Whenever you pick up a bottle of wine, you probably don’t put much thought into how or why it arrived on the shelf. You don’t see the wine sales reps shuttling between bottle shops and restaurants, cold calling retailers, jostling for floor space, hustling new products, meeting targets. Australia has more than 2000 wineries and a huge number of imports, and that’s not to mention the spirits and beer producers filling our glasses too. There’s so much noise in the market that small producers – many family owned and producing in tiny amounts – often can’t get their wine out of the vineyard and into your mouth. That means you, the drinker, are probably missing out on some cracking Australian wines.
Enter Ootra. It’s a business-to-business sales app that links smaller producers to retailers and offers drinkers a broader (and hopefully more interesting) selection of wines. With plans to launch later this month, founder Richard van Ruth intends to make the selling and buying process more streamlined for both sides. After researching the industry and polling both winemakers and retailers, he found the sheer volume of sales calls was the most pressing problem for many businesses.
“The one very clear thing from all of the hospitality professionals I spoke to was they simply can’t cope with the number of reps coming in to try and sell them wine. It’s just chaos,” he says. “What I’m doing will, I hope, really shake up wine distribution in a wholesale sense.”
For wine producers, Ootra is not unlike Airbnb; it allows them to create an account to showcase their portfolio and availability. For retailers it could be Spotify-esque, matching individual stores to particular wines from a vast database. While machine learning will tailor the booze selection to each retailer, Ootra is also employing a pool of anonymous sommeliers and winemakers to create “playlists” of their favourites to help with the discovery process.
“Crucially, when [retailers] go into the discovery section of Ootra, all of the content there will be curated to them on the basis of their individual account profile attributes and search history,” van Ruth says.
Van Ruth has been in the wine industry in sales for more than 15 years, including six as general manager at Primo Estate Winery. He says the only real change in the wine-sales model for centuries has been using cars instead of horse and buggy for sales calls.
“I’ve had a 360-degree view of wine distribution in a wholesale sense and what struck me a few years ago is the emerging opportunity to take a new model and kind of drag the wine industry in the 21st century.”
On launch, Ootra will have 17 wineries already signed up. Van Ruth says the selection will be carefully maintained and focus mainly on small winemakers producing high-quality products. One winemaker he’s excited to have on board is Nick Dugmore from The Stoke on Kangaroo Island, who produces sangiovese rose fermented at 14 degrees, and hand-picked, whole-bunch pinot gris, fermented in French oak and finished in stainless steel. To van Ruth’s mind, Dugmore epitomises the wineries Ootra will be showcasing; “Passionate, driven, young winemakers looking to stamp their name on the industry.” Other draftees include Corduroy Wines from the Adelaide Hills, and Lady & The Hawk from the Yarra Valley.
A centralised distribution system is another lure for retailers. All stock is shipped into a central warehouse in Melbourne meaning once an order’s placed it’s dispatched from there. The result is next-day delivery for much of the east coast and Adelaide, helping to streamline dispatch and ordering for producers and purchasers. Winemakers can set different prices for specific trade customers or groups, and choose what locations they want to distribute to throughout Ootra’s national distribution network.
The Ootra app also allows buyers in bars and bottle shops to chat directly with winemakers (rather than sales reps), and even set up face-to-face meetings, effectively cutting out the middleman.
As for the name, it was originally called “Outre”, which means “outlandish”, “shocking” or “unusual”, and van Ruth says this describes his approach nicely. But the copywriters suggested he would end up spending far too much time correcting people on the pronunciation of “Outre”, so he decided to spell it phonetically.
With the original meaning in mind, the idea of reducing the role sales staff play in the retail equation will be shocking, and definitely outlandish, to some in the industry (not least the reps themselves). And, unless you’re a retailer or winemaker, you may not notice a direct change. Nevertheless, van Ruth is confident that it’ll create a better outcome for the wider trade, changing what’s on lists and shelves around the country.
“It’s something that I passionately believe will improve the industry and create further prosperity, especially for the small guys, and hopefully make their lives better,” he says. “That’s pretty exciting.”