Viagra and the wine blogosphere
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Kim Maxwell ponders sexual innuendo, silent conversations and nudists after noticing the frenzied attraction of a little-known Wellington winery called Stormhoek.

‘Our web site shares the minutiae of our business. What we call wine porn; building an engaged online community,’ claims UK-based Nick Dymoke-Marr. It may sound like an odd statement from the MD of importer/distributor Orbital and co-owner of a Wellington winery that barely has a local presence. It’s all to do with blogging, and flies on the premise that cyber-communities share opinions on a variety of subjects, from clothes to the latest tekkie toys. ‘We believe the two social lubricants of wine and blogging will continue to grow, with Stormhoek at its core. Ongoing, unfiltered conversations about the wine and our business are shaking things up and having a real impact on the way our little company develops,’ he continues. On the wider wine community too.

It’s an intriguing position. We all know sex sells, but Stormhoek has left behind the traditional Cosmo magazine one-dimensional, sexual creature and made wine sexy to the wider technorati. Stormhoek is out to establish a global micro-brand by creating an online buzz. Dymoke-Marr says with blogging and the internet, there’s no reason why small businesses can’t compete for a share of the online conversation. When Stormhoek UK sales doubled in 12 months, they left traditional pick-up lines behind.

It’s why Microsoft’s chief blogger, Robert Scoble, noticed them. He said this small South African wine company shouldn’t be underestimated by the biggies - Google, Yahoo and Microsoft – in the competition for consumer spend. Scoble compared the purchase of Stormhoek wines with that of a popular tekkie toy: ‘Let’s say you have $400 burning a hole in your pocket. You have a lot of choices where to spend that money. It could go to an Xbox 360. But it could go to a case of wine too. Hey, if you decide Stormhoek is a better investment of your entertainment dollar than an Xbox 360, at least invite me over to drink some!’

Stormhoek’s initial aha moment came through enlisting their British blogger-turned-consultant friend Hugh Macleod, who set up the Gaping Void website in 2001, to showcase his cartoons – his personal site recommendations via virtual links pit Stormhoek wine alongside Saville Row tailors. Macleod encouraged Stormhoek to kick-off their UK wine launch in 2005 with a virtual wine campaign whereby 100 free bottles of Stormhoek were sent to bloggers with regular site traffic.

It was so successful, on 1 May 2006 Stormhoek launched their wines in the USA by inviting bloggers to host ‘100 geek dinners in 100 days’. Suggest a venue and theme, tell us how many people, and we’ll supply the wine, went the offer. Through the suggestion of unlocking merriment and probable flirtatious liaisons, the average wine consumer profile instantly expanded beyond traditional nerdy stereotypes.

Stormhoek US partner Jason Korman (on an April 28 Stormhoek blog) said their US dinner-hosting list - so far - includes musicians, crypozoological impersonators, suduko challengers and a group of nudists planning to entertain with Stormhoek ‘in their natural state’. All participants send photos of their wine event, but there’s no rules for how else they converse. Dymoke-Marr acknowledges that not vetting conversations may be risky, but is part of this medium’s free-spirited charm. Flying in the face of convention is one thing, but I can’t help imagining the branding implications, should the wine brand mistakenly land up at swingers’ or S&M parties.

Blogging’s limited content control, voyeurism, and broad focus beyond a specific target consumer, is contrary to most corporate branding principles. ‘Bloggers didn’t have to say nice things about the wine, they didn’t even have to blog about it at all, but many did. A conversation is born,’ explains Dymoke-Marr. ‘Conversation is key as people can’t live in a vacuum.’

Tekkies aside, they’ve been whispered about by marketing consultant analysts such as 173 Drury Lane, who compared Stormhoek’s marketing strategy to British retailer Sainsbury’s multi-million spend on Jamie Oliver ad campaigns. The speed and mobility of blogging means topics also develop content threads of their own. When Stormhoek’s Graham Knox blogged about the fires sweeping Cape farms in early January 2005, posting responses became specific - questions were asked about everything from the type of fire-rescue helicopters to whether the farm dogs were saved from flames.

From a journalist’s point of view, blogging is a language that moves beyond apostrophes and spelling. It rattles the traditional socialised – controlled - version of news in BBC-proper English, because blogging is a social medium that can’t be contrived. But it also puts the onus on Stormhoek’s international team to keep one step ahead of their ever-changing customers’ demands. They believe their consumer should be fully involved and have ownership of what they do. It’s this conversation that has moved Stormhoek into a new space.

Their bloggers have contributed customer feedback on Stormhoek label design to flavour profiles. At the London International Wine and Spirits Fair kicking off today, new wine packaging for Stormhoek’s Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and Pinotage is being launched – a collaboration of 200 bloggers’ feedback, communicated to Stormhoek in just 48 hours. Stormhoek is also hosting a fair website (www.winefairlive.com) during May 16 – 18, with audio and video podcasting from the show. Virgin wine trade bloggers are invited to learn on the job.

Yes, blogging is intimidating for the uninitiated. That’s why I’m proposing that Stormhoek has stumbled upon the Viagra of the wine industry. Something other producers may like to try because they’ve heard about its positive side effects, but are hesitant to commit to until they understand how it really works.

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