Rely on the numbers? Respected Napa consultant thinks it’s vital for wineries to survive
Like baseball, the wine industry typically has been a hidebound business and a stickler for its tradition and history.
A winemaker can seize on a certain vineyard with a subjective view of the perfect cab, just like a scout who finds a promising pitching prospect with a nasty slider at a rural ballpark that he or she thinks can help the team win the World Series. Change, however, does not come easy - on the baseball diamond or in the wine tasting room.
But Paul Mabray wants to shake up the wine sector by using data and technology to drive decisions on the best way for vintners to reach customers. And just like Billy Beane in “Moneyball” guiding the Oakland A’s to the playoffs, Mabray thinks relying on the numbers will be the only way many wineries will be able to survive in an increasingly crowded marketplace. In 2018, U.S. wine sales slowed to 1.2 percent growth, and some predict the more than 20-year streak of sales increases could end this year.
“Paul is one of the true thought leaders in the wine industry. For the past 15 years, he has pushed wineries to better understand and market to consumers through digital tools,” said Christopher O’Gorman, director of communications at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg.
Such insight is needed more than ever. There’s an old adage in the wine industry: “It’s not hard to make wine; it’s hard to sell wine.” And it’s only getting harder.
“We’re kind of in an existential crisis,” said Mabray, CEO of Emetry, a Napa-?based consulting group that provides data analysis and research software to wineries to help them better target their customers and attract new ones. His clients include Duckhorn Vineyards of St. Helena, JaM Cellars of Napa and Treasury Wine Estates’ domestic office in Napa.
There are those who think new wine styles or production methods can help boost the industry’s fortunes, although per-capita wine consumption is flat and younger consumers have a wide array of drink options: craft beer, spirits and nonalcoholic and even cannabis-infused beverages. Mabray is not one of them.
“There are a lot of people who are wine purists who are looking for flavors - things like winemaking styles, natural wine or biodynamic. I don’t think flavors are solutions to the problem. I think they are small Band-Aids,” he said.
In Mabray’s view, wineries do not truly understand their customers even with the retail and restaurant sales data they can get from market research firms like Nielsen and buying trends they can glean from trade organizations. On a scale of 1 to 10, Mabray gives the wine sector a 1 for its digital insights.
“(Producers of) potato chips have better digital programs than we have,” he said. “For all my life, the wine industry has been guessing.”
Even though he has skeptics, Mabray has his fans.
“He is like 20 years ahead of where the wine sector needs to be,” said Damien Wilson, the Hamel Family faculty chairman in wine business at Sonoma State University.
Mabray joined Emetry in May and is enhancing its software program that uses a range of digital sources - from one wine app that allows users to snap a photo and receive ratings and descriptions of the bottle to others that track sales at fine restaurants - that will allow wineries to better understand and target their customers. Many wineries that he meets with particularly want more information on consumer insights, restaurant sales and data on direct internet sales to consumers.
“There are so many wineries that don’t know their customers,” he said. Only a few like Treasury and E. & J. Gallo Winery have the resources to have their own consumer insight groups, he said.
The problem he is trying to solve for winemakers? “How do we engage with customers to sustain that interest in our product - (one) that is very hard to understand?”
And just like Beane ditching RBIs for slugging percentage to measure a player’s value, that pursuit has led Mabray to one of his most controversial beliefs in the wine industry: The tasting room will not be the salvation in a marketplace where wholesaler and retailer consolidation has made it difficult to get store shelf space for wine.
Tasting room visits down
In Napa and Sonoma counties, wineries still view tasting rooms as the best way to draw customers. Local residents, though, have complained about the traffic that comes with them. Direct-to-consumer wine sales now make up 61 percent of an average family winery’s revenue, according to a January survey by Silicon Valley Bank, which has a winery division.
But for every popular place such as the Scribe Winery in Sonoma or the new Prisoner Wine Co. in St. Helena, others are scrambling to get people inside, he said.