Why you should care
Traditionally slow to adapt, the wine industry is embracing tech tools of augmented and virtual reality to give consumers an experience they’ve never had.
In early 2018, Ontario wine researcher Debbie Inglis sat down to take a much-needed sip of merlot to celebrate the $960,000 grant she’d been awarded to build the augmented and virtual reality consumer research lab at Brock University. With a VR headset on, she raised the glass to her lips. Crack. She tried again. Nope. “The glass would hit the bridge of the goggles,” she says. That just wouldn’t do; to test drinking behavior in different VR scenarios, the goggles needed to be compatible with a regular flute.
This seemingly niche request is increasingly an industry-wide need, as VR and AR drinking experiences surge with the traditionally slow-to-adapt wine world opening its arms to the latest tech. For winemakers, these are exciting tools to broaden their audiences and brands worldwide. And consumers can now savor a fine drink while also experiencing a slice of nature, history or even an apocalyptic future.
Melbourne-based Treasury Wine Estates launched the 19 Crimes wine brand in 2017; its whole shtick is an AR app that animates the criminals printed on the labels. The app was so popular that it crashed with overuse. It followed that up with the zombie-themed AR Walking Dead wines. And in August 2018, it came out with emBrazen wines. Its AR labels celebrate accomplished women such as Nellie Bly and Josephine Baker.
In September 2017, Argentine wine brand The Owl and the Dust Devil launched AR labels on which you’ll see an owl trying to outpace a tornado, while Paso Robles–based Rabble Wine Company’s soon-to-be-released bottles will feature apocalyptic AR scenes: a comet hitting Florence on its red blend, and Mount Vesuvius erupting on Pompeii on its cabernet sauvignon.
The wine industry is constantly trying to come up with new experiences for consumers.
Liz Thach, professor of wine and management, Sonoma State University
In New Zealand, Brancott Estate Wines created a multisensory vineyard VR experience in 2016. Across the Tasman Sea in Australia, the government in May 2018 invested around $500,000 in VR experiences to attract wine tourism from China. The Mensa wine AR app launched in South Africa in August, and a Napa wine symposium earlier this year included a virtual reality keynote.
“The wine industry is constantly trying to come up with new experiences for consumers,” says Liz Thach, professor of wine and management at Sonoma State University. “But usually they’re the last to adopt anything new in terms of technology.”
Advances in AR and VR tend to take two specific pathways, says Thach. AR is all about engaging with bottle labels while VR offers explorations of vineyards from afar. “It’s virtual tourism, so people can walk around a winery before they visit,” she says. “Wine regions like Napa or Sonoma need to keep people coming back, so their experiences get more elaborate.”
Brancott Estate’s sensory experience is a good example of this. Users donned headsets in specially designed rooms, equipped with wind machines and scented sprays, which activated based on their headset activity. It was over-the-top, elaborate and economically effective. “The experience broke traditional wine-tasting conventions,” says Toni Ingram, head of marketing at Pernod Ricard UK, where Brancott is a portfolio company. The payoff was immediate; 1 in 3 sales was for more expensive wines.
To be fair, it’s not that the wine world doesn’t like technology — just that it tends not to be consumer-facing. “There’s a lot of innovation in wines around the ‘internet of things’ space, with wineries using sensors in the vineyards to do microclimate analysis, etc.,” says Philip van Allen, an interaction design consultant and technologist. But the front end has been slow to catch up. Sure, there have been some interesting wine startups, like the now-defunct Wi-Fi–connected bottle Kuvée and Vinome’s Wine DNA test, but they tend to be outliers. At Napa’s 2018 Direct to Consumer Wine Symposium, van Allen presented a panel on developing new technologies in the wine world. “What’s available is kind of lame so far,” he says.
But he says the industry is receptive — it’s in its best interest. Five years from now, autonomous vehicles could make expensive car parks at vineyards redundant, for instance — but if they embrace technology, they could use autonomous trolleys to transport visitors and their purchases back to their hotels. AR and VR experiences will be key, he adds. One problem to adoption is the wide range in quality of experiences, he says — somewhat inevitable as wines clamber on the buzzword bandwagon.
Today, the majority of wine VR experiences are about immersive vineyard tours. Spain’s Ramón Bilbao winery uses an Oculus Rift to introduce people to wine tasting and horticulture practices, while Australia’s Seppeltsfield winery VR viewer provides panoramic views of its estate. They’re not the most exciting experiences, but they provide real immersion for those with accessibility issues. “Especially for the older consumer who [can] afford the higher-end wines,” Thach points out.
There’s also an educational and social element to some of these experiences. Take Treasury Wine Estates’ emBrazen AR wines, whose launch coincided with the #MeToo era. On one label, an animated version of Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz speaks about how she became the most successful Latin artist of the 20th century. On another, journalist Nellie Bly’s animated avatar talks about her ambitious project to travel the world in 80 days. “Impossible,” her editor told her, she recalls. “No one but a man can do this.” But she took on the challenge. “I told him I could, and I would,” the AR version of Bly says. “And I did, with eight days to spare.”
Back in Ontario, Inglis solved her problem by 3D-printing a slightly angled glass. Now she’s working on decoding what makes the perfect drink. “The enjoyment of wine is more involved than the flavor,” she says. “We’ll manipulate aroma, touch and additional sensory cues to understand consumer choice.” This might mean bye-bye to beer goggles as we know them, and the arrival of a customized, tech-loaded version of that experience: with wine instead of beer.