When Eric LeVine came up with the idea for CellarTracker, the on-line wine inventory system, he thought it would appeal to wine geeks like himself and to people who needed to manage sizeable wine cellars. He never envisioned that he would be helping to make a revolution in the wine business
Because that's what CellarTracker has done. The number of people who visit the site far outnumbers the number of people who use the site to track their wine collections. CellarTracker has about 40,000 registered users, but 90 percent of the site's visitors are not registered -- and it gets a couple of hundred thousand unique visitors a month. Which means people aren't going to CellarTracker to mark off a wine after they drink it; they're going to CellarTracker to read wine reviews written by amateurs.
Which is mind boggling, given the way the wine world works. Wine knowledge is handed from the top down, and we're supposed to drink what our betters -- Robert Parker, the Wine Spectator, and the like -- tell us to drink. But that's not what's happening with CellarTracker. We're looking for advice from people just like us.
"These are real people, spending real money for a real bottle of wine," LeVine says. "There's a much broader audience out there than I thought, and that was my first really big surprise."
More, after the jump.
I use CellarTracker -- the unofficial wine inventory software of the blog -- but had never thought of it as anything other than a very effective, souped-up spreadsheet for wine notes (and easier to use than similar systems). Then two things happened: I wrote a story for the Vineyard & Winery Management trade magazine about social media tools for wineries, and one of the experts told me: "Wineries need to know what their customers are saying about their wines on CellarTracker." And then CellarTracker results started showing up in Google when I searched for the less expensive wines that I write about and buy.
Those were light bulb moments. If wineries needed to know what their customers were saying on CellarTracker, that meant their customers were saying a lot. Think of it as focus groups for companies that don't usually do focus groups. And if Google was returning CellarTracker listings, that meant CellarTracker listings were important enough for Google to notice, which meant (without getting into a too long discussion about Google and how it works) that lots and lots of people were searching for wines that were listed on CellarTracker -- and that weren't mentioned elsewhere, like the Winestream Media.
Hence my call to LeVine. What was going on? When did this transformation from wine geek tool to social media platform take place? LeVine said that 15 months after he started the service in 2004, more than half of the visitors weren't registered. That's when he first figured that something was up, and that there was a much broader audience for the service than he had intended.
CellarTracker users need to register (which is free and simple) to enter wine purchases and to write tasting notes. That so many people weren't registering meant they were using it for something else. Which is, apparently, reading reviews.
So far, the site's registered users have written about 1.7 million reviews, and they'll add 700,000 more this year. That works out to about 1,600 a day, which, as LeVine is fond of pointing out, is as many reviews in six days as Robert Parker publishes in a year.
Equally as impressive is that the reviews seem to be perfectly fine. Some of them are a little excessive in their winespeak, and I'm not thrilled at the heavy reliance on the 100-point scale, but most of the ones I've read (five or six thousand over the past several years?) seem to get the job done. If someone wants to know if a wine is worth buying, they can probably find the answer at CellarTracker.
In this, CellarTracker is firmly part of the future of the wine business in a way that is still difficult for the wine business to understand. As noted on the blog many times, social media tools like CellarTracker will change the way consumers get wine information. The wine business, which is perfectly happy with the way we get information, doesn't understand why things will change.
Guess it had better get on CellarTracker.