Entering My Feral Writing Era

Paul Mabray
6 min readMar 1, 2024

--

It’s so good to be writing again. Thank you to all who have been patient with the absence of articles. It’s been a bit of a crazy two years (IYKYK). With all the changes going on with me personally and professionally, I realized how essential writing is for me, like eating or sleeping. It’s my way of intellectually understanding and organizing our industry and the forces that shape it. I have always been passionate about the intersection of wine and technology, especially how those tools empower sales and marketing for wineries and retailers. But over the last four months, I found myself lost, unable to write about anything. I’d stare at the screen daily, trying to find inspiration. I lurked in the background, reading articles, reports, and social media posts about wine, our industry, and technology. Aside from generative AI, the bulk of the conversations were the same topics over and over again. Often, they were so niche that they only applied to a tiny segment of the market or groups of people discussing “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”.

I’ve partially returned to Twitter despite the toxic overload from Elon Musk’s ownership. However, so many of the same self-anointed pundits who have no operational experience or extreme product bias were pontificating and being the usual blowhards, recycling the same arguments-

  • “Marketing is bad.”
  • “We can best reach the new generation through natural wine.”
  • “Wine has a quality problem.”
  • “Commercial wine is bad — both in quality and for the industry.”
  • “The way to get more consumers is education.”
  • “What is “fine” wine (talk about angels on the head of a pin)?”
  • “Napa and Sonoma wines are pricing themselves out of existence.”
  • And so on.

Sadly, too many content creators regurgitate these topics, press releases, or company talking points without exploring the subject matter with journalistic integrity, perpetuating the confusion.

Like a large ominous cloud, the continual news about our industry is receding in volume, price, and consumers hung heavy over every conversation.

In the vendor space, I saw infomercial after infomercial about how *their* solution solved all the industry problems or selling yesterday’s ideas for tomorrow’s prices. Pancho Campo recently observed at his incredibly interesting Wine Future Conference, “How is it that ten years after our first event, we are still having the same conversation?”

I felt the same as I looked over the tech category and conversations about our industry. My statement, “Wine Tech is a graveyard of failure,” has been intentionally misconstrued, but it is absolutely true. No pure-play online wine company has achieved over $350M in revenue, nor is there a single digital wine company that dominates the consumer’s attention in the category like Uber, Amazon, OpenTable, Expedia, AirBnB, etc. Most large wine-tech companies make less than $10M, and the majority make less than $1.5M. Numerous small businesses have endured an incredibly long journey (“Over the past 25 years” — GMAFB) to become profitable, and they operate by providing their founders with modest incomes as lifestyle ventures. While they generate sufficient revenue to survive, they lack the financial capacity for significant growth or innovation.

I’m always exploring new technologies to see what can help make us better. After years in tech, I tend to avoid shiny new objects (my criticism of the over-hyping of Mastodon, the eventual lack of value in Clubhouse, etc.). I try only to recommend technology tools that will genuinely help a winery/retailer be more successful. I do think that generative AI is one of those technologies. I recently did a speech for George Christie and the Wine Industry Network (that will be my next post) with Justin Noland, who built The Wine Event only using generative AI. The new consumer-facing, generative AI tools are genuinely transformative to make people more efficient and effective, and learning to use them is imperative. However, they will become ubiquitous and virtually invisible as they integrate into the digital tools we use today. But as much as these new technologies interest me, we still have many industry fundamentals to master.

And that’s where I found inspiration. It was the problem I have seen throughout my career, even tangentially through my journey with Pix. We had close relationships with so many wine companies. We spent inordinate amounts of time guiding them and presenting advantageous opportunities (outside of Pix) but struggled to achieve consistent execution. And there lies the challenge — with very few exceptions, there has been no template for achieving digital transformation for wineries with different models (boutique, allocation, enterprise, imported) and retailers. And that fascinates me because, as the last industry to adopt digital tools universally, we need them more than ever to overcome the challenges ahead. As long as I’ve been here, I’ve witnessed so many people (myself included) touting the benefits of wine + digital: e-commerce, social media, search, mobile, and content are now essential tools for operating a business in a digital society. But with our industry, I think our success will be rooted in someone building roadmaps and actionable templates. For me, this is meaningful and fulfilling work. Multiple wineries have invited me to their Board of Directors to help them achieve success on that journey. Through those efforts, I can document our process, the challenges, and the successful paths for implementing digital transformation.

But, as I began this post, I NEED to write — and I need to be feral in my writing. Too many topics are muddied by people who have yet to do much to understand the category beyond their myopia or without any operational experience. There are essential topics that I need to write about and necessary for our industry: the digital shelf, content syndication, generative AI, DTC measurements, more intelligent segmentation, JTBD (Jobs To Be Done) for wine, the role of risk aversion in wine, the value of online wine platforms to wineries/retailers/consumers, marketplaces eat markets, the broken state of wine media (from the inside and the outside), glocalization, the limitations of wine marketing, big brands have significant responsibilities to attract younger and new consumers, methodologies for attracting new consumers, how *good* Flash Sale sites should be considered marketing channels — not only sales channels, the role of national e-tailers for building a brand. I hope to explore these topics and find more prescriptive ways for wineries to engage with these topics (by size) and, where possible, to illustrate examples. I also want to highlight companies and people that improve our industry in an interview series called Sips and Bytes.

Even though I’ve taken a sabbatical from Pix (I still think it is the best model for the wine industry), I’ll also keep writing about the platform on Substack — our story as I lived it, how it is genuinely beneficial to the wine industry, the challenges with wine and venture capital, the benefits of a healthy digital wine ecosystem, objective views on companies in that category, and the reason marketplaces eat markets. I’ll share why recommendation engines are junk science and where gaps exist in the market. Some topics I’ll repeat on both platforms.

I’m glad to be back, and I hope you’ll help me on this forever journey to help make our industry better and more successful using digital tools. Despite the challenges ahead, I truly think the future for our industry is also filled with so much opportunity.

--

--

Paul Mabray

Firestarter. Former CEO of Pix.wine. I also create content about the intersection of wine and tech at https://transformingwine.substack.com/