Dear Digital Colleagues, To Transform the Industry We Need to Convince the Leaders

Paul Mabray
4 min readFeb 27, 2018

It’s fair to say I spend all my working hours trying to answer the question, how can technology determine the future of the wine industry? At any hour of the day I’m carving up social media. All week long I’m analyzing e-commerce. There are late nights of examining augmented reality and virtual reality and projecting how it can help the wine industry. For example how can we improve e-commerce to consumers? How do we enable B2B e-business? What are the best ways to make social media work for wineries? How will location based marketing boost oenotourism? By applying new types of business intelligence can we better sell and market to consumers?. Some of these solutions gain more adoption than others and in the 16 years since founding Wine Direct, I’ve learned that it’s hard to move an entire industry.

With every reminder of this I have felt frustration. In frustration I have cursed at wineries. I have cursed at the bad actors in the industry. I have cursed at technologies. But mostly i have cursed at myself for my inability to help wineries understand the importance of using digital (in all its forms). How can I better encourage them to embrace digital as core tools for business building? True digital transformation.

Recently I was tasked with this challenge: build a sustainable and innovative sales & marketing strategy for a boutique Napa Valley winery. All factors includes, this was the hardest challenge I’ve encountered from a single winery (second only to when a famous brand once asked me to “sell without selling, market without marketing, and do it all digitally” #solved). After four weeks living the brand, diving into competitor analysis, exploring customer journeying, and more. I came up with the most elegant solution in my career (or so I thought). I delivered it to the winery and I was able to convince the CEO and the executive team that we had a winning combination. Alas, the solution to their needs demanded fundamental transformation of their digital culture. This wasn’t just the case of a bit of e-commerce and adopting some digital tools; meeting their goals required a complete refactoring of how they use these tools to talk to customers. The greatest irony is that the strategic plan itself wasn’t digital, it was a redefinition of the customer experience! No sooner had I outlined the plan and instructed the winery to start the process than my best strategy to sell wine online ground to a halt. It’s not like the executives don’t believe me or are unqualified to lead this. They are considered some of the best in the industry. It’s also not like they don’t know how to use most digital tools with varying degrees of competence. Though they use digital, it is an ancillary tool to their analog customer engagement. It is a tool to solve small projects or achieve tactical goals. What I already knew, but was acutely presented in this moment, was digital success is about cultural transformation and adaptability. It is a fundamental shift in how people view their job, how they create better customer experiences, and how they achieve success. But as Olivier Blanchard points out in Building Dragons, ‘If the CEO doesn’t own , drive , and build this vision, forget it.’

This is where we must catalyze change; at the CEO level. This is where the disconnect in wine is happening. Our (software, pundits, consultants, etc) inability to convince the leaders of the wine industry that doing something differently is not only a good idea but a necessity.

Digital tools aren’t accessories, but part of the engine.

If you’ve been paying attention to leading industry pundits (not my fave word, always sounds a little political), you already know that this digital transformation is more important than ever. Both Rob McMillan & wine thinker have been portending of the days to come. The numbers and the trends foretell of a myriad of challenges ahead including increased competition (both domestically and internationally), category competition from cannabis, decreasing routes to distribution, Amazon, increasing competition from online retailers, more ‘fakers vs makers’, and more. Wineries have a limited time to redefine themselves before the storm ahead.

I have spent over two decades working with wineries about technology, the value of digital and the power of a culture of adaptability. I’ve often thought that I need to demonstrate the change needed by successfully leading a single winery into the promised land. Last year even made a run at it (you’ll see in an upcoming blog post). But this latest experience has taught me that the future is in the hands of our smartest, most future-thinking CEOs. The playbook of the 70s must be set aside as wine industry leaders herald in a culture of digital transformation. This is the change that will not only allow our industry to survive, but to flourish far into the future.

Here’s what’s coming from me in March:

  1. The Tech, Services and HR Costs of Running a Good DTC Program
  2. I Interviewed for CEO of a Major Winery — and Bombed
  3. (Not my normal focus) — Building an ARG for my Children

PS — Of all the leaders in the wine industry, I’m placing my bets on the ladies to be the breakout leaders including Amy Hoopes Piergrossi, Carol Reber, Angelica Mabray, and Andrea Smalling (to quickly name a few).

PPS — Shout out to Polly Hammond for giving this post the editing love it deserved. If you don’t already subscribe to her newsletter, The Must Read, do it RIGHT NOW.



Paul Mabray

Firestarter. Former CEO of I also create content about the intersection of wine and tech at