Innovation in the Wine Industry: Why Robert Joseph Wins the Innovation Award by Vinventions for the Born Digital Wine Awards

Our industry often complains there is not enough innovation happening, but truth be told underneath the covers there is a lot of it happening. We discovered a new exciting world by leading the Innovation Awards for the Born Digital Wine Awards. A world that somehow stays hidden until the space is created for it to come to the surface.

We received nineteen entries for the Innovation Awards, and in our previous piece we announced our five shortlisted projects. At this stage, it is worth sharing why Robert Joseph wins this award as the most innovative personality in the industry.

For the final round, we sent out four questions to the shortlisted to get a better vision of what the future in innovation looks like for them and their projects, here are Robert’s answers:

Q1.       In your own words, please explain why you believe Robert Joseph is innovative.

Innovation is not necessarily about success, so first, I'd like to list some failures.

  • In the early 1980s, I believed there should be a wine magazine that wasn't for geeks. So, we launched Wine International and did everything we could, ranging from having celebrity and non-professional tasters to putting female models on the cover and - on one occasion a caricature puppet of Margaret Thatcher holding a glass of wine.
    • We kept trying for 30 years but ultimately had to admit that, in the UK at least, we had failed. Most non-geeks simply don't want to buy a wine magazine.
  • In my Sunday Telegraph weekly column, I tried to introduce symbols to help readers understand the flavour and character of the wines. Readers apparently didn't appreciate the concept - but Vivino seems to think a version of the idea worth introducing today.
  • In the late 1980s I persuaded Tesco to commission me to publish an 256-page, full-colour, hardcover 'essential Guide to Wine' that it could sell cheaply (£5) to its customers to help them learn about the subject. 
    • In one way it succeeded: it won me the Wine Guild of the UK Premier Award. But, as a publishing venture, it failed. (Even when the price dropped to £3, most of the supermarket's customers weren't especially interested in buying it.) 
    • In my defence, I'd also have to say that Sainsbury's had the same experience with a great book by Oz Clarke, who was a lot more famous than me.
    • The book survived in an updated form and continued to sell in traditional bookshops and online - for £20.
  • In 1998 I registered Wine-School.com and created a basic educational site that involved a 'village' that users could navigate to discover wine knowledge. 
    • My struggle was to secure funding for it and while waiting to do so discovered that a digital squatter had stolen the URL and used it for a porn site. (Apparently the theory was that at least a few of the men who found their way to the site would hang around...)
  • My Wine Lover's Guide to the World was also rather different, listing wineries, wine bars, restaurants and wine shops literally across the globe. It was quite well reviewed, but royalties from sales to eager wine tourists aren't paying many of my bills.
  • And then there was the attempt to launch a non-vintage Bordeaux brand, and a Sustainable brand called Greener Planet.

All less than successes at the time. But innovative, I guess, and in some cases, maybe ahead of their time, or attempted in the wrong country.

Here's a fuller list, including a few that did seem to strike the right note:

  • 1983 - Launched What? Wine (later to become Wine International Magazine). The first genuinely consumer-focused wine magazine that majored on the New World, used celebrity and consumer tasters and was on sale in supermarkets
  • 1984 - Launched the International Wine Challenge (IWC), introducing Australian-NZ style judging, value for money awards and a training system for judges
  • 1984 - The Wine Lists. A very different wine book  for the publishers of the Guinness Book of Records, that covered subjects ranging from Burgundy Grands Crus to wines of Ethiopia and the first Nudist wine tasting and the furthest flight of a Champagne cork
  • 1984 - Launched the annual Robert Joseph Good Wine Guide pocket book, which would come out annually for nearly 20 years
  • 1984 - Partwork Wine Course, through What? Wine, teaching readers the basics of wine and giving a chance to get a certificate
  • 1986 - The  Wines of the Americas - the first - and so far only - book ever to cover wines from Canada to Argentina, taking in states like Idaho and Colorado en route
  • 1987 - Win a £10,000 Cellar - An initiative in the Sunday Telegraph in which readers had to work out the location of the kew to a cellar from clues in a short story co-written by Kingsley Amis and myself
  • 1987 - The Art of the Wine Label - the first book to look at wine packaging
  • 1989 - Produced and published the Essential Guide to Wine
  • 1989 - Introduced an encyclopedia into the Robert Joseph Good Wine Guide making it a one-stop-shop combination of what-to-buy; where-to-buy-it and -what-it-is 
  • 1997 - Began to take the IWC into Asia (with Thailand, China, HK, Singapore, Vietnam, India, Japan) - then E. Europe (with Russia and Poland), bringing wine competitions to countries that had never had them
  • 1997 - Made a presentation to the Masters of Wine Symposium in Perth, Australia on the internet which was then less than 4 years old. Most attendees were unaware of it and did not believe it would affect their professional lives
  • 1997 - Registered wine-school.com and created a prototype online wine educational site
  • 2000 - Gave keynote at Australian Wine Industry conference at which I predicted the challenge Australia would face from what would become Vin de France
  • 2000 - Created an information website about wine closures called Corkwatch to broaden understanding of wine closures
  • 2002 - Published French Wines, a complete Insight guide, including information on food and suggested wine routes. It was translated into Russian, German, Italian, Polish, Chinese and was a best seller in French
  • 2003 - Ran the first blind tasting of wine closures - at Vinexpo
  • 2005 - Launched le Grand Noir as a French answer to New World brands. Today it sells 3m bottles in 50 markets and is a top 20 brand in the US
  • 2005 - Published the Wine Lover's Guide to the World
  • 2006 - Helped to Launch Meininger's Wine Business International as a truly global top level business magazine
  • 2006 - Joined the board of the MundusVini competition and helped to change its strategy
  • 2007 - Launched Greener Planet as sustainable brand
  • 2012 - Jointly launched 'WineStars' as 'Dragons Den' - style initiative to help wine producers understand the importance of their packaging and 'story' and understanding of market needs
  • 2014 - Created a food-and-wine-matching e-book for McGuigan wines that was downloaded by over 30,000 people, each of whom received a personalised version (i.e. non pork-eaters didn't get the bacon recipe; non-white-wine drinkers were given suggestions of red wines with the fish recipes)

In conclusion, I guess I have done a fair bit of innovating. Just as importantly though, through social media and public appearances and my columns - in Wine Intl, where a cartoon image depicted me as the devilish advocate and for Meininger's - I've tried to challenge a conservative wine world to look at itself and the world differently.

Q2.       Innovation usually pushes things forward, and the state of mind of the innovator lives in the future, so please describe what the future looks like for you?

Very, very, very different - for a number of reasons. 

  • Obviously, climate change will affect what is going to be grown and where
  • Consumer tastes and expectations are changing. The reverence for the old structures of appellations etc and the associated rules are changing. We will see more innovative wines such as the super premium red blends that are now successful in the US (and are being emulated by European companies like Gonzalez Byass and Sogrape), as well as ones that have been aged in bourbon barrels or had their alcohol reduced. And many many more innovative style that we cannot yet imagine. China will develop its own styles and tastes
  • I honestly see no reason why some form of synthetic wine-style beverage won't supplant the $0.40c bulk wine we see today. Especially when we run out of water to irrigate those vines
  • Packaging will change. There is no reason for 90% of the world's wine to be in 75cl glass bottles
  • Communication will become much more visual (including AR/VR), interactive and personalised
  • Sales and distribution will be very different. I honestly expect to see the disappearance of the supermarket 'wall of wine' that most consumers find so daunting. People will scan and buy the labels of wine they are enjoying - just as they will scan and buy the trainers their friend is wearing and the chair they happen to like. (Buying in this way will hasten the redundancy of all but the best traditional critics)
  • Everything will become more experiential - from wineries, to wine tastings and the settings in which wine is still retailed.

Q3.       How will you continue pushing innovation in the wine industry?

By continuing to rattle the bars of the cage - and increasingly by trying to prove the validity of my concepts - either with my own investment, or on a consultancy basis

Q4.       Finally, please describe what winning this award means to you.
It isn't always easy to be an innovator or a futurist in the wine industry. Recognition for what I say and do would hopefully help encourage others to raise their heads above the parapet!

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