Wine Spectator’s Killer App

14 years ago when I was first dating Nina (my wife) she introduced me to wine.  So began three love affairs with Nina, wine, and a new career working in the “new media” industry.

Cut to 2008 when Wine Spectator takes (I’m guessing) $100k of their precious marketing budget to announce something truly interesting and long overdue.  On the backpage of the A section of Today’s NY TImes you will see their big color ad announcing a mobile application for Blackberries and Iphones that contains the entire Wine Specator databse of ratings and tasting notes.   It’s free if you become a digital subscriber to WineSpecator.  That will cost you $75 bucks or $50 if you are already subscriber.

Of course there is some irony in using the print version of the NYT to acquire customers.  No accountability, no measurement, no ability to know if the $100k is working.  I care so much about the NYT’s ability to survive that I’m starting to have anxiety attacks that it won’t be at my door each morning.  Despite my anxiety, even I think Wine Spectator should find a more measurable way to sell subscriptions.  The NYT would argue that this blog post is proof positive that they run a marketing platform that engenders buzz and conversations, but I bet I’m practically the only person that will blog about this ad today.  In any event, this is less about the Times than it is about America’s preeminent wine mag.

Wine Spectator’s ratings play a vital role in the wine world.  This is a company that tastes thousands of wines each year and rates them for us so that we don’t have to.  This is very useful data for the whole wine eco-system of vintners, distributors, retailers, restaurantuers and consumers.  We need the data and tasting notes as part of wine purchasing process.  Most people sit down at restaurants with very little knowledge of wine or the wine list.  Even serious wine drinkers would struggle at many restaurants because it’s so hard to really know the entire landscape of wine drinking.  The industry’s geographies and vineyards have exploded.  Even since I started drinking wine 15 years ago, countries such as Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Greece, and states like Washington and Oregon have risen to huge prominence.  How can anybody keep up?

So now you can sit down at restaurant whip out your Iphone (if it works)  or blackberry and find out from the hallowed Wine Spectator about a wine’s price, rating and other details right from your table — if you spend the $75 bucks.   I want this to work, but I’m probably not spending the cash.  It’s just not worth it.  I can ask the sommelier for free.   If I do buy it, it will be to “support WS” the way I support NPR.

I worry as I do most times that I pick up a magazine that a print publicaton has  the wrong approach at the wrong time for most magazines in the world.  HuffingtonPost and Politico (two crossover demographics) have US 9mm unique users and 4 mm respectively.  Politico has been around for maybe a year or two, HuffPost for 3 or 4.  Wine Spectator has 52k.  Sure it’s an election year.  But last night alone at least 52k people tried to figure out what wine to drink at restaurant.  It’s probably more like 520k. You think Wine Spectator it is hurting their SEO opportunities having all that data sit behind a pay wall.

I applaud WS for finally bringing this to market about 8 years after we needed it.  I hope they succeed because I want WS to make it and I want consumers to pay for more content.  Still, I sense another once vibrant publication like WS will continue to buy expensive ads in another decaying institution like the NYT because they refuse to change faster than they must.  Good people have thought through the Wine Spectator strategy. Let’s hope they made the right decision.


14 Responses

  1. is it a price point issue or a marketing issue?

  2. I don’t know. It’s a fair question. What’s the elastiicity of price here. They need to make money. I want them to make money. they have no web traffic. You think people look up wine on Google? come on…Have Reprise call them.

  3. (you should use discuss by the way)

    I dont think their brand supports it, but I feel like this could be a great $10 app – could they get 100k users? Is that enough?

  4. It’s not meaningful at $1mm a year. $10 bucks at 1mm subs… That’s meaningful. They could get tha if they marketed through opentable and restaurants.

    The point is data has great value and we all need to find ways to monetize it as you and I are doing. Why do they default to such a high number? They must be the most expensive app on Itunes? Is that impressive? It’s not really a vanity play.

  5. Robert Parker of the Wine Advocate who happens to be the worlds most influential wine critic has offered this feature for quite awhile on his site Also, his subscription is less expensive and in my opinion more highly regarded.

    PS- You have a great blog.

  6. Robert: Agreed that Wine Advocate is more significant. Didn’t know he’d gotten there faster with This makes the WS price point even dumber. Thanks for the kind words on the blog, but thanks much more for the information.

  7. Thanks for a useful discussion; we are always interested to learn how wine lovers who are also new media professionals view our Web site and its services, such as WS Mobile.

    I’d like to know:
    – what price point you think would maximize total subscribers and revenue
    – where you got your “52 k” figure for
    – what other services you think internet-savvy wine lovers are looking for.

    By the way, a year’s subscription to Robert Parker’s site (which includes mobile access) is $99 per year, and does not include a subscription to the print edition.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectator

  8. Thomas:

    Thanks for joining discussion and for setting the record straight on Parker. For the record, I’ve always felt WS and Parker were not an either/or but an “and”

    I think if you look at the IPhone app market you will see very few applications at your price point. Andy Weissman and I were debating this here. I’m not sure what the correct answer is, but I think you need to be committed to testing the elasticity of pricing with different riffs on your application. Can you do it as a monthly? as a one-time check?

    It feels like you are pushing the magazine approach to subscriptions on a non-magazine crowd. Believe me I wish this worked, but historically it hasn’t.

    The 52k is from Quantcast. You are not “quantified” which sometimes means you are under-represented. I have found them to be very, very accurate. So it may make sense to get “quantified”

    Thanks again for chiming in.

  9. does offer multiple price points to satisfy different users. A year’s subscription to the site is $50; to the site plus the magazine is $75. You can buy a month’s subscription to the site for $7.95.

    This is much more than an IPhone app, and was not created for or via the IStore. A site subscription offers much more than the mobile application: advance reviews, breaking news, editors’ blogs, etc. It is in many ways a “magazine,” and very different from the actual Wine Spectator magazine.

    I can’t release the actual number of subscribers, but I can tell you the 52k number is significantly low. And we have a significant multiple of that of users who come for our free content.

    It does feel as if we are swimming against the tide. But as you seem to agree, if publishers don’t find a way to monetize content on the internet, then soon there may not be any professional journalism offered there. Some may think that’s no loss. But my feeling is that history testifies that, in the long run, there’s no free lunch.

    Thomas Matthews

  10. Thomas:

    I really that consumers need to pay for content. They do it with HBO and they can do it on the Internet. The question is how do you test the elasticity of price so that you maximize price. WS contains very valuable data that takes a lot of work and money to create and is quite proprietary. I know. I used to be the CEO of Menupages and we also created very valuable data that was specialized. We struggled with similar issues and the correct answers have not been determined.

    I don’t know that what you offer is much more than an “Iphone App” Iphone apps can be very, very robust. They can and do contain huge volumes of editorial content. I do think it makes sense to distribute WS through the Istore because that’s a distribution mechanism for you. Particularly with a younger demographic. This demo doesn’t consume print but they do consume wine.

    So you are running a vital experiment at the nexus of proprietary content/data, distribution, and an aging core demographic. In my opinion, Zagat has already failed this test miserably. I hope for all of us oenophiles in the world you find your way. You have earned a new subscriber purely from the vitality of this conversation.

  11. A Futurist might look at this conversation and wonder why it took so long for wine consumers to find new ways to find delicious wines. A process where wines are hidden from view, tasted for a very, very short moment, no food or friends and then blessed with a number seems rather primitive.

    Good on everyone for trying to encourage everyone to seek out and enjoy wine more often.

    Until the day of the Future arrives, our sources of information are what they are.

  12. Aaron,

    We are discussing whether it makes sense to create a separate mobile app specifically for the iStore; your encouragement will be taken into consideration. If as a subscriber (thanks!) you have more suggestions, feel free to let us know. We do not want to go the way of the 8-track tape.


    A wonderful and frustrating aspect of wine is that all of them taste different (even different bottles of the “same” wine, but that’s another subject). As a result, tasting them is the only way to assess them. Our method (single-blind flights judged under lab conditions by a regional expert) may be primitive, but after thirty years of tinkering with it, we think it’s the fairest and most efficient.

    Thomas Matthews

  13. Tom, I’m game. Andy and I are venture investor entrepreneur wine drinkers and we will get in touch when we have something substantial to say… Ron, what do you concretely suggest Tom does because I’m with him… to do this at scale how else could they do it?

  14. Aaron – Tom

    My “primitive” comment was not intended to be negative or rude toward your process. To rate as many wines as you do your methods are neccessary and spot on.

    Whether classic wine ratings are something that consumers of all ages are willing to pay for in a mobile application, is still to be determined. Especially, those that are younger. Ratings may even turn them away.

    My wonder in all of this is what motivates consumers to seek, much like the article in a recent Wine Spectator article by Matt Kramer, about wines being pre installed or ones actively sought by consumers.

    Moblie applications that make information available certainly have merit and the form they take down the road will be different from the early versions. Hence, my use of the word primitive.

    Repurposing a database of ratings and other content is the logical place to start. This will lead to other ideas and anything that increases the number of consumers “seeking” I am all for and happy to contribute to.

    My bias is driven by the company we started a few years ago to import boutique wines from New Zealand. New Zealand is like all other wine producing regions and has the pre installed versions and lots and lots of opportunities for seekers. My need is more seekers of boutique wines from all wine regions.

    Remember way back in time when AOL changed the pricing model to allow unlimited access for a small fixed fee? Could be similar for mobile applications and an opportunity to be the go to application for a very large consumer base that does not read print publications of any type. Also, a group that will go to great lengths to seek when presented to in a format they connect with.

    Will be fun to watch the evolution of all things mobile.

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