Madeline Puckette, Wine Folly´s co-founder, reflects on how to succeed in communicating wine to new generations of consumers
A true revolution in wine communication began in Seattle, USA, when a young designer decided to combine her illustration skills with the knowledge she acquired working and studying to become a sommelière. In 2011, Madeline Puckette co-founded Wine Folly blog, where she began to offer free educational content on wine accompanied by various illustrations, infographics, videos and maps of wine regions.
Wine Folly is among the 10 most accessed wine sites and receives millions of unique visitors per month.
Eight years later, it is easy to argue that Wine Folly is currently the most successful case in wine communication. The blog is among the 10 most accessed wine sites and receives millions of unique visitors per month. Its Instagram page has more than 195,000 followers and over 2,000 posts with a high engagement. The International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) has already awarded Madeline twice: in 2013 as “Wine Blogger of the Year” and in 2019 as “Wine Communicator of the Year”. Published in 2013, her visual book “Wine Folly: The Essential Guide to Wine” entered the New York Times Best-Sellers list in the food and beverage category.
Reconciling a disputed agenda – between trips, awards and the day-to-day management of Wine Folly – Madeline kindly agreed to chat with Winext Blog to answer some of the questions that intrigue the Brazilian public, where her book makes great success among consumers and wine professionals. She spoke about the creation of Wine Folly, her audience and the recent merging with the Global Wine Database, to form a global knowledge base on wine. In addition, Madeline gave her perspective on how the wine trade can be more successful in approaching the new generations of consumers.
W: How did you come up with the idea of Wine Folly?
M: I was working with my husband on a startup in Seattle. It was failing, but I had managed to meet a bunch of really cool people on the startup sphere. One of them was actually a competitor of ours. I am the kind of those people who, if we are all working toward the same goal, I don't really care if you're my competitor or not. So, he became my mentor. We went out for a coffee one day, and I told him about the problems we had with this startup, and that I was very unhappy about it. I was also working with wine in a restaurant and I really preferred doing that. He was like: “why don't you just figure out how to do wine on the internet?”.
“When we started the site, wine information online was very difficult to find. Our initial goal was to improve this by answering wine questions in a helpful way.”
At the time when Wine Folly began, in 2011, there were not very many wine blogs. In 2010 I became a certified sommelier, and prior to that, I was working for just 2 years in a wine bar. The story of how I landed this job, my first in the wine trade, was a bit of a happy accident. I was working as a designer for a large newspaper and, during the 2008 market crisis, I lost my job. In that awful moment, I walked into a wine bar to have a drink (I was living in Reno, Nevada at that time) . Being passionate about wine, the owner asked if I could help with guest services and polishing glassware on busy nights. I took the job and didn't look back! I'm a very passionate and driven person, so 2 years is a lot of time. I don't have any children and my husband is very focused too. He started Wine Folly with me, although he does not work with us anymore.
Since founding Wine Folly in 2011 a lot has changed in the world and our business. When we started the site, wine information online was difficult to find. Our initial goal was to improve this by answering wine questions in a helpful way. Today, there are new problems to solve. It's a very exciting time for the wine industry in the tech field!
W: What is the typical profile of your audience?
M: It's pretty evenly split between men and women. We tend to have more men on our e-mail subscribers list. On Instagram we might have a bit more men, but not a lot. It tends to be age 25 to 40. Probably more like 28 to 40. They tend to be folks who are solidly in the middle class, or maybe middle-upper, because they have enough income to spend on wine. Wine is expensive compared to other alcoholic beverages.
“Most site visitors come for easy answers but they stay because of the usefulness and openness of our resources.”
Most site visitors come for easy answers but they stay because of the usefulness and openness of our resources. We offer a great deal of content for free but also have products such as maps, posters, guides, and wine tools. Serious readers have used our site to help pass wine certification courses. It brings me great joy when I read emails from wine students succeeding in their efforts!
W: When communicating with your audience, are you concerned about not giving your personal opinion, and letting them discover what they like by themselves?
M: Very much so! It is too easy to tell people what to like. And I think a lot of wine critics and writers do that. I'm firmly against this methodology. I would rather spend 10 times as much time helping someone figure out how to taste wine and define to themselves what wines they should like than to spend 1 time telling someone what to go and buy. Because there's no education there. And it's very difficult to be unbiased because we get samples. People send us stuff because they want to promote their products. I won't use those samples if there is not an educational story to be told.
So, if I was a Brazilian winery, I would be like: let's compare my Merlot with an American Merlot. That's useful information, it's educational and interesting. We're not done discovering wine regions that are good or even new styles of wines that we did not use to like, but we like now. Orange wine for example. In a couple of years, it came from being something nobody even knew about to become a very important style, almost deserving a single categorization.
“With Global Wine Database we can give new regions the opportunity to communicate their story.”
I like that cutting edge part of wine and the direction where it's going. So I'm always interested in new regions and information, which is the reason why we’re merging with the Global Wine Database. The idea is to allow producers to send their information, and then with this information, I can better serve wine consumers and the wine community as a whole. I can create amazing never before seen content with new data and information about wine. Wineries can put on their information, and then it will be free and available online for anyone to view. For example, if you're trying to find information on a sparkling wine from Brazil, and you want to know how long it was aged and their initial retail price. With Global Wine Database we can give new regions the opportunity to communicate their story.
W: How to successfully communicate wine with the new generation of consumers?
M: I believe that the new generations require an extreme amount of data sharing. They expect to see all of the facts because of all the meta-information freely available on other products in the marketplace. Additionally, fashion and identity are still very important. I imagine several strong brands will come out of our new era of wine consumers.
“If I was a winery, I would spend a lot of resources on positioning my products in the places where these new markets are. So, music festivals, for example, encouraging people to drink wine instead of beer in these occasions.”
If I was a winery, I would spend a lot of resources on positioning my products in the places where these new markets are. So, music festivals, for example, encouraging people to drink wine instead of beer in these occasions. The problem with this marketplace of consumers, aged 18 to 30, is that these people don't have a lot of money to spend. So, they need to be onboard with the entry-level products. Entry-level products at a beginner price. It won't probably be the best quality, but if I could do that and still have them onboard, keep them connected to other product lines that are maybe more expensive, but still keep the storytelling similar and educational: help me onboard! What am I drinking? What is this wine? Instead of just being a tasty product. Help them learn what wine is and that it’s not just a tasty product that I can get drunk on. I think that's where it starts.
If I was producing wine for this group of people, I would be looking to make something with high acidity, sweet and fruity. Not super sweet, just a little bit. They're used to drinking juice and soda and that sort of thing so that they can get onboard, slowly get them drier and drier as they go for higher quality offerings. I mean, that's what I would do, sponsor music festivals, maybe dance competitions, things where you have a lot of people who are influencers affecting younger folks.
W: And what is your suggestion for people working with wine communication in an emerging market such as Brazil?
M: Wine is difficult in the Brazilian market because of the exceptionally high cost (I suspect it is not the same with other beverages). For communicators, this makes bringing new drinkers into wine much more difficult than other countries with different laws and regulations. So, if I were communicating wine in Brazil, I would continue to focus on the human experience and how tasting wine can expand your understanding of taste and smell. This is a priceless exercise that all people deserve to practice regardless of whether or not they drink!
W: Can you develop a bit more on this idea of exploring the human experience with wine?
M: So, we were just talking about how to onboard a young consumer, and how they have to get to the palate of wine. People call this an acquired taste. Wine is an opportunity, unlike other beverages, that in acquiring its taste we are forced to do things we don’t normally do. Like smell. How much of your time do you use your eyes versus your nose throughout the day? Maybe you might use your nose once or twice, while our eyes are used 100% of the day when they're open. So, when I'm talking about helping consumers, I mean opening their ideas up to their nose and their mouth and what they need to learn. It’s basically a kind of meditation, where you're becoming aware, with these two senses that you use very little.
So, tastings that show interesting ways to explore taste and smell. I remember a very cool one, it was on the news when they put people in different color rooms, like a blue and a red room. And they have black wine glasses. And they asked them to talk about the smells and flavors in the wine. They would find in the blue room that you get more floral, herbaceous and citrus notes on the wine. And in the red room, strawberry and fruity flavors. Experiencing that, yourself, is very special.
“Those would be the things I would be looking into: consumer experiences that really help audiences to learn. I would encourage wineries to do things like that.”
I remember going to a tasting by a sommelier who was blind. When we were in the elevator, we were told to put on blindfolds, and then the entire presentation was given like that. And nobody ever sees this guy, he started talking, he's very welcoming. And it wasn’t until the very end, when we took it off, that we realized that he was blind. So, we get experiencing each other, and meeting each other and finding out about wine. Blindfolded, we were forced to smell. We had a chardonnay in the tasting and most people thought it was red wine. Those would be the things I would be looking into: consumer experiences that really help audiences to learn. I would encourage wineries to do things like that.
W: What are the key trends that you expect for the future of wine?
M: I could say a bunch of things on this topic, but when I look for trends, I look at the behaviors of each buying audience and what they can afford. There are several indications suggesting that emerging wine regions of high quality will grow. There is also a possibility that a fashionable wine-based spritzer market will grow. And finally, I suspect that classic wine regions will find greater stability.
“I haven’t tasted a red wine from Brazil that really won me away yet, but I do think it’s possible.”
W: What about Brazilian wine. Have you ever tried it?
M: I had a couple of major sparkling wine producers. I had a couple of Moscato from the region – it's pretty good! I had a couple of merlot lines, one of them was not so good; the other one was decent. I was surprised at how herbaceous your merlot wines are. If you think of Brazil, we think of this warm climate, close to the Equator. So, tasting these wines was a surprise, because you must be working in a much cooler climate than I thought. Still, figuring out how to make wine is going to be very difficult because of this climate type. How to make wine well, at the highest level. I haven’t tasted a red wine from Brazil that really won me away yet, but I do think it’s possible.
Visit Wine Folly to learn more about the work of Madeline and her team.
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