sub-groups of consumers: those passionate about Champagne, or organically produced wines, or those who want to use fine wine as a financial instrument. Communicative facility has its downsides, though. How do you know if an attractive internet offering isn’t in fact merely the gossamer spun by a digitally dextrous fraudster in a bedsit? This goes some way to explaining why the biggest successes in internet wine sales have often come from the oldest, longest established and hence most trustworthy traditional retailers, rather than innovative specialised newcomers. I don’t remember anyone in the UK predicting that Berry Bros & Rudd (founded three years after Henry Purcell died, in 1698) would be one of the chief beneficiaries of the digital age.

In theory, the web should have made direct sales easier. It hasn’t and it won’t, though – because of the tax-raising interest which governments and states take in alcoholic drinks.

This year will, no doubt, be one in which we hear a lot about the latest internet wine wheeze: flash sites. It’s the Groupon model, applied to wine: special and time-limited purchases, apparently sold at an advantageous price. It’s been a big feature in North American wine business headlines over the last year, and one of the leading US players, Lot 18, is scheduled to launch in the UK on March 2nd.  

There’s quite a lot of dressing-up with Lot 18: the US site presents itself as ‘members only’ with a specious rigmarole  -- “We send out new invites periodically” -- after you give the site your email address. In fact, the ‘invitation’ comes within half an hour. It claims to offer its ‘members’ “limited-time opportunities to purchase directly from wineries”. The UK arm, by contrast, is merely promising to “provide UK wine drinkers with unmatched offers whilst also ensuring unmatched provenance and service”.  How new is that?  

In effect, Lot 18 will be selling conventionally traded, conventionally warehoused, customs-declared single parcels with some time-expiry sizzle. It’s the latest incarnation, in other words, of the original Bottoms Up or Oddbins concept, © late 1970s. There were probably newcomers selling ‘special parcels’ of wine like that when Chaucer’s Dad and Grandad were London wine merchants in the early fourteenth century, too.

Lot 18 says its wines will be “handcrafted, high-end products”: great. Given the success of Groupon, though, and given the fact that 37 per cent of all UK groceries (wines included) are now sold via a discount mechanic, I expect there’ll soon be flash wine sites catering for every pocket, including what no one will call “machine-crafted, low-end products”.  

A wine, an offer, a demand: nothing has really changed – except the means we use to talk about the offer, and the speed with which that offer can be communicated.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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