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French vineyards blow dust off the barrels and embrace a digital revolution in wine

Digital-media tools such as augmented reality, apps and online games have a vast potential to reinvigorate communication about wine.

Most commonly associated with notions such as tradition, authenticity and terroir, the French wine industry doesn’t instantly jump to mind as a leader in innovation. But its deep traditions are no impediment to finding new ways to showcase the sector’s know-how, enhance its reputation, and promote engagement with and exchanges about wine.

For France, the challenge is both commercial and cultural. While the wines of the Champagne and Burgundy regions were granted Unesco world-heritage status in July, the European single market is structured to empower the “free movement of goods and services”, with all the risks and opportunities that entails. To meet this challenge, in July 2014 a French senator proposed a bill emphasizing the importance of the wine industry’s shaking off some of its dust:

We must empower the important actors in the wine industry to better promote this patrimony and culture via new technologies, so as to not compromise its future. Such promotion has become urgent … in a context of global competition and conflicts between winemaking practices that are starkly different.

The text concludes by noting that the responsible enjoyment of wine and its culture requires knowledge and education – and today, its communication is necessarily digital.

The use of digital tools for purely commercial purposes has its place, of course, and it’s growing quickly: Just this year, more than 500 e-commerce websites accounted for more than 10% of the wine sold in France. Still, even double-digits sales increases can be offset by unforeseen events in a unpredictable and highly competitive market.

In the digital vineyards

The challenge is thus how to use digital media to convey the essence of wine itself. Many foods and beverages have leveraged digital communication, but wine, with its distinct character and evocative force, occupies a unique place in our society. Online tools must not only faithfully convey a wine’s image, but also create an experience that is every bit as vivid as the real thing, if not more so.

Here augmented reality has the potential to allow aficionados to interact with both physical and virtual environments – vineyards, cellars, exhibitions and catalogues.

One example is Bordeaux’s Cité du vin, which promises a “unique experience” with immersive interactive displays, virtual settings, fragrant environments and more. These experiential features are also part of the Cité des vins in Burgundy (Beaune). Both sites harness digital technologies to support three phases of the wine experience: awareness, exploration and appropriation.

By fully immersing us in the world of wine, digital media can enhance our subjectivity, and enable a kind of rediscovery of magic – “the willing suspension of disbelief“, as Coleridge put it. For example, virtual tours can be created through the use of drones, which capture aerial images of vineyards that are then remodelled. This opportunity to live in the present yet rediscover the world in new and wonderful ways is the promise of digital media.

Narrating the story of wine

While sensory immersion can open new doors, digital media is at its richest when it plays a narrative role. The most striking example of this is seen in the context of wine tourism. Already more than 10,000 vineyards, wine cellars and other facilities welcome more than 8m visitors annually – and the best is awarded the distinction Vignobles et Découvertes. Many regions have already developed digital apps that allow users to tour vineyards (Smart Bordeaux), follow wine trails and learn about local events (GeoVina Languedoc-Roussillon), or get involved in wine tourism (Œnotourisme Bourgogne). And an online game, Vinoga, combines social networking and e-commerce to put the user in the boots of a wine-maker.

While there’s still considerable room for the improvement of such apps, they make it clear that, when it comes to communication, a traditional website that conveys basic information – where, what, who and how – is no longer sufficient. Certain regions of France have worked to get this movement off the ground: A Nantes-based firm, Komka Vigneron, offers a customisable website adapted to the needs of winemakers and vineyards. Ultimately, effective marketing requires not only digital tools, but also a deep understanding of what a region can offer both nationally and internationally.

Together, such apps, websites and experiences can help build communities of wine enthusiasts. Furthermore, they all reflect a shared desire to be more conscious of the food and wine that we consume, to take back control, and to defend and share it.

Jean-Jacques Boutaud, Professeur en Sciences de l’information et de la communication, Université de Bourgogne

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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