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Rely on the numbers? Respected Napa consultant thinks it’s vital for wineries to survive

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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.

“The new tasting room model is unsustainable,” Mabray said. “It’s an unsustainable tool for a small winery.”

And the data backs it up. The Silicon Valley Bank survey found that monthly tasting room visits have decreased over the past five years in both Napa and Sonoma counties, compared with other wine regions. Younger wine drinkers are not spending as much time as their parents in the tasting rooms, said Rob McMillan, the bank’s executive vice president.

Rethinking outreach

In an era of digital successes such as Warby Parker and the Dollar Shave Club, wineries must rethink their outreach, Mabray said.

“It is the most limiting bottleneck of customer acquisition,” Mabray said of wine tasting room sales. “Getting someone to fly in, to come here and come to the tasting room. It is the most limiting model. You don’t drive to Detroit to buy a Ford and test it out.”

Mabray has been preaching his sermon for some time. He founded Vintank in 2008, a business that also used software to monitor social media and customers for wineries. That company was acquired by the W2O group in 2015. Earlier in his career, he was senior director for Wineshopper.com, which had a partnership with Amazon. That site later merged with Wine.com, the nation’s leading online wine retailer, which had revenue of $130 million last year.

Digital reach now is more important than ever for wineries, Mabray contends, which like record clubs and magazines were pioneers in the subscription model way before there was even a Netflix or Amazon. But they have not kept up in the digital era.

“The wine business has always been a laggard in the adoption of digital tools, making it a difficult industry to find success. The shoals of the industry is littered with digital failures,” McMillan said in an email. “Paul has tried to start more digital businesses, led more change initiatives, consulted with more wineries than anyone and has the scars to prove how hard it is to find success.”

Mabray said there are better digital options for wineries to pursue to keep their wine club customers and recruit new ones — combined with good customer service. Wineries, he said, need to separate customers into groups based on where they are located, how much they spend, the frequency of interaction and other traits to better target them.

For example, big spenders should receive at least a phone call from the winery owner or the winemaker instead of a simple auto-response email after a large order is placed.

“Every customer is important, but not every customer has the same importance,” Mabray said.

Locale also is important.

“People outside a 90-mile radius don’t visit here that often,” he said.

Thus, targeting certain areas in the United States to concentrate sales makes sense. Scribe has done this well by focusing on Brooklyn and San Francisco and having wine-tasting events in those cities, he said.

“If they can’t get to your front door, how do you get to them?” Mabray said.

Using technology

Technology can help, too. He cites as an example his wife, Angelica de Vere Mabray, when she served as CEO of Sullivan Vineyards & Winery of Rutherford. Through geofencing tracking technology, she noticed a fashion model from Los Angeles with about 250,000 subscribers on Instagram was visiting the Napa Valley. She then sent a message to the model’s staff that she should stop by and get a VIP visit, which the model did and then chronicled the wine tasting on social media. Tourists followed as a result, Mabray said.

“Every week they stopped by and say they saw her on Instagram,” he said.

He advises wineries to try digital options such as selling a discounted wine on a website like Wine Til Sold Out, which may yield a smaller profit, but can move wine and build brand loyalty.

More competition

Change will come as Amazon likely will take another crack at the wine market, especially after its 2017 acquisition of Whole Foods Market, Mabray said. This coincides with an expected Supreme Court decision later this year that should determine if retailers can have more flexibility to sell wine across state lines like wineries are able to do.

“Amazon has been a sleeping giant. … It’s tried in fits and starts in coming into the (wine) industry,” Mabray said. “They have the built-in Whole Foods buying power and the digital chops. We have never seen anything like it.”

Mabray doesn’t consider himself a Cassandra warning of impending trouble, but he stresses there has to be greater awareness as the wine sector can’t rely on another 24 years of annual sales increases in the United States.

“I’m a digital guy, and data is the lifeblood on what we live and breathe. All the other industries are living, drinking and breathing data to make better decisions,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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