Think of how you discovered your favorite wines in the past. Maybe they were recommended to you by a sommelier at a restaurant, or you visited a winery on vacation and fell in love with one of their bottlings. Or perhaps you stopped into a local wine shop and chatted with the proprietor who eventually sent you home with something new to try. Yet as we close in on eight months of lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, and social distancing, many of these avenues for exploration are limited, dangerous, or otherwise not an option.

So how, exactly, do wine drinkers go about discovering new wines in 2020? Can existing platforms meet the needs of a suddenly stuck-at-home consumer base? Can quizzes and other gimmicks replace intelligent recommendations and conversation? That’s what Adam Teeter, Erica Duecy, and Zach Geballe discuss on this week’s episode of the VinePair Podcast.

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Adam: From Brooklyn, New York, I’m Adam Teeter

Erica: From New York City, I’m Erica Duecy

Zach: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.

A: And this is the VinePair Podcast. And you guys, I’ve got some sad news. Which is, this is Erica’s last podcast. And that is because as sad as we are, Erica is moving on to a really interesting tech startup in the wine space that I’m sure she will tell us about when she is ready to tell us. Or can you tell us anything now?

E: I can tell a little bit, I can talk a little bit. So, first of all, I’m so sad to be leaving VinePair because we have done some incredible work over the past year. We were the first brand, the first drinks publication to respond to the Covid crisis. We had our live blog up and ready for the industry as a resource on March 12. Many days before the shutdowns and lockdowns went into place, anywhere in the country. So, you know, we were on top of the game there. And we have continued that as a resource throughout Covid. We launched VP Pro, which is our vertical for the trade, in the trade space. So for wineries and breweries and people working in any part of the three-tier system, they can go to VP Pro and use it as a resource. We launched that over the summer. It has been incredibly popular. Every time I look there’s thousands more subscribers, it’s beyond popular as a trade vertical.

And we have brought some really important voices to light, and have really done a lot of great work across all aspects of what’s happening both on the trade side and the consumer side in drinking. So when we say drinking is culture at VinePair, I think we have really delivered on that over the past year, for sure. Since that’s the time that I’ve been most familiar with the brand. But I have to say it is sad to be leaving. But indeed, I got more and more obsessed with this idea of wine discovery during the pandemic, and that’s the topic we’re going to be touching on today. And so, I have an opportunity to partner up with a pioneer in the digital wine space, Paul Mabray. We’re going to be developing and launching a new wine platform, and if you don’t know him, he founded WineDirect. He founded VinTank. He now runs a SAS company for wineries. And so we’re taking his knowledge, my knowledge, some other people’s knowledge throughout the industry.

And we’ll be looking to solve the problem of wine discovery. So, how do consumers discover and source wines online? And then we’re looking to help them do that in an easier and more seamless way than currently exists. So it’s a super-exciting challenge and one that I’m looking forward to diving into.

A: Yeah. I mean it’s definitely a bummer to see you go for sure. It’s been amazing to have you on the team for the last year, but Paul is just such an amazing entrepreneur in the wine space — especially when it comes to commerce and connecting wineries to their consumers, that I think it’s definitely going to be an exciting thing for you to go and help him build.

I know he’s written about it a little bit on his blog. I’ve read a few of the posts, and it definitely sounds like something that’s needed in the industry when it comes to helping consumers find wines and be able to easily purchase them and drink them as opposed to the way it exists now. Obviously, you’re always going to be a member of the VinePair family, and we wish you all the best and can’t wait to continue to see how this thing grows and having you stay in touch and stay a part of us as well.

E: Thank you. I would love to have followers that are interested in joining the journey and following along, just follow me on Twitter, Instagram, it’s just @ericaduecy. And I will be happily re-tweeting everything that is happening at VinePair as well. I mean I’m a fan of the brand, and I will continue to be.

Z: Erica. I just have one important question for you. Who was your favorite co-host?

E: Oh, you think I’m going to fall for that?

A: Yeah. That’s such a lame question, Zach.

Z: He’s not your boss anymore. You can say me. It’s OK.

A: It’s the lamest question. You know what? Maybe we should just keep asking your kid who their favorite parent is? I assume it would be your wife.

E: We have enough divisive stuff happening in the country right now, we do not need further divides.

A: Seriously. But so today’s topic is really interesting, which is wine discovery and how we discover wine online.

Obviously, we know we have a lot of readers to the VinePair Review Library et cetera. But that really isn’t how a lot of people discover wine to buy, right? It’s not how you purchase. You go there to do some research et cetera, but for the most part, where are we buying wine online? And how are we finding wines online to buy?

I will be the first one to say, until the pandemic, I didn’t buy a lot of it online. I definitely read publications like ours and I talked to people, but it was really a lot of Erica what you talk about, a lot of word of mouth. So one person would tell me about one thing or another person would say, “Hey, I’ve been getting into this region.” And I liked the wines of this region, and that’s kind of more how I was discovering it. And I was going to local wine shops, which I do think are going to come back at the end of all this, but maybe not in the numbers, in the dominance they had prior.

I think online is definitely here to stay, but I’ve always been intrigued by the wine clubs. I think the problem for me with wine online and discovery of wine online has always been that at least for the last 10 years — we can blame a few people for this without naming names. People who founded certain wine clubs with lots of startup capital, early on in our days, have potentially sued your new business partner, made wines that were dubious in origin. And we’ve talked about this a bunch in terms of labeling of other types of wine clubs.

And so I was always really worried because I knew that in order to understand the wine world online, you had to accept that some of these wines actually didn’t exist in the real world. They only existed in the online wine world. They were wines that were private label created for these kinds of sites that allowed them to be able to affordably ship them to you.

Because that’s the other issue for me about wine online. A lot of the wines at a $20, $50 price point just became prohibitively expensive once you start adding on shipping costs and things like that. So I started to realize a lot of those wines that are at that price probably don’t actually exist IRL. When I would try to search for them on other sites or just in Google, they would only come up on that one retailer site. And so I was like, “This is definitely something that’s weird.” So I think, and wonder how, both things are going to have to change. And we’ve seen them change somewhat in Covid, but creating some sort of system where it’s easier to find real wines, but also a system that actually explains their prominence. And somehow makes me feel comfortable that there’s actually someone behind them. If that makes sense. It’s not just like a bulk wine manufacturer that’s just doing the new cool label. ‘Cause that’s always been my issue, and at least I knew at a wine shop I can talk to someone and they’re like, “Yeah, I talked to this rep three days ago. This is who the winemaker is” and they made me feel more comfortable. But I don’t know, maybe that’s just me. But that’s always been my fear of discovering wine when it comes to buying wine online.

E: Yeah, definitely. For me, I think over the pandemic period, I’ve been scouring wine platform websites looking for new finds, and for guidance on great values. And it’s tough to come by reliable information. So previously, I would be dining out a lot. I was scouring the wine list at the restaurants and wine bars that I loved. I would spend hours in a wine shop talking to the shopkeepers, looking at their selections, really trying to get a handle for the shops that I liked when I knew the people and I knew their philosophies. But having to move that all online has not been very seamless for me. So, I think there’s a couple of key issues that I found most problematic.

One is that on the big platforms, like the big ordering platforms, you have these algorithms that are pushing the big brands. So it makes it really hard to discover new producers and new regions. Then you also have a super-limited inventory, so there’s just no way right now to find the amazing wines that are available, like direct-to-consumer from wineries, unless you hunt and peck.

I am a huge fan of Martha Stoumen. I follow her wines and it’s so hard to find her wines at any retail shop or on any platform. It’s very difficult. So, I have to subscribe to her wine club in order to find out what’s happening with those wines. But multiply that by all the producers that I am interested in, and it’s a huge Byzantine. Did I catch that email? Did I miss anything? It’s very confusing. And then there’s also this lack of context from real people whose advice I trust. So I just don’t drink like James Suckling drinks, right? I don’t have that same taste.

So finding those online reviewers, I have not really found a ton of people that I’ve been psyched about. And that actually was the impetus behind our $250 Case Challenge. So, at VinePair we created this $250 Case Challenge where we asked top somms to go onto a wine client forum.

And I think Total Wine was our first one. And we said, choose the best values, choose the 12 best values that are available on the platform right now. And tell us why we should buy them. And like that series, now we’ve talked to a bunch of somms, that series has been super successful because I think it answers that problem of, you learn something about a somm or you have a somm or a personality that you’re following, and you really trust their recommendations, but it’s so hard to come by those recommendations without the restaurants and wine bars that we’ve all loved.

Z: I think the other piece of this that you guys have both kind of alluded to, but haven’t hit on entirely is we also live in a country where for a lot of really dumb reasons, getting wine from other states is really hard.

It’s a little bit more doable if you’re trying to get wine from a winery directly. There’s more freedom to ship wine across state lines. But you know, if you’re interested in getting wine that’s either not made in this country, so it’s imported or even just a wine that might not be currently available from a winery, they’ve sold out of it, it’s a previous vintage, et cetera. If it’s not already in your state, you may find it very, very difficult to get your hands on that wine. You may have to break the law, or just not get it. And I think that we’ve talked about this a lot. I’ve done a few interviews as a part of the “Next Round” series with people who are involved in trying to either change those laws or find workarounds for them.

And I think that’s all well and good, but it is important to remember that one of the real challenges with whatever end of this industry you’re on, whether you’re a producer, whether you’re a platform, whether you’re someone who would be interested in offering your recommendations, is that availability is really hard to predict.

And I’ve come across this teaching online wine classes during the pandemic, because stuff that I assume would be available in 50 states because it’s not even small production, it’s large production well-known wineries, just randomly isn’t in Missouri, or it isn’t in Tennessee, or it isn’t in Wyoming, or whatever.

And if it’s not in the state, there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing that my students can do. And so I just find it to be important to recognize that there’s an information flow issue for sure. But there’s also a very fundamental level of, we live in a state or in a country with really fucked up spirits and wine laws.

And some of that is not going to change unless all you listening decide, “Hey, it’s important that not only do we push for all these other things that we all think are important” and I don’t want to claim that easier access to online wine retail is as important as many of the other things that I’m sure lots of you are out there advocating for, but if it’s something that we want, political action matters. and especially in an area like this, where there isn’t a lot of outspoken, public sentiment in favor of additional freedoms that I think most of us would agree are good for everyone, with the exception of maybe wholesalers. It has to happen that way, too, because otherwise we’re going to end up with the same bottlenecking problem where wine that is recommended, no matter how great the recommendation is, if someone can’t get it for legal reasons, it’s a worthless recommendation.

A: Well, so Erica brought up one piece that I wanted to touch on. ‘Cause I think it’s interesting and I thought about it a lot recently with the explosion of wine online, and just spirits in general. But I know we’re talking mostly wine here. And Erica, you said a lot of it has to do with the big brands, right? And so people can more easily find them and buy them. One of the things that I’ve wondered about a lot and I’ve seen happen — it’s pretty rampant, and no one’s really talking about it, there’s probably a story here — is look, when we do sponsored content with brands we have to very clearly label it. And it says “sponsored” it’s very clearly labeled partner, et cetera. There’s a lot of these larger sites online who I know the brands are paying for placement. That’s what you do. I mean, that’s what they’re used to doing.

Do you know what I mean? They do that in stores too. That’s what an end cap is, you pay to be in that end cap, but I think there’s something about online where you expect that that’s at least labeled “promotional,” or whatever. So let’s say I wind up on a large wine website, wine retailer’s website, and maybe there’s a “Discover the Wines of Southwest France” as a huge block. That’s probably a paid promotion, but I’m not told that, right? I’m gonna be like, “Oh, wines of Southwest France,” and I click it. Or maybe there just happens to be a lot of the bigger brands on the homepage. Now in a lot of places, someone might argue with me and say, “Oh, well, that’s just because the bigger brands are popular and they want you to find them faster so that you buy them.” But in a lot of cases it’s also that the bigger brands are paying to be there because it’s just like the way they push for shelf space in the large retailers. They know if they’re easier to be found, that you will buy them more readily because they’re easier to be found.

So I wonder how you fix that, as well. And do we call for some of these larger retailers and say “Look this is online, we all understand, or a lot of us understand, that promotions in grocery stores are promotions that are paid for. Those big displays and whatever are things to try to get us to buy, but online maybe we don’t know that. So you should be marking it in the way that Amazon now does.” There was a rule so now Amazon has to do it. So does that need to happen online as well? So that we actually feel like we can buy with more confidence? So I feel like that’s also my issue all the time. It’s like, are you just pushing something at me and because someone paid you to or because it’s a good margin for you? Not because I may love it.

Z: Well, and I think that last point is a really important one, Adam, which is there’s a whole realm here which is not obviously exclusive to wine or alcohol, but there’s that very obvious paid promotion, which is more common, as you said, with things like VinePair or media where someone is paying for a story or some sort of presentation or space. But then there’s everything else, which is like, “Hey, we’re going to give you a really, really good deal on this product.” And thus, we know you’re going to be incentivized to push it because you’re going to be able to make more margin, and be able to charge more compared to what you paid for it than you would with comparable other products. And if you think that it’s hard to tease out when you’re on an online platform, “Hey, who is paying for placement?” I mean, good luck figuring out — unless you happen to be someone else who plays in the wholesale market — good luck figuring out what that person is paying for it. And in some ways, I don’t think that’s inherently a problem, as long as the recommendations are good, but when the recommendations start to be less good, that’s where the whole thing falls apart real quick.

E: Yeah. And it just keeps small brands down. So let’s say you’re putting in a search or you are trying to find a wine that meets certain specifications. If you’re getting an Amazon search result back that you know is prioritizing certain brands, it’s just kind of confounding to try to understand why on Amazon those things would be marked. Why on VinePair those things would be marked. Why not on any of the e-commerce platforms are those things marked? I can’t even think of any drinks platforms where I’ve seen paid placements marked. However, you know that it is because the brands have said that they have increased — they’ve like two times, three times, five times their spending — with these digital platforms. At the expense of a lot of media. At the expense of doing a lot of media spend this year, they’ve gone directly to the e-commerce platforms and have been spending there. So we know it’s happening. We know it’s a growing business, but why is there no transparency there? But there really is everywhere else. I think there will be some legislative thing, there’s going to have to be a challenge to what the norms of online selling look like.

Z: I also think Adam, one question I have for you and for you as well Erica, of course, is the other piece of this that I think is really fascinating and something for our listeners to think about, too, is part of the issue with an online or any kind of recommendation platform or system is to some extent the person seeking the recommendation has to have the faintest idea of what they like. And I think that that’s where a lot of these algorithms struggle. We actually have very little ability to quantify why people like something as complicated as wine or spirits. Or you see some of these online platforms or wine clubs with, “How do you like your coffee?” or, “Do you prefer Reese’s Pieces or Mallo Bars?” right? All these kinds of questions that are trying to draw some sort of inference about the kind of wines you like from other consumable items. And I just think that the first step for anyone looking for recommendations, whether it’s in person, or online, or anywhere else you think well, “What do I like?” In restaurants, this was always my thing, like can the guest explain to me a little bit what they like or tell me some wines they like, ‘cause that’ll help me. ‘Cause it’s a lot easier to say, “well, if you like this one and this one and this one, you might also like this wine.” And so I’m curious for each of you, you know, how often do you think about what you like and maybe why?

A: Well, so I think you bringing up the quizzes, is really interesting because those quizzes really work on the low end, not on the high end, but the reason they work on the low end has nothing to do with their accuracy.

It has everything to do with the psychological trick that it plays on you. So basically, psychological research has proven that when you think that you are involved in the decision, or the product you are trying, your brain is more likely to like it. So if you look at most of these tests, they’re very basic, right?

So if you give this algorithm these inputs and it spit outs that you should be drinking Pinot Noir from Oregon, you think you were involved in the decision-making process. And so you’re much more likely — at a certain price. The second that price goes above the threshold where you feel comfortable, so maybe that price is $20, right? The second that they’re spitting out wines that are $25 or $30 you’re going to be more critical, even if you were involved in the decision-making process. So that’s why I think you always see those quizzes on these very low cost wine clubs, but that was the rage five to eight years ago. You saw them on almost every wine club that was starting, where they were going to find your palate, and don’t worry because you’re going to get a pack of six bottles for $69.99 or something. And everyone was like “Yeah, great love it! It’s the best!” I bet everyone got the same package, by the way.

Z: I bet you they had at least two different ones.

A: Exactly. But that’s what those quizzes did. Whereas no, at the high end, I think it’s really hard, because the second you start thinking about paying out more money for something you’ve never had before, you start really questioning it. And online, I think it can be difficult, because it’s not like sheets, right? I’m using sheets because I just bought them recently. But you can’t return them. If they’re expensive or you don’t like them, once you open the wine, it doesn’t matter. You’re out 50 or 60 bucks if that’s what you paid. And so I think the person that can figure that out, and I think potentially Paul is that person, depending on the exact thing you guys are building Erica, but like the second you figure out, “How do I feel comfortable taking that risk?” I think that unlocks a ton of amazing stuff online. Because then you really are opening up a massive world. ‘Cause you’re right. What we’re seeing people buy right now is from people they already know. How do you get people to buy stuff they don’t like? At least when you take the risk at your wine shop, you can go back and be like, “Hey man, or lady or other person, you’ve always steered me right. This was a bad bottle.” And they’d probably even be like, “You know what? I’ll give you 20 percent off the next thing.” But that can’t happen as well online. So that’s where it’s hard for me, Zach, because I know the things I like, but I still don’t like everything “in those things, you know what I mean?

E: Yeah. I agree with that. I think those quizzes, I have mostly found them to be a boondoggle for more experienced drinkers because I tend to have pretty eclectic taste. I like a wide range of styles. I like flinty, acid-driven Riesling. And then on another night, I’m going to have a rich, unctuous Amarone. So it runs the gamut literally across all styles of wine. I drink classic wines. I drink biodynamic wines. I drink some natural wines, and there’s no quiz that effectively has encapsulated or even often returned wines that I have liked. So I think that’s one problem. And then I think there’s another problem that I get really frustrated about, which I think is the bottle problem.

So when you are a more experienced drinker, and maybe you’re buying wines several times a month, you have the bottle problem. Which is, you’re looking for a specific bottle. And I find that even more maddening, because it seems like you should be able to solve this. So just last week I was looking for this Syrah, Georges Vernay, a Rhône producer. It’s like a declassified red Condrieu wine and it’s around $30. It’s not like a super-fancy wine or anything, but I must’ve spent 45 minutes and at the end of that, I did not get my wine. I looked for it on the big platforms. I looked for it on retail shops in other states that would ship to New Jersey.

I was scouring their fine print to figure out who would ship to New Jersey, and in all, I probably visited five or six different websites trying to find this one wine. I abandoned the effort and I know there’s somewhere in Manhattan that I eventually will go get a bottle at, but it’s not just a one-time thing. I think for anyone who is actively searching for wine online with some regularity, you must find it to be the most frustrating thing ever because I am just stymied over and over when I’m looking for specific bottles.

Z: Erica, you better fix this, or I’m going to be pissed that you left us.

E: I will, damnit. It is the thing that pisses me off most about our current drinking climate. I can’t find what I want to drink. We just did a really cool article about Clarete wines, which is this dark pink, red where they co-ferment red and white grapes. And I looked everywhere. I looked everywhere for this one brand and still am empty-handed, and it’s been two and a half months. Should it be this difficult?

A: That’s unbelievable. It really is unbelievable how difficult it is and yeah, I really hope that you solve it.

Z: And then come back on the podcast, and tell us all about it.

E: Yeah, absolutely.

A: Totally. Well, guys, this has been another really awesome conversation, as always. Erica, I’m going to miss the back and forth like crazy. It’s been an amazing addition for you to be the third voice. For the listeners, we’re going to try some crazy things in the weeks to come. We’re not gonna go back to the old days of just Zach and I all the time. We’re gonna bring on some guest hosts. We’re gonna try to bring on someone else potentially in the near future. But Erica, seriously, I wish you all the best. VinePair was lucky to have you for a year. Sad to lose you, but I’m really excited for your future, for sure.

E: Oh, thank you so much. I love you guys. And I really, really am going to miss you.

A: Well everyone else, you can drop us a line at [email protected] if you want to say goodbye to Erica. You can drop her a line there, or you can follow her at @ericaduecy on all of the social channels. We’ll see you next week.

E: Bye.

Z: Sounds great.

A: Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now, for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy, and me, Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder Josh Malin and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again right here next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.