Vinitaly, under the leadership of managing director Stevie Kim, is becoming ever more innovative as it seeks ways to bring Italian wine to both the domestic and international markets. This has brought new events into being, like Opera Wine, where the top 100 Italian wines are showcased in one room, the day before the fair opens.

For some time, Kim has been considering the role that digital technology might play in wine, and in solving problems like domestic consumption. In March, one idea was tested – a “hackathon” for Italian wine.

A ‘hacker’ used to be the term for someone trying to get unauthorised access to a computer, but it’s morphed in new directions. Now a ‘hacker’ is someone who works to disrupt a system, primarily to find new ways of doing things. A ‘hackathon’ has evolved as an event where coders and allied professionals spend days at a time brainstorming novel solutions to defined problems.

So for their first ‘hackathon’, Vinitaly decided to tackle the subject of domestic wine consumption in Italy. This isn’t a small issue: wine consumption dropped by 6.5% last year, according to Decanter, bringing it to its lowest levels in more than a century. The reasons are many, from high unemployment and less money to spend, to changing cultural traditions. So could filling a room with technies who have no knowledge of wine help change this?

“The purpose of the event was to stimulate a conversation about modern ways to approach Italian wine – especially vis-a-vis new technology and mobile solutions,” says Stevie Kim, adding that while there are many elements contributing to the decline of wine consumption, “a key problem is that the new generation – the Millennials – associate it with an older, outdated lifestyle. Therefore my challenge to the participants was to find a solution – not necessarily an app, though all proposed an app – to render wine young, sexy and trendy, and engage the younger generation.”

Kim says that members of the wine trade tend to have a specialist perspective when it comes to wine communication, “so posing the problem to an audience of young hackers, who had little to nothing to do with the wine business, offered fresh and original perspectives.”

So how do hackathons work? Vinitaly called on the services of H-FARM Ventures, a “venture incubator”, which invests in innovative small companies, with the primary aim of creating projects that will help Italian companies transform themselves digitally. The company organises monthly hackathons with different industries as part of their ideas development process. “We bring together designers, business specialists, developers and interaction designers,” said founder Maurizio Rossi. “They bring together different skills, working over 24 hours. It’s tremendous.”

The hackathon was held at H-FARM headquarters, at the Ca’Tron estate near Venice lagoon. Gathered together were several hundred participants drawn from a range of disciplines, from coding to marketing to graphic design. Marilisa Allegrini from Allgerini Estates and Camilla Lunelli from sparkling wine producer Cantine Ferrari presented briefs of what issues their businesses were looking to solve.

“We asked the guys to make Ferrari an ambassador for living, from a digital point of view,” said Lunelli. “When we present Ferrari, we have a two-fold strategy. When we talk to people in the wine sector, we talk first of all about the product and the investment we are doing in the vineyards. But we also think sparkling wine can be presented not just as a wine, but as a part of lifestyle.” She says that Ferrari sees itself as deeply Italian and as an ambassador for the Italian art of living, so are looking for a way to represent that digitally.

Ferrari already has a number of physical ‘touchpoints’, such as wine bars or hotels where it has a strong presence. “If you go to a hotel in Venice, you have a very strong Ferrari proposal in terms of the materials that are displayed.” So the challenge was to link the person who has lived the Ferrari experience in those places to stay in touch digitally. “The main brief was to make Ferrari a digital ambassador for the Italian art of living.”

What surprised Lunelli is that the participants weren’t as young as she expected. Instead of the geeky 19 years olds that are the stereotypical hackers, there were people from early 20s to mid 30s. “They gathered according to where there interests were. People who wanted to work on the Ferrari brief found others who wanted to work on it.”

But to be an effective team, the different Ferrari groups of 30 or 35 people needed a diverse set of skills. “It looked like a cow market from long ago, or a Wall Street movie from the 1980s, with everybody shouting, ‘I need a developer for Ferrari!’”

The hackathon begins

For 24 hours, people brainstormed, argued, coded, drank coffee and occasionally napped. Then, at midday the next day, everyone counted down the last few minutes and a bottle of Ferrari was opened. Everybody had three minutes to present their iniative.

“It was incredible how they had arrived to a very advanced level,” said Lunelli. “Most of them proposed an app – and the app was already there!”

Then each company had less than half an hour to pick a winner. “They were all well focused. They weren’t all incredibly innovative, but each had at least one piece that was completely right.”

Having digital experience is important in being able to evaluate the quality of an idea. Lunelli said one proposal that almost won involved an Italian lifestyle portal. But this was similar to something Ferrari had already tried and “it was incredibly hard to keep up. We wanted something manageable, not something I need to hire a team of five people four.” Another idea involved sending ‘toasts’, only “you need an extensive social network to make it work.”

The winning idea was called Wild Wild Wine and “their idea was to develop an app that started from the packaging, from a QR code on the box.” The user would be asked what city they want to be in, and what kind of activities they’d like to do in Italy. “Eventually, on the basis of your answers, a video appears that shows you on a journey through Italy. Your image is embedded in the video so it looks like you’re really doing those things.”

It won because it fit the brief of making a bottle of Ferrari an ambassador for Italian living.

So will Ferrari implement it?

“We would like to, but not right away.” Ferrari is in the process of hiring a digital staff member and working on some basic online strategy before moving into a more sophisticated level. “We must first complete our presence online, and then our presence on social networks. It makes no sense to have a nice app if you don’t have a good social network. But we will go back to this proposal.”

As Lunelli said, the flipside of having lots of great ideas is you have to implement them effectively, and for that you need the basics in place.

One thing that is in place now is the wine hackathon model, which has set the ball rolling. “It was the first attempt at joining the forces of digital technology and the wine business,” says Kim. “I’m very much looking forward to continuing this dialogue with the younger demographic.”
Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Meininger’s Wine Business International in 2014.

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