Why the world of wine needs gate openers

Photo: Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

It’s now a cliché to say that the pandemic and its associated lockdowns has accelerated trends that already existed – but it’s also true. It’s certainly true in wine. As Covid-19 wreaked havoc on the all-important on-trade, and disrupted logistics, wineries found themselves embracing the digital world.

But this was a trend that was already happening in other areas of the economy, and it was long overdue. It’s been increasingly the case that wineries who only have access to markets through intermediaries, had very little control over their own financial destinies. When importers, distributors and restaurants closed their doors, those wineries were, in many cases, in trouble.

Those wine businesses which had built an efficient in-house database, on the other hand, were able to supply their customers and fans directly.

As the world opens up and restaurants overflow again, many producers are now connecting with their old business networks once again. How can they apply the lessons they learned from the pandemic, and maintain both their new and old communities?

Because the bigger a community a wine producer has, and the more people they have seeking out their wines, the more leverage that producer has, all the way across the distribution chain.

Community, community, community

In 2020, The Harvard Business Review (HBR) published a series of articles about the importance of community. HBR advises companies to understand this concept and “turn their customers into their community”. As food anthropologist Véronique Pardo told ARENI, ‘community’ can be considered a “a reassuring ‘between-us”, or a bond of mutual regard and loyalty that forms between people.

 “We fundamentally crave a sense of connectedness, belonging, mission, and meaning,” says Henry Mintzberg , Professor of Management Studies at the University of McGill.

The need to be “stronger together” was something ARENI heard a lot about in 2020. The destruction of so many routes to market, made everyone realise just how much Fine Wine depends on its communities for its survival.

ARENI studied some of the more successful ‘community-led’ companies, both within and outside the world of Fine Wine, to see what lessons could be learned.

First, community building begins with leadership. The ‘community paradigm’ needs leaders who see relationships as a long-term investment. For many leaders of the leaders interviewed, building a community-led models is part of a sustainability strategy. In practice this meant extending payment terms, or offering other kinds of material support.

Second, such companies are willing to trust their customers. They don’t see customers as a source of revenue, but as co-owners who have a deep engagement with the brand. When these customers gave valuable feedback, the brand takes it seriously.

“Building a community isn’t about what an organisation can achieve; rather, it’s a manifestation of what an organisation and a group of passionate people can do together,” said Bailey Richardson, co-founder of People & Company.

Community-led projects don’t start with a marketing department picking an action and then trying to build a community to implement it. A better approach is to identify a specific group of passionate individuals and then work with them, to deliver according to their needs.

From gate keepers to gate openers

In order to build a community, organisations need to favour practices that promote trust, engagement, and spontaneous collaboration. Such strategies can include content creation, events, online advocacy and marketing, education or data sharing.

As well as creating their own communities, Fine Wine estates can also identify existing ones, and work with them. To do so, brands have to identify specific, passionate people who may be able to open the doors of those communities.

This means it’s important to be able to tell the difference between a community leader, or gate opener, and someone in a privileged position who can grant or deny access, a gatekeeper:

Gatekeepers works through traditional models: they are leaders with followers, whose actions and recommendations will have an impact on their followers. They can increase wine sales by recommending specific wines to their followers. While they can offer a brand access to a specific market or demographic, they don’t determine the level of engagement their followers may have with the brand.

Gate openers are leaders who are embedded inside their community. They understand the community’s shared ethos and can work with a brand to build a network of relationships based on trust and loyalty. When working with gate openers, it is particularly important for brands to understand and respect the dynamics of the community, including its culture. It’s important not to push products onto communities, but approach in the spirit of working together.

The distinction between ‘gate keeper’ and ‘gate opener’ is a fine one, but one that’s crucial to understand when considering the question of just who is driving the Fine Wine world.

Covid-19 was a harsh lesson for the wine community, but one that brought many benefits in its wake, from the Zoom tasting that could reach multiple people at minimal environmental cost, to the everyday kindnesses of people coming together to get through the crisis. If the Fine Wine community can maintain these things, it will emerge stronger than ever.

For in-depths and data on recent trends and disruptions, see ARENI latest report The Future of Fine Wine Consumers 2021