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Is it “Game on” in the Wine World?

Lord help the wine traditionalists if it is true: Technology entrepreneur Seth Preibatsch suggests that the next decade of digital innovation will be about the, “Game Layer.”

The “Game Layer,” is a dynamic that was introduced to the wine world last week when, within a day of each other, VinTank, a Napa-based digital consultancy, and Snooth Media each announced their own spin on the new, new thing in digital – game-like elements as a part of the wine + online experience; a sort of Farmville meets educational “Atta boy.”

If the announcements didn’t register with you mentally, you’re in good company:  Neither press release (here and here) passed the “30 Second Rule”—the law of the PR jungle that says if it’s not understandable in 30 seconds it can’t be that important.  Yet, it’s hardly the fault of VinTank or Snooth—it’s just that people are still getting their heads around QR codes and aren’t ready for a potential game-changer (no pun intended) on the order of the, “Game Layer.” However, these developments bear watching even if we’re a good 18 months out from broader awareness.


To date, your experience with online games is probably stratified into three categories:

Xbox, PlayStation or Nintendo

A glancing familiarity with World of Warcraft (and the pale, sunken-eyed souls who play it)

The annoyance of Farmville or Mafia Wars on Facebook (Initiated by the kid you never talked to in high school who inexplicably friended you up and now spams your email inbox with Farmville crap)

What’s emerging beyond that (and social networking), driven by the growth of digital marketing and smart phones in the mobile space, is the incorporation of elements of gaming into our daily interactions and information consumption.

To understand this, it’s helpful to understand some of the terminology:


Game Layer: An opaque term that Preibatsch, the precocious 22-year old founder of a tech company called SCVNGR, uses to define the next wave of innovation this decade, a philosophy that he thinks is far more revolutionary (and he is far more apt to profit from) than the previous decade that was marked by the, “Social Layer” i.e. social networking.  The “Game Layer” suggests that all of our interactions (what we do and why we do it) can be influenced by game mechanics.

Game Mechanics / Game Dynamics:  The universal law(s) that is inherent in gameplay – from Old Maid to Monopoly to online.  This story lists 47 game dynamics that SCVNGR follows in its client efforts.

Game Theory (from A mathematical method of decision-making in which a competitive situation is analyzed to determine the optimal course of action for an interested party, often used in political, economic, and military planning. 

Both the VinTank program (called VinPass) and the Snooth program (called Wine Rack) are similar in nature and use a “Game Layer” on top of digital wine activity incorporating “Game Mechanics”—offering badges and other digital ephemera-based incentives for performing activities like writing tasting notes or demonstrating knowledge.

As an aside, now is a good time to note that the clichéd saying about Generation Y parental coddling and, “Everybody gets a trophy” is no longer the province of youth soccer leagues.  Ahem.

VinPass’ program is chiefly sponsored by the Wines of France and is multi-platform.  This means that users at various wine social networking sites like and wine mobile applications like Drync can “unlock” digital badges based on drinking and writing tasting notes related to French wines like Beaujolais, Champagne and wines from regions like the Loire Valley.  Additional, real world incentives can be achieved, as well – discounts on purchases of event tickets and such.


Wine Rack by Snooth appears to be a more fully realized program upon launch and offers digital “trophies” to users who read, take quizzes, taste and rate wines at  Their program launches with title sponsorship from Terlato Wines International.  Similar to VinPass, users (in an undefined way) can earn tangible rewards like access to tastings and offers from retailers.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about these so-called, “Game mechanics” embedded into otherwise normal digital wine activities. 

Wine and digital engagement, in all of its variations, can act as a great democratizing counter-balance against the historical empiricism of the wine elite. However, progress wrought over the last five to six years has a great opportunity to step backwards if game-like elements take hold.  A game, inherently, is a zero-sum proposition:  there are winner and there are losers.  Wine has seen enough of that, no?  I wait with bated breath to hear the first braggart that has accumulated 30 digital trophies who then takes to his high horse …

In addition, there’s a seedy underbelly with these “Game mechanics” that isn’t quite simpatico with privacy issues.  When Snooth co-founder and CTO Mark Angelillo says the Wine Rack idea was borne out of the notion of, “Give(ing) users a better idea of how they were learning and growing with wine, how they were getting interested in the product and how they were progressing through playing with wine data” my first thought wasn’t, “This is a user benefit” it was, “This is a marketing benefit”—as in: Wouldn’t wine marketers love to buy this sort of information.

Another sore point is that the education a user obtains from reading and going through quizzes on these sites doesn’t have any tangible value.  Wouldn’t an inordinate amount of time spent earning a badge be so much more useful if it mapped to a baseline knowledge marker on an actual wine certification?  Why, yes, it would.

Despite these initial misgivings, it’s hard to slow down the digital zeitgeist and all indications point to the “Game Layer” and “Game Mechanics” becoming a much more significant and present part of our lives and digital engagement.

If you’re the sort that views life like a competitive chess match, you’re in luck.  If you’re an accidental tourist in life who avoids conflict and competition while seeking respite in the calming waters of the wine world, well, maybe there will be a “Trophy” for that in the Game of Wine.  

Additional Information
Ed. Note:  Preibatsch has the platform to get in front of the so-called “Game Layer” revolution, but McGonigal has the cred.

- TED speech by Seth Preibatsch
- TED speech by Jane McGonigal, Ph.D and author of, “Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World”
- Games People Play: Game Theory in Life, Business, and Beyond by The Great Courses


Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (14) |


On 06/11, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

um, excuse me, you may THINK that wine tastes good, but i have 467 wine rack points, and i can tell you that is an 88-point wine.  mediocre at best.  you’re welcome.

On 06/11, Jeff wrote:

Well played, Gab.  smile

On 06/13, Paul Mabray wrote:

Thanks for the great article, especially the points about gamification.  Those are great articles and a good foundation for people learning about this trend that is overlaying itself on many platforms of today. Gamification manifests itself in more subtle ways than Xbox or Nintendo.  As an example, in the “percent to complete” uses game mechanics to encourage you to finish your profile.  The examples are numerous and more subtle than the over notion of Donkey Kong.  It is good to see two platforms emerge.  I would contest your statement about “Wine Rack by Snooth appears to be a more fully realized program upon launch.”  Imagine the planning, programming, coordination, and management to launch on top of five platforms, 47 sponsors and more . . .

Here is some information about VinPass that might help you understand some of the differences:

VinPass launched Tuesday June 31st to almost 1 million oenophiles who use technology to make purchasing decisions or record their wine experiences.

We launched on five key platforms: Drync, HelloVino, iRhone,, 

VinPass is the ONLY wine gaming platform that is both web and mobile.

We will be launching with five more platforms in the next 4 months including Natalie Macleans iphone app, BottleNotes, and more that will add another 500K qualified wine consumers.

ANY platform that is a tasting note platform can add the VinPass game layer to provide their users with their own loyalty program and bring the connection between wine companies to their consumers with tangible rewards.  We built VinPass to be the bridge between all wine technology platforms, consumers, and wine companies. 

We launched with over 47 sponsored passes from incredible wineries and key regions. 

There are amazing rewards for consumers ranging from winery discounts, winery VIP treatment when the pass is shown, free event tickets, opportunities to win trips to wine regions, MP3’s, ringtones, digital books, and more.  It is amazing to see the creativity of our initial wine sponsors.

We have the support of many wine industry celebrity sponsors including Gary Vaynerchuk, Leslie Sbrocco, Evan Dawson, Joe Roberts, Finkus Bripp, the New York Cork Report, Debra Meiburg MW and more coming!

The game has many different dynamics including Location Based Games (taste Opus One at Opus One), Easter Egg Games (taste the wine that won wine of the year in 2008 Wine Spectator), Progressive games (taste any five wines from France), checklist games (taste every varietal from Rioja) and more.

Here are even more screenshots of VinPass in action:

We are happy to see Snooth launch their own marketing initiative and wish that platform success.  However our approaches are very different, ours is about trying new wine experiences and recording those experiences to connect wineries, regions, and more to consumers through experience education.  I can go on and on about the differences but we think of this not as gaming, but as engagement marketing to bridge that gap into social networks and wine experience platforms. 

As we have been saying in the office, it is game on in the wine biz.

Wine online.  We believe.

Paul Mabray
Chief Strategy Officer

On 06/13, Paul Mabray wrote:

PS - here is another great link to an power point about gamification:

On 06/13, Jeff wrote:


Thanks for the thoughtful comment(s).

One thing I would note as a word of caution is to categorize seemingly innocuous things as a “game mechanic.”

I saw Preibatsch reference LinkedIN’s completion percentage as a game mechanic in his SXSW keynote, but, really, is that a game mechanic as much as a simple progress marker?

Do we really think a UX designer at LinkedIn thought, “Oh, I’m going to put in a game mechanic here to incent users to complete their profile because nobody likes to have an incomplete profile hanging over their head.”

There’s a danger in assigning all actions to a game mechanic, even if you can.

There’s no quicker way to find the overwrought hype dustbin then to do so, in my opinion.


On 06/13, Mark Angelillo wrote:

Good stuff, Jeff. As an avid gamer, I’ve been at this for a while, and I’m pleasantly surprised to see gaming make its way into the wine world. And humbled to be a part of it.

As a wine novice, I often struggled with the lack of solid waypoints as I sifted through wine resources. Your best and worst point is the one about wine certifications. Do these certificates (apart from the MW of course) mean supreme wine knowledge? No, and I’ll cite your post and @gab from portland’s comment. “I’m WSET Intermediate certified and your thoughts on that wine are wrong.” Sounds just as absurd to me as citing wine rack points.

Do these certificates mean something to me, the bearer? Yes, they are proof to me that I’ve boned up on a difficult subject. (Note: I am WSET Intermediate certified and loved the program. Highly recommend it.)

Snooth’s Wine Rack is created to help folks to learn about wine, and education is baked directly into the platform. Take our Flights for example. Each of the 23 wine flights are hand picked by our team to encourage a wine taster through the progression from the basics to the more advanced selections. When I started with wine, I had no idea where to turn, or even that it was important to broaden my palate by tasting different wines. If we can dispel the idea that a Chardonnay is a Chardonnay is a Chardonnay, we’ve done a fantastic job.

Let’s talk about game mechanics. I love this stuff. The worst thing for any gamer would be to “Install” a game and have no way to get started. If I have to drive to the store to buy wine and taste it before I can play, that’s a shame. In addition to being educational, the quizzes double as a way for a player to get started learning and exploring at home or at work, even if there are no wines around.

How about game rewards? For centuries, learning about wine has been its own reward, and the last thing we want to do is fight that. I’ve never played a game because I thought my local winery (or a winery that’s 3,000 miles away from me) was going to give me a free hat.  I have played tons of games just for myself.

Dig into the Wine Rack and you’ll see very geeky wine trophies like the Horizontal Taster, which encourages players to review 5 wines from the same region, grape and vintage. This stuff is meant to teach folks about wine. The goal is not seedy - the goal is not to ferret out your innermost private wine ideas and exploit them. A fun and educational way to learn about wine sounds like a user benefit to me, and I’ll challenge anyone who takes a contrary position on that point.

With all due respect, games are not only zero-sum. A well designed game has many steps of intermediate winning along the way. It is a learning tool. In response to your comment about the virtual trophy braggart with 30 trophies, well, I agree it’s a shame that That Guy exists. But he’s a douchebag, and that’s no reason to condemn the entire category. I wouldn’t worry about gaming setting the wine world back. In fact, it might just improve it.

On 06/13, Jeff wrote:


Thanks for the comprehensive and reasoned commentary.

The one question I do have for you is related to the “seedy” part (I could have used a better choice of words).

I looked at your privacy policy and its fairly cut and dried.  What happens when “Large Wine Company” comes to you and is curious if you would conduct custom research for them based on Wine Rack data so they can understand how somebody is, “... Learning and growing with wine, how they were getting interested in the product and how they were progressing through playing with wine data.”

Understanding the path from wine interest to wine affinity is the holy grail for marketers.

Even if anonymous at the user level, I’m curious if you’ll be able to report against this at an aggregate level and use that for consulting and/or business development purposes?


On 06/13, Philip James wrote:

Jeff - I’m 100% with Paul on this one.

The percentage completeness bar on Linkedin is specifically designed to goad people into action. Its not just a progress marker, its front and center specifically to appeal to people’s need for completion.

For similar reasons Facebook’s default avatar is plain and boring and there are no other basic avatars to choose from. Facebook wants people to use their real images, and they stop just one step away from actually requiring it. 

Some of this setting of situation and use of defaults is more game-like than in other cases, and I think the term"game mechanics” is often mis-used, but they all rely on game theory (ie. predicting outcomes based on how an individuals choices vary based on the choices of others).

Wine braggadocio has and will continue to exist, with or without levels, badges, check ins and other. I don’t think these services will make it any worse. The aim for both, I’m sure, is to facilitate the reverse, to make it easier for novices to educate themselves and to gain an appreciation for wine.

Its also very interesting to see how two projects developed in isolation would be launched around the same time. Of course, both stand on the shoulders of pioneers like Foursquare, SCVNGR and other more general services.

On 06/14, gwendolyn alley wrote:

I’m surprised no one has mentioned Kathy Sierra’s June 7 2011 guest post on Hugh McLeod’s blog which critiques gamification. There’s a link to it on my “The Write Alley” blog (plus a link to a write-up about a talk of hers I attended at WordCampSF in 2008.)

(sorry if in my quick perusal of the article and comments I missed a reference to this?)

This is an interesting conversation—reminds me also of the conversation that Robert McIntyre started about wine education…

Makes me sad I won’t be in Virginia—I’d love to talk in person with folks about these ideas!

On 06/15, Bill Smart wrote:

Jeff - this is awesome stuff and really thought provoking. Thank you for putting it out there.  I have tons of respect for what Paul, Clay, Phillip and Mark are doing.  They are definitley pushing the envelope.  I think the one thing that sort of gets lost in the dialouge is how small and medium-sized wineries can get involved with sort of marketing.  First, most wineries of this size do not have someone just sitting around with time to kill that can pay attention to all the details involved with implementing and staying on top of this kind of program.  The only way to maximize your exposure is the activley engage, engage, engage.  If 80% of the wineries out there don’t have the resources or band withdth to do this, doesn’t that pretty much leave the large, corporate wineries as the only ones who can take advantage?  Just thinking out loud here but it seems like that creates a pretty homogenized and not very diverse wine community.

On 06/15, Jeff wrote:


“Gameification” and “Game Mechanics” as a part of the digital conversation is very, very early in its adoption cycle.  So, kudos to VinTank and Snooth for recognizing the potential applicability to wine at this very early stage.  It’s an unusual position for wine which is generally in the “late majority” on the technology adoption curve, in my opinion.

Net-net, I think the answer to your question will resolve itself in a year to 18 months and that’s also the same timeframe that it’ll probably make sense for a small-to-medium size winery to engage.  Until then, watch closely because context will help guide you in decision-making as options and opportunities present themselves for DCV.

Right now, it’s too early, I think.

On 11/12, Flash Games wrote:

I can go on and on about the differences but we think of this not as gaming, but as engagement marketing to bridge that gap into social networks and wine experience platforms.

On 05/04, TN Pas Cher wrote:

frame that it’ll probably make sense for a small-to-medium size winery to engage.  Until then,

On 11/03, wrote:

They are definitley pushing the envelope.  I think the one thing that sort of gets lost in the dialouge is how small and medium-sized wineries can get involved with sort of marketing.


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