Wikis, Mashups, All That

Local businessman, technology entrepreneur, and wine hobbyist Rob Barnett has owned the VinVillage domain name for almost four years. "I own a bunch of different domains," he explains. "These little ideas and plans come to me. I started thinking about doing these villages, something involving wine that was local and social. I just wasn't sure how to put all the pieces together."

But thanks to his own interest in and involvement with the wine world, he did at least know what the pieces were. "Different tastings, different events with my wine group. Wine junkets I've been on. Things I used to do with winecommune.com and their auctions. There were always things I loved and things I didn't, but the whole experience was strong enough to keep me coming back." And he wasn't alone. "I went over to the Wine Vault and saw what was happening there -- a wine-and-food pairing in the middle of the week, and it's elbow-room only. They can do the same dinner three nights in a row. There is such a pent-up demand; people are clamoring for this." But how best to meet that demand? "I thought about retail stores and online businesses, but none of them ever clicked."

What finally started things clicking was Web 2.0 -- virtual communities, "wikis, mashups, all that. There's a group I'm involved with called Wine 2.0, and we're talking about how to take Web 2.0 services and maximize them in the wine world. We held our first meeting in Second Life," an online virtual world. "One of the guys has a real-life winery, and also a winery in Second Life. We took our avatars and met on his island, in his vineyard." Barnett saw a possibility: "Wine is the only beverage on the planet that draws people together, right? I've tried to take everything that has to do with wine socializing on the local level and scale it out across the country. The premise is that it's all about the local and the social, but the online piece helps to pull people together on a broader scale."

VinVillage, thought Barnett, could gather everything he loved about wine and put it onto a single platform. It could serve as a kind of My-Space for oenophiles -- but with that crucial local/social component added on. Like other online wine ventures, "We'll have the online forums and message boards and blogs." Tim Elliott, the company's CTO, already runs "a very successful wine blog called WineCast." But it's the existence of local wine groups -- villages -- that actually get together in real-world venues to drink wine that will make or break the venture. "If that piece is not of a very high value to wine lovers, then this whole thing unravels. VinVillage," he says (in full pitch-mode), "is creating locally based social wine groups and connecting them with like-minded wine lovers in their home cities, and around the country, by bringing the membership together with an enhanced local- and online-wine-lifestyle experience, offering unique and exclusive wines, events, products, and services." And on May 7, the project went live.

By now, the jaded wine lover is most likely thinking of Wine Brats, the wine social club/advocacy group that, at its peak, boasted over 30 chapters and 45,000 registered members around the country. "They set the benchmark," grants Barnett, "but they wore out their theme" -- introducing the postcollege set to the joys of the grape. "I've talked to many wine groups that have stagnated, and when I ask them why, they say that what they're doing just gets old. They're not doing different things, experiencing different things." To combat this, Barnett is introducing a three-tier system of events, based on level of expertise. (What appeals to the newbie might not be of interest to the connoisseur, and vice versa.) Further, "Wine Brats was only events-driven; they didn't offer any goods or services. We're offering it all."

What does that mean? For starters, wine. "One of our founding members has a very successful brick-and-mortar wine business, and also a growing online business. We're converting that entire online presence over to VinVillage; out of the gate, we'll have about 2500 wines available. When I explained the concept to him, he got it. He saw that what we could offer him was the ability to expand beyond what he would ever be able to do. We're bringing people who would never look for him." A wine shopper on the East Coast might never think to search for wine thousands of miles away -- but if VinVillage is his go-to connection to the wine world, why not buy from the VinVillage shop?

Ditto other wine-related goods and services. "This would be a day two offering," something VinVillage would roll out after things were up and running. "We anticipate we're going to have 50,000--100,000 members once we're established all across the country. There's no barrier to entry -- membership is free. Once you've got this membership, they're buying glassware, they're buying cellars, they're buying travel. There's no reason not to funnel those goods and services to them." And once you can offer that kind of market base to a supplier, you may be able to offer those goods and services at a discount.

The shop, says Barnett, could even create a new distribution channel for wineries. "There are close to 7000 wineries in the U.S., and the grand majority are still dependent on someone walking in their door, tasting the wine, and buying bottles or joining a wine club. We can link producers directly to consumers, people they'd never be able to spend enough money to reach. We can make it very affordable."

VinVillage will also offer a wine club, set up along pretty standard lines: two bottles a month, with three levels of expense. But the interactivity of the Web will help out here as well: instead of receiving whatever two bottles the management wants to send, members will be able to select from among a range of options. "You want all red wines, you can get all red wines." But wait, as the man says -- there's more. Members will also receive discounts on VinVillage wine events and access to members-only online services. Just what that would mean is still under consideration: "Maybe only the paying members could participate in the wikis or gain access to certain of the cellar-management tools" -- another Village feature. "When somebody buys a wine from us, we create a virtual cellar for them. Buyers can see the wine, the date they bought it, the price they paid, any ratings that are out there, and any tasting notes.

"Then, they can contribute their own notes. We all know about the Wine Spectator, Robert Parker ratings. What I want to create here -- and what I think the market really needs -- is kind of a Yahoo! movies approach, where you have the critics vs. the users. When the new Kosta-Brown Pinot comes out and Robert Parker gives it a 96, I want to have this aggregate of tasters from across the country telling me, 'That's funny; we thought it was a 92.' Wouldn't that be powerful? A cross section of the whole country telling the experts what they believe the wine is."

And there's still more -- wine education, for instance. "Dustin Jones is a protégé of master sommelier Eddie Osterland, and he's going to head up our wine ed program." But the key -- the thing that has Barnett's hopes up -- is the project's timing. "I've worked with a multitude of startup companies over the years. A bunch of them had great technology, but they didn't hit the market at the right time, and they went nowhere." Web 2.0 was one sign that the VinVillage platform could work. Beyond that, there were the 13 straight years of increased wine consumption in the U.S. -- increases achieved with minimal help from marketing. "That tells you what the wine industry could be if they really did marketing on a grand scale, and this is another key piece we bring to the industry. I think we'll offer an avenue for marketing that is coming from the pull side -- we've got users that want to consume. Most wineries are on the push side," trying to sell a product. "I think we have an interesting dynamic," says Barnett; something that could "expand the whole wine market."

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