January 21, 2014

Blending Tradition and The Modern World aka Rioja Wineries

In October I had the privilege to go to Spain with some of my favorite people (Pia Mara Finkell, David White, and Tyler Colman) to attend the Digital Wine Conference and spend time learning more about wines from Rioja.  As you might imagine, of particular interest for me was how the Spanish wineries were adopting technology (especially social media).  Now before I go deeper into that, I must say that the Rioja region creates incredible wines and if you are a wine lover and have never visited, please add this region to your travel itinerary immediately.  Not only is the country filled with beautiful landscapes, the Spanish culture, incredible food (especially tapas), and history are worth the trip alone.

Lunch at Vivanco

If you are a oenophile and have visited wineries, the methodology of the appellation to age the wine (Crianza for 2 years, Reserva for 3 years, and Grand Reserva for 5 years) lends itself to spectacular and often unimaginable quantities of wine.  My 21+ years in the industry and my everyday experiences in Napa and Sonoma couldn’t have prepared me for the vastness and endless quantities of wine.  We visited some of the more humble wineries (as it relates to production and storage) and even they had 8K-20K of barrels stored and between 1 million to 5 million bottles in storage.  Even a medium sized winery like Bodegas Lopez de Heredia (25K cases annually) had 10K barrels and 2 million bottles in storage.

Millions of bottles of wine

As for the wine itself, there is something magical to me about Spanish wine.  For me it is the intersection of the past and the present that, almost effortlessly, seem to come together.  Unlike other wine cultures that struggle with the line between the old and the new, Rioja’s fluid combination of the two presents an industry poised to leverage the power of its traditions in combination with the tools of today.  That being said we did see struggles of “Parkerization” with the taste profiles of some of the wines.  But even then, there was a desire to find the “original Rioja.” What is truly fascinating is that Rioja doesn’t ever want to lose its tradition and in fact researches it to have an even richer understanding of the past.  Telmo Rodriguez from Remelluri said it best, “I am digging into the past to create the future.”  He was not alone in that sentiment.  It was the overtone of every single winery we visited.  For some, bridging the gap almost seemed inconceivable and yet, even through the musty cellars and years of cobwebs and mold, even Mercedes Lopez de Heredia whose primary goal is to retain the style of her family for generations can be seen using her iPhone to text and make notes of our visit.  In fact her web site has a link directly to her Facebook page (which is more than can be said about many US wineries).

Oak for wine must be like perfume on a woman, to enhance her beauty, never cover it - Mercedes Lopez de Heredia

How does this relate to technology?  It was almost as if there was an inherent understanding that the use of social media would be the vehicle to share the stories of the past that make Rioja so amazing.  Of all the Old World wine producing countries that we have worked with, Rioja seems to be the most advanced.  Their internal acumen for the use of technology seemed natural and every single Bodega mentioned how they intended to use more social media and digital marketing.  In fact, almost everyone we visited had both a Facebook and a Twitter account and often they were attempting, sometimes failing, to incorporate digital throughout their traditional marketing.  We saw QR codes, URL’s on tasting notes, USB drives with tasting notes, social media identities and, once, a Foursquare icon.  Of all the wineries, the greatest expression of the intersection between the modern world and a winery steeped in tradition was Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco.  My analogy would be they are to Rioja like Mondavi was to Napa Valley.  Their museum of wine has 130K visitors a year and is not only one of the most spectacular in the world, but is the absolute expression of Rioja’s commitment to the past.  What caught my attention most was while I was tweeting my experience, they were tweeting in parallel, Instagramming, and replying in real time.

This was even more incredible in as we toured the ultimate exploration of the history of wine surrounded by a press from the 18th century, the last hand blown wine bottle in Spain, amphoras from Greek antiquity, 100 years of corkscrews, and original Picasso paintings with wine.  Borja Martinez Echarte, their director of marketing, was telling me how they were documenting and digitizing the entire collection and adding Wi-Fi throughout the museum to encourage more social sharing.  Clearly they get it.

After returning home and already planning my trip back with my wife, I contacted Borja to dig a bit deeper into his thoughts about the state of digital and social media as it relates to the Spanish market.  In essence Borja had these key points:

  • In his mind, the Spanish wine industry is just starting as it relates to social media.  However, culturally the Spaniards use it differently than Americans so adapting it to the US audience is an exercise.
  • He is still frustrated that wineries in Spain chase followers/fans vs. engagement.
  • He made sure to inform me that he had ranked in the top 10 of the VinTank Winery Social Index.  An incredible accomplishment considering the resources and acumen of some of the top 50 social wineries in the index.
  • He plans to make Bodegas Dinastia Vivanco the leader in digital for the Spanish wine industry.
  • A main component of Vivanco’s digital strategy is “storytelling.”  With the tremendous amount of stories in the museum and through the history of the Vivanco family, I don’t think this will be a problem at all.
  • He’s willing to experiment and fail.  Something I found incredibly admirable.
  • He summed up his social strategy in one word: engagement.  Looking at their Twitter stream and Facebook Fan Page, they are definitely walking the talk.

PS – Here were a few of my favorite wines from the trip.  If you want to see everything I tasted, please look at my notes in Delectable.  This app proved invaluable for my journaling of so many wines in such a short period of time and every Bodega was incredibly curious and kind about my constant requests to take pictures of the labels.


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