The end of the wine spreadsheet

Winemakers are hit with constant requests for product information. Felicity Carter reports on a better way to answer the demands.

The Bottlebooks team. Jonathan Harclerod is the last on the right.
The Bottlebooks team. Jonathan Harclerod is the last on the right.

Jonathan Harclerode was a senior manager in the emerging technology innovation division at Accenture when he had an idea for an online dive guide. “I got to the point in my career where I had to decide whether to stick it out for ten years to become a partner, or try my own business,” he says.

His friends thought it sounded like a great idea: all were avid divers and none could find a good diving guide. “We were going to build a website where you could find the best dive guides in the world,” says Harclerode.

By the time he finally quit his job with Accenture in 2013, the group was instead building mobile landing pages and QR codes. Business was doing fine, and when it became clear they needed a formal company, they went to a lawyer and got papers drawn up. To celebrate, they decided to get a bottle of Champagne.

And that’s how Bottlebooks was born. Today, almost six years later, Bottlebooks is quietly transforming the wine industry, helping it to become more professional and communicate better.

The beginnings

Harclerode and his friends headed to the Perfetto delicatessen in Munich and asked for a bottle of Champagne with a QR code on it. When the person they asked, Walter Ferrari, asked what a QR code was, Harclerode explained it was a type of machine-readable code. Scan a QR code with a smartphone, and all manner of data, from geo coordinates to a specific website, can be found. “When he knew what a QR code was, a light bulb went off and he wanted to explain his idea, which was marketing in the South Tyrol.” Two hours later, Harclerode left the shop buzzing with ideas about how the new company could create digital assets for the wine trade.

None of them knew much about wine, so they didn’t know that wineries “either spend nothing on marketing or a hell of a lot, and nothing in between”. After trying different approaches, the team finally hit on the idea of setting up online shops for independent wine retailers in Germany. But what should have been a simple task was complicated by the fact that wineries never supplied the information necessary to populate the websites. “The wine shop owners would tell us they’d written to the producers, who weren’t responding. Which made no sense to us.”

Harclerode discovered that producers were so swamped with requests for product information, they were overwhelmed. And that’s when the idea of Bottlebooks emerged – a place where producers could enter all their information, and then send it to anyone who requested it. 

In January 2014, Harclerode pitched the Bottlebooks idea at the Wine Business Innovation Summit organised in Munich by Ryan Opaz and Faye Cardwell. “Someone recommended I meet Patrick Johner at this event and we got talking. It turned out that he had had a similar idea a few years earlier,” says Harclerode. Johner is not only a winemaker from Weingut Karl H. Johner in the Kaiserstuhl, but an avid coder and social media user. “He was our first mentor and he joined the project and taught us the way of wine.”

What Johner also brought was a knowledge of how many parameters wine has. With this information, the team built a prototype and began showing it to importers and producers – who all said it was a great idea. They would, unfortunately, only commit to it once one of their partners was using it.

Then Johner introduced Harclerode to Beate Wimmer, who was working with the Vinalia event. She wanted a tool to collect information from winemakers to store on her website – concerned about the environment, she didn’t want to print an event wine guide. She convinced almost 80% of the winemakers going to the event to upload their information. 

Bottlebooks built a mobile landing page and Harclerode stood at the event handing out business cards and directing people to the website, where they could find out more about the wines being poured. Everybody said what a great idea it was.

Except it flopped.

Turnaround

“People were saying it was great, but they weren’t using it,” says Harclerode. “I was monitoring Google analytics and by early afternoon I’d only seen one or two visitors to the website. People didn’t even have their smartphones out – they had a glass in one hand and a stack of paper in the other.”

The Bottlebooks team went out and bought a TV and a printer, and then spent the night rebuilding the website, turning it into a wine adviser. The next day they stood at the front door of Vinalia and directed people to create their own tasting lists. “We could print you your own tasting list on paper, and you didn’t need a smartphone,” says Harclerode. “People came back for multiple lists.”

Over the next year, Bottlebooks went from event to event in Germany, talking to visitors and winemakers, and learning about catalogues and online directories. Johner introduced Bottlebooks to his UK importer, Awin Barratt Siegel, which agreed to a pilot project and then helped adapt the system for importers. From there, Bottlebooks ended up working for the London Wine Fair, and gained customers from South Africa. Bottlebooks was off and running.

How it works

The system is now being used by importers, supermarkets and retailers across Europe and the UK. “When you want to collect information, you create a request in Bottlebooks and choose the question you want to ask,” says Harclerode. “You add the people who should be contacted and over the next four weeks, it sends out a series of reminders and pushes everybody towards a deadline.” The system can cope with seven languages, so a Spanish wine producer can enter information in Spanish, and the distributor will receive it in English.

Importantly, Bottlebooks is designed to work in line with wine industry practices. Winemakers are used to inputting information into Excel and sending e-mails, so Bottlebooks gets them to do something very similar. 

Retailers and importers have welcomed the reduction in administration. “Currently we exchange a lot of e-mails with Excel sheets back and forth,” says Robert van der Weerdt, head of the wine buying centre at Ahold Delhaize in the Netherlands. “Last year we decided to conduct a pilot linked to the gathering of awards information on the wines we carry, to see if Bottlebooks would deliver what it promised.” It worked out well, he says, convincing Ahold Delhaize to use it for other information.

Van der Weerdt added that it takes discipline from both the retailer and supplier to set the system up properly. “Once this is taken care of, Bottlebooks is a nice way of collecting data,” he says, because it keeps everything in one place, rather than scattered across multiple in-boxes. “We think Bottlebooks will help to improve the quality of our source data and are in the process of working out details of how to connect Bottlebooks with our internal system.”

Clara Rubin had a different problem. As the newly appointed head of engagement at Red Squirrel wine merchants in London, she needed a way of capturing data from small, esoteric producers, to turn into one page of information that she could use for education. Rubin says she created a list of what she needed – including whether the wine is biodynamic or organic and its technical specifications – and handed it to Harclerode. He told her “we can do it”.

She admits her expectations were low. “I expected to get very low engagement” from producers, she says, but in fact “Red Squirrel’s producers are very keen to do everything for themselves”. What Rubin likes about the system is that “all parties have control and can see it, but it’s about the producer doing it in their own words”.
Once the information is in the system, it stays there, so even if a wine producer is supplying different retailers and importers in different countries, they only input the data once. “When you’ve entered the information for one partner, the information is automatically pre-filled,” explains Harclerode. “Let’s say a wine event asks for 40 questions, and then a retailer asks for 70. The first 40 answers are already in the system.”

Bottlebooks doesn’t own the data and doesn’t intend to do anything with it. “We’re more like Microsoft, where you can upload a Word document and share it, but it’s still your data,” says Harclerode. “A lot of information is in Bottlebooks, but it’s private to each business.” He does add that Bottlebooks is now moving into data management advisory, to help wine businesses integrate their data with their systems and marketing departments.

Bottlebooks makes money via licensing fees. “Depending on which modules you use, you pay more or less. If you want to do online directories and print catalogues, it’s €40 [$45] per exhibitor.” An importer, on the other hand, will pay €800 a year to have access to all the data collection features and the ability to customise forms.

Growth phase

Today, Bottlebooks has 11 employees in offices in Munich, Cape Town and Vienna. The largest office is in Oporto, because Harclerode was impressed with how innovative Portugal is, and how welcoming to new businesses. Things are moving rapidly: in late 2018, the company attracted new investors, allowing it to hire more sales staff. Matt Johnson, who was with Waitrose, has recently taken the role of head of business development.

It’s a long way from where Harclerode started –  after university, he put a PhD in biochemical engineering on hold to take a job in Germany. He may not have got around to the diving website either, but he says he really enjoys working with wine, because parts of it take him back to chemistry. “I like complexity,” he said. “It fascinates me.”

Whereas most winemakers don’t like administrative complexity at all, and so are no doubt pleased to have a solution. 

Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in issue 3, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine.

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