An old winery embraces new tools

Etienne Hugel from Hugel & Fils in Alsace has been building his company from the airport lounge, finds Robert Joseph. His secret weapon? His ability with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

An old winery embraces new tools
Hugel & Fils in Riquewihr, Alsace

While the owners and marketing directors of Old World wineries sometimes doubt the value of social media, a 370-year-old family-owned estate in the heart of Alsace has quietly become one of the most active of online players.

Described by Hugh Johnson in his Wine Companion as “the best-known Alsace label in the Anglo-Saxon world”, Hugel & Fils is both a negociant and an estate owner with vineyards in such Grand Cru sites as Sporen and Schoenenbourg. The half-timbered, seventeenthcentury cellars in the heart of Riquewihr look as though they have been lifted from the pages of a fairy tale, and offer little sign that the firm annually produces and sells around 110,000 cases of wine. Of these, 90% are exported.

Hugel has a reputation for innovation in an often-conservative region. They were among the first, for example, to promote the sale of late-harvest Alsace wine and, more recently, they bucked the regional focus on single-variety wines by reviving the tradition of blending local grapes for their Gentil d’Alsace. The three twelfth-generation brothers who own Hugel have all taken turns at production, management and sales until, as Etienne (the youngest) says, they each discovered their “affinities and skills”. Etienne’s skills leaned towards sales and communication, which he combines with his role as chief operating officer.

Early adopter

Born in 1958, the wiry Hugel has the twinkling eyes of a mischievous academic and an evident hunger for discovery, whether that’s new places, restaurants, wines – or methods of spreading awareness of the Hugel brand. His chosen method is social media, where he’s regularly to be found on Facebook and Twitter. The winery also has a blog, regularly refreshed images and video clips, and boasts a website in eight different languages. This full engagement with social media has extended the reach of the winery and helped it build closer ties with its customers.

Hugel says his conversion to social media took place nearly two decades ago, when most people still imagined that the web was something to do with spiders. “I remember having had a visit by my good friend and web mentor [and Rhône producer] Marc Perrin back in 1996 who convinced me to seriously look into the web.” Hugel was still using his first personal computer, a Compaq, and running Microsoft Windows 95.

He quickly grasped that the emerging technologies offered new ways to communicate with the people who bought his wines. “Alsace is a region that needs explanation, with its complex history and geology,” he says. “The web is a fantastic tool to provide somewhat controlled information to people interested in our wines.” While few of his neighbours would argue with that view, it’s more usual in this region to rely on the marketing done by the generic bodies. Hugel disagrees: “Our wines carry our names and we are the ones expected to speak about them.”

So what kinds of social media does Hugel exploit? “Facebook is probably the media that focuses most of my attention nowadays,” he says. “I have a personal Facebook page but also one related to my working activity, but to make it easier, I connected both so postings are simultaneous on both pages.” He says he also feeds the Hugel wine fanpage and posts “in both French and English on Facebook and Twitter.” Hugel pauses to recall that “I’ve just discovered that my first tweet was on August 27th 2009 – dinosaur times! Even before blogging became known, during harvest time, we set up a webcam that was uploading photos every 30 seconds from our cellars to share our excitement during vintage time.” Hugel’s social media efforts extend a website that’s constantly “updated in its web, tablet and mobile configuration; Skype is used almost daily for cheap communication with our importers; there are blogs, Youtube clips and also Linked- In to keep in touch with professional contacts.” He continues, “I also use Instagram and Diptic to post pictures mostly from my iPhone which has really made my life much easier.” For anyone who visits the website, all of this activity contributes to an unusually lively home page.

He is sometimes surprised at the reaction his efforts get. One of the most-watched You- Tube videos he ever produced was the one in which he explains why the firm had decided to switch from natural corks to technical DIAM closures. Unfortunately, it’s hard to predict what viewers will like; Hugel’s video on vine cane length attracted just 44 views.

Hugel has been chief operating officer of the winery since 1982. Given his role in the business, he might be expected to be concerned about the budgetary implications of his social media activity. He takes a different view, however. “Cost is almost irrelevant. It’s more a question of time and basically the will to share information.”

If Marc Perrin introduced Hugel to social media, his day-to-day mentor today is Philippe Hugon, whose company Vinternet is a pioneer creator of QR codes and mobile sites for wineries. This relationship has led to Hugel speaking at conferences such as Vinternet’s Vin 2.0 events. These events, and others, have brought him into contact with fellow participants such as Rich Tomko, CEO of Snooth – and offered insight into other producers’ experiences. “I try to keep up to date with a rapid and constantly changing web environment. More users are now looking for information through their smartphones. So we are gradually introducing QR codes on our back labels and very soon will add some video clips to explain each of the wines, in both French and English on our mobile site.” Other changes include a shift in focus away from blog posts towards “more instant information relayed via Facebook with less text, more graphic elements and photos.”

Does it work?

Hugel does much of his social media activity while waiting for planes. “With much easier access to WiFi in airports and hotels things have become much easier. No more camera needed, just my iPhone constantly on my belt and the job is done in minutes.” Those iPhone video sessions are destined for the Hugel wine channel on YouTube, and may include live vintage reports and tastings among the vines to clips recorded by Hugel himself on his travels. In one, for example, Hugel talks directly to the camera in a Singaporean shopping mall about his excitement to be in that part of the world and about the people he is looking forward to meeting later that day. Some 325 people have watched that clip, at the time of writing. Not an enormous audience – until it’s compared to the 100 or so people who might be addressed at a tasting. And, as Hugel says, creating clips like these takes far less effort than most other public relations activities. It takes time to set up an interview with a wine writer and to give them information that may never make its way onto the page; now, Hugel simply puts his iPhone onto a tripod, talks to it and uploads the clip directly onto YouTube. If most of the videos attract audiences of 100 to 400 people, one stands out: a seven-minute conversation between Hugel and Indian importer Sanjay Menon, covering the matching of spicy food and wine. It has been seen by nearly 7,500 people, more than have viewed some episodes of Gary Vaynerchuk’s online Wine Library TV.

Hugel is very aware of what he calls ”a clear shift from traditional media to a growing importance of credible bloggers.” He admits, however, that swimming in the same water as those online commentators does not solve the problem of deciding which are most worth talking to. Similarly, Hugel has not fully embraced the notion of online tastings. “We did one. It was fun, but as it was late afternoon on the US East coast, I had to stay up quite late, in France. All those tools take time.”

Hubert de Billy of Pol Roger, a friend of Hugel’s and a fellow member of Primum Familiae Vini, takes a less enthusiastic view of social media. “I think Etienne gets a lot of pleasure out of it. I wouldn’t do what he does.” However, de Billy agrees that, for a small- or medium-sized business like Hugel’s it makes more business sense than it would for a Champagne house like his. “Etienne is something of a one-man-band. Hugel is Etienne for many of his customers, so his activity contributes to that. Also, a big part of Hugel’s focus is in Asia, and they love that kind of thing.” Warming to his theme, de Billy finds another benefit, “I think it may also be a good way to keep your distributors on their toes – letting your Singapore importer see what you are doing in Hong Kong or Korea, for example.” De Billy’s comment about the impact of Hugel’s social media efforts on his importers is supported by Hugel himself who points out that: “Our respective importers have assisted with the translations and continue to do so for constantly updated product sheets on our mobile site. A good example is Taiwan where our fantastic importer Leading Brands translated our entire website into traditional Chinese. That was a clear sign of their motivation and pride in representing us.” Apart from the websites, Hugel and its importers have also produced some “simple e-brochures” in a wide range of languages. Having the importers produce these e-brochures has, he says, saved on the time, cost and quality control issues of getting the translations done in France.

Challenged to provide concrete evidence of the economic value of his efforts, Hugel admits that it’s “quite hard to evaluate, but for a 370- years-old family company it is important to speak to a younger audience using tools that are used by them.”

If you look up “Hugel” and “wine” on Google, you will be offered 735,000 places to go. The equivalent figures for other wellknown Alsace companies such as Trimbach, Josmeyer and Kuentz Bas, are 460,000, 66,000 and 53,000, respectively. “All I know is that when we launched our online shop it was profitable almost immediately. Other wineries take a long time to build that part of their business.”

For full access...

Latest Articles