The "antiquated" American wine industry has been slow to adapt to the digital age, social media experts say.
While some wineries are turning to the internet to reach consumers – encouraging wine lovers to chat online and blogging to their followers – the more traditional sections of the industry have proved resistant to change.
"There is more potential with social media in the wine industry simply because wine is social," said Andrew Healy, chief social officer of 3 Rock Marketing in Napa at the eighth annual Wine Industry Technology Symposium (WITS). "The wine industry should be at the forefront of social media. Unfortunately we are not. We are rooted in tradition and very slow to change."
VinTank, a digital think tank for the wine industry, provides ways for wineries to track what is being said about them online. "Looking at the wine industry, we see a product mired in antiquated laws, complex distribution paradigms, unique product qualifications and innumerable complexities," VinTank reports.
Winemakers in the United States face a mishmash of state and county laws regarding the shipping of alcohol direct to buyers. This has thwarted internet sales across the country, even though wineries are keen to strengthen their "direct-to-consumer" sales. Supplying products direct provides far higher profits than going through distributors, who still dominate the market.
"This crazy, 50-patch quilt of wine sale laws is a problem," said Mark Vogler, self-described "social media maniac" and founder of Out In the Vineyard, which promotes wine-country getaways to the gay community.
But Healy believes that the proximity of Napa to Silicon Valley should provide wineries with access not only to new ideas but the people behind them. "We get people here every day from Google, Facebook and other technology companies spending time and money in Napa Valley, so we are lucky," he said.
The subject of social media was a hot topic at WITS, with winemakers and sellers urged to build communities on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+ and other sites.
"Those brands that participate deeply are winning the market today," said Sean Moffitt, co-author of "Wikibrands," a book about how to transform a company by mobilizing customer input.
The conference also focused on the way that tablet computers like Apple's iPad are changing the industry, with vintners using the devices for everything from monitoring grapes to making sales pitches.
"The era of paying for a printed wine list is really coming to an end," said Alpha Lab chief executive Josh Hermsmeyer, who was part of a panel devoted to the growing popularity of iPads in the wine business.
About 50 iPads are used at Hahn Family Wines in California, according to marketing manager Joshua Cairns. "Our bottling line manager doesn't even have an office; he just carries his iPad around," said Cairns.
Visitors to the Hahn tasting room are invited to use iPads to take notes and email them to themselves, feeding addresses to the winery's database.
The wine industry has progressed a bit since the first WITS eight years ago but has more work to do, according to event organizer J. Smoke Wallin.
"Wineries and vineyards are used to planning what to plant now to be growing in a decade. We are talking about how to respond to a tweet in 15 seconds," Wallin said. "Think about the disconnect between the kind of long-term thinking in agriculture and the fast-moving responsiveness that this world of technology has created."
In Wallin's view, the potential rewards for the wine industry make the effort worthwhile, given the potential for ongoing relationships with customers, feedback on vintages, and data about how wines are selling.
"Master the tools of information ubiquity," Economaney.com founder Dave Maney told attendees at WITS. "There is no question that this information revolution is the largest animating force in the economy today," he added. "Surf it. Read it. Take the time to get it."