Enter VinVillage

For Rob Barnett, the long and winding road to VinVillage is finally coming to an end. The technical snags for his wine-based social-networking site — devoted to “creating locally based social wine groups and connecting them with wine lovers in their home cities and around the country, together with an enhanced local- and online-wine-lifestyle experience, offering wines, events, products, and services” — have mostly been cleared up. The licensing for the VinVillage store is in place: the site has crawled under the Vintage Wines umbrella. And along the way, Barnett has had one or two happy adventures.

VinVillage San Diego, headed up by chef-caterer Chuck Samuelson, is up and running strong. The events are the key, the thing that keeps it from being just another wine-chat board, and a recent effort brought 200 people to Anthology on a Tuesday night during happy hour. “We’ve done events in Modus, Fleetwood, Dussini,” recounts Barnett. “It brings in business for them during the week and gains us market awareness and membership.” (And for a social-networking site, gaining membership is the point. The more members, the more attractive you become to professional partners/sponsors, and the more likely you are to get a significant number of customers purchasing VinVillage goods and services.) “Our goal is to keep coming back each year at the same time,” continues Barnett, “keeping the theme and the educational component. At Anthology, we worked with their sommelier and we brought in Rudi Wiest,” the great (and local) importer of German wines, to help San Diegans discover the glory that is German Riesling.

Things are starting to fall into place out of town as well. Phoenix is online. There have been events in Orange County and Sacramento. “Our goal is to have, by the end of the year, somewhere between eight and ten villages fully functioning and somewhere between four and six thousand members.”

To aid in the effort, Barnett has expanded his vision a bit. “VinVillage was originally about the social-media business. At the local level, what happens remains the same. It’s all about getting together; that’s why we have the three images right up front on the site, with the captions, ‘Join us,’ ‘Get together,’ and ‘Experience.’ But with the arrival of VinVillage Radio, we now have a communication platform.”

VinVillage Radio came about when Barnett was interviewed on the Art Rocks! show, which airs on the (locally based) WSradio.com online radio network. “I was sitting and waiting for my interview, and I looked through their list of shows. They had over a hundred shows and nothing devoted to wine and food.” He sent an email to the CEO, had a few meetings, and boom, he had found a home in new media. For weekly content and hosting, he turned to Lynn Krielow Chamberlain, a broadcast journalist who had been running her show locally in North Carolina for a decade. “She’s phenomenal,” gushes Barnett — and now she can be heard anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

Providing this sort of media content gives Barnett a new way to attract members. The lists of those visiting VinVillage and those downloading Wine&Dine Radio podcasts are different enough to tell him he’s reaching potential new members. It’s got him excited enough that he’s considering the addition of video, maybe even print — though he believes that “the Internet is where everything’s going to be. I’m hoping that we’ll have a content-rich vehicle to deliver great video” — either through partners, user-generated content, or in-house production.

Barnett’s vision is wildly synergistic: users will come for the content and the community of wine lovers; hopefully, sponsors and partner wineries will come for the same reason. The users come to taste, the wineries come to be tasted, and VinVillage is the place to meet. About the radio effort, he says, “We want to have sponsors, and there will be some content driven by who the sponsor is. We interviewed Michael Brill from the ‘remote winemaking’ company CrushPad last week — they’ll get one segment a week because they’re a sponsor. We can have a segment that’s devoted to a particular winery partner, and then we can pull that content over and plug it into the ‘Vin du Jour’ blog on the VinVillage site. Blogs develop followers, and so if you have multiple segments with multiple themes, then you can have different blogs that each develop a following. That leverages our exposure in the marketplace.”

The sponsor partnership then extends into real life as well. “On August 2, we’re doing a wine-blending class with CrushPad at Macy’s School of Cooking. The director of education is coming down to lead it, and he’ll use their FuseBox model. It gives you the five Bordeaux varietals, and we teach people how to blend. They learn to use the pipettes, the graduated cylinders. We give them recipe cards for some of the greatest wines — Silver Oak, Insignia. We’re calling it ‘Drink what you blend.’ ”

That’s the great economic virtue of VinVillage — the real-world grounding in the physical product that is wine. It’s that kind of grounding that has the company talking to a recycling company like Terracycle, swelling an effort to recycle corks. Or to a company like Inertia Beverage Group up in Napa. “Every state has shipping-compliance regulations,” explains Barnett, “taxes, how many bottles per customer, and in some cases, depending on how many gallons of wine or how big the winery is. Inertia has built a platform around the shipping compliances and made it easy for a small winery to get to market.” A way for the boutique producer to avoid getting lost in the book of some monster distributor is by going directly to market. “They’ve partnered up with 350 wineries, most of them small, many of them without distributorship. They can do it either business-to-consumer or business-to-business, selling directly to the trade and to restaurateurs, without the distributor in the middle.”

But a problem remains: How does a small winery actually get its wine into the glasses of shop owners and sommeliers across the country? Enter VinVillage. “Now, if we’re doing an event with a restaurant, we can bring exposure to our winery partners — we’re working with the restaurant on which wines to pour. Or, say we’re in Spokane and a winery wants to sell to the trade in Spokane. We can do an event, bring in the winery partner, and bring in the trade from Spokane. All we’re doing is making the introductions; we help facilitate the meeting.”

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