by Anne Burchett

Down The Rabbit Hole

I have a recurring nightmare in which I am walking through my house and discover a room or a suite of rooms I hadn’t noticed before. It is unpleasant and now it’s happened to me in real life.

Admittedly I haven’t found a warren of rooms under my suburban semi but I have stumbled upon previously unexplored wine territory which made me feel like I’d missed out on something important for years.
I blame Brennus.

I came across Brennus in odd circumstances. I’d written a rant on this site about peer-to-peer reviews, exasperated by the endless requests I get to review every single object or service I’ve ever purchased. While doing some superficial research into Vivino, the mecca of peer to peer reviews for wine, I noticed a prolific reviewer called Brennus, and mentioned him by name, wondering half-jokingly if he had a drinking problem, deep pockets, or was a wine professional.

You know that feeling when you’ve been talking about someone at a party and find they’re standing just behind you? That’s exactly how I felt when I received an email from Brennus, aka Christian to give him his real name, a few days after my piece was published. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought I’d better make the most of my blunder, and emailed him a long list of questions, which he answered comprehensively.

And this is when I tumbled backwards into my very own undiscovered alternative space.

‘I guess I like wine – I am tempted to write “as much as other oenophiles do”, but this has something of the adolescent infatuation with arguments about who really gets Nirvana and who truly is Arsenal. So, I like wine, but I like, to different degrees, other things too. And I am aware of how little I engage with what is offered to me.’ Thus wrote Peter Pharos last summer. His comment resonated with me because, despite professing to be a wine geek, I know deep down I am more of a dilettante, especially compared with others in the profession.

Although I was reconciled with not being the most dedicated to my craft within my professional circle, I still fancied myself more involved than non-wine professionals. And now I am not sure anymore.

Christian describes himself happily as a wine geek and yes, his interest in wine led him to working in the industry about ten years ago. But does he spend his free time at trade fairs chatting to former colleagues and faffing around like I do? No, he dives in, tastes everything he can, and logs tasting notes on Vivino. He is also part of several tasting groups. His interest is genuine as he insists he has a passion for tasting and not drinking and claims to detest the effects of alcohol. I do too, but the day after.

What I found fascinating is that he seems to exist in a parallel universe to the one I inhabit, the Vivino one. Of course I know people who use Vivino but none in the professional sphere. As Christian points out, ‘any professional of any industry doesn’t really benefit much from entering the peer review playground’. The non-professionals I know don’t post reviews but mostly use the app to validate their choices. Christian posts a lot and engages a lot. Here’s what he wrote: ‘My folks/peers are on Vivino. Wine is what I am most passionate and curious about. I enjoy writing tasting notes and reading good reviews. So basically Vivino is my Instagram/Facebook and I see quite a lot of people, who are also constantly on, commenting and posting. I have deleted Twitter, Facebook is only for a closed wine group of friends and Instagram I barely use…’ He adds however that many of the heavy users have now migrated towards Instagram as ‘pictures on Vivino look like low res crap and characters for writing are too short for a full length tasting note’.

In a slightly unfair way, I asked for his age and his relationship status. Because if he was 75 and single, it would explain why he invests in such a time consuming activity, and conversely validate my lack of involvement. I could claim Vivino is like playing the piano, something I’ll return to when I retire. Well, he is neither. He also points out something I can actually relate to, that you get a good idea of someone’s personality and whether you’ll get on simply by looking at what wine they like, how they engage with wine, and the type of notes they write.

Going further down that particular rabbit hole, Christian is convinced Vivino has hooked people who started off with just a vague interest in wine. This is how he explains it and here I feel like Jennifer Aniston in the Elvive ad, saying, ‘Here comes the science bit’: ‘Before Vivino changed the Regional Style system in the app into a total disaster, there was a straightforward system: producer countries had Regional Styles like “California Merlot”, “Left Bank Médoc”, “Spanish Mencía” etc. The more you drink of one style, the more your number count increases and you get promoted to Expert or Ambassador. Above all, that list used to show users a number of styles per country, they might never have heard of. And getting the first tag for a new Regional Style in your profile helps wanting to explore the style. Also it motivates to try stuff you don’t understand. Whenever I write a note about a Burgundy or Northern Rhône for example, I try to not forget to mention it is a PN/CH or Syrah because we often tend to forget that most people have no clue which varietals are in a wine with a regional name. So this is a nice way to actually foster the interest in trying Styles. Never had an Argentinian Sangiovese? Why not try it and grab the first count on that Regional Style? This intrigued me that much in the beginning, that before trying emblematic producers, I focused on trying the same varietals from all different countries I could find, understanding Malbec by tasting Argentina, France, Australia, South Africa, California.’

He also makes a point about the app users, which, if true, is worthy of praise in a digital world when ordinary people turn into utter raving loonies under cover of anonymity: ‘Overall you can say that there is genuine effort and enthusiasm. The tone is very friendly, trolls rarely exist at all and thus everyone is encouraged, because they rarely get judged in a negative way by comments.’

Vivino’s impact on his drinking repertoire? ‘As an infinity of wines passes through your timeline, eventually you get hooked by a great rating or some labels start to repeat. We take it for granted, that everyone knows Apothic is huge, but others will notice it only through how many posts show up and also who posts it. Musar is the best example: if it wasn´t for Vivino, I might never have registered that wine. It started repeating. Others saw it too and wanted to try it. Then posted it, thus repeating the dynamics. I cannot even start to explain, how the flow of Vivino posts has made me learn about styles and producers, about the existence of wines like Gravner, Kusuda, etc. White Musar? Who would have known? There is actually a Viña Tondonia Rosé?’

This answered my question about whether Christian had gone on to drinking better wines since he started using Vivino but prompted a new one about whether he was drinking more. Inevitably the answer was yes, even though he qualified his answer, clever clogs that he is, saying that there are many people who end up drinking more, but that it comes from the desire to try more wines more than actually just drink more. Whatever. Wine lovers drink too much. We have excellent reasons to do so and we are brilliant at justifying it but we do. I’ll leave that for now but it’s one of my bugbears and has been for a while.

I asked if people who post on Vivino are more likely to buy on Vivino. I was keen to find out as Vivino’s ambition is obviously to make money and not just to create a happy place for wine lovers. I have seen less engaged friends, the type who would never post a tasting note, place orders on Vivino but interestingly, it looks like heavy users like Christian, maybe slightly ungratefully, don’t. He justified it thus: ‘The Vivino shops are offering a fast solution, but enthusiasts like to browse around and can find wines in their local store without shipping cost or at a cheaper online shop with better shipping and more interesting wines to fill up the mixed case.’

I asked if Vivino non-wine-professional users had gone on to take WSET exams or read about wine from other sources and, from Christian’s answer – ‘it has become very common. Most of my group in Spain for example have passed Wine & Spirit Education Trust exams, most now entering level 3’ – it looks like the WSET owes Vivino. Christian also confirmed what we know, that there is so much to read about wine, too much even, and that it is easy to spend far too long doing so. One point he made though is that if he is interested in buying a wine, he trusts Vivino users, not critics. This is probably the best endorsement of Vivino – to have created a community of users who talk to each other regularly and trust each other. Very 2021 and, for a change, not sinister.

He particularly recommends following Vita in Vinum, Andy B, Ambassador Petrolhead and Jack Madrid, whom he describes as ‘a real eminence in the app’ and whom he met IRL in Canada and joined on a road trip to Washington State.

So, did I join what sounds like a great community of people who like what I like? I tried. Half-heartedly to be honest, as I didn’t scan any of the wine labels I have drunk since my exchanges with Christian or post reviews. I didn’t unsubscribe from the daily email I started getting from Vivino though and watched how they tried to entice me, seduce me.

I was unfair and flighty, didn’t tell them what I liked and watched them flounder with perverse amusement. Initial offers of discounted Prosecco having left me cold, they upped their game, eventually scanning the depth and breadth of the wine offer. They tried to tempt me with bargains, with obscure exclusive cuvées, and with prestigious names. I admit, it was comprehensive and I was playing hard to get just for the fun of it.

After a few weeks, they tried to appeal to my heart: I received an invitation from Heini, one of Vivino’s founders, to connect with him and Theis, his fellow founder. He wrote that with Vivino, he’d ‘set out to make wine more accessible, and easier to evaluate, for those of us who love it – but don’t want it to be a full time hobby.’ He went on to claim, ‘We’re now helping millions of wine lovers around the world.’ As you do when you want to get close to someone with a shared passion, he shared his favourite wine, ‘great Napa Cabernet’. A bit obvious for me, sorry.

When I still didn’t react, the daily email turned into two, one at ten in the morning, one at four.

I am still to bite, either by posting a review or placing an order. I am not sure what holds me back but even though I’ve kept the app on my phone, I am going to unsubscribe from the emails for now.

I’ve enjoyed the exploration though and I am grateful to Christian for getting in touch and being so generous with his answers to my questions. I hope one day we’ll share a glass of wine or three IRL: the best way to connect with fellow wine lovers.

Photo by Artem Maltsev and Unsplash

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