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Where tech and wine collide: a conversation with Michael Baum

The founder of online wine platform Vivant and the owner of Chateau de Pommard talks building a sustainable future for wine, and big data.

Given the unendingly curious nature of oenophiles, Vivant – “the world’s first live-streaming wine experience platform” – seemed like it was a long time coming. Created by tech entrepreneur Michael Baum, founder of listed big-data pioneer Splunk and owner of Chateau de Pommard in Burgundy, Vivant combines tastings, lessons, quizzes and winery visits into a sleek online experience hosted by a wine professional. With most cities in lockdown mode and vineyards closed to the public, Vivant’s entry is timely. The Peak speaks to Baum about the platform’s hopes for the wine industry.

How did the idea for Vivant come about?

In 2014, my family and I became the fifth family to steward Chateau de Pommard in Burgundy, which we have converted into a beacon of biodynamic viticulture. The results went beyond our expectations and our wines are now more aromatic, flavourful, and energetic than ever. From there, in this small village of Pommard and its 518 inhabitants, we started thinking about how to share our knowledge with the rest of the world, and how the wine industry could look to the future – this is how Vivant was born.

Vivant wine experience platform

The user-friendly interface of Vivant.

It was in the works for more than two years. Knowing that less than three per cent of the world’s wines are produced responsibly, we wanted to do something meaningful for the future of wine. For an industry whose very existence depends on the health of the earth, it is astonishing that it is entirely out of sync with the global environmental crisis.

At Vivant, we recreate the magic of wine experiences without the carbon footprint of physical travel. We’ve united an international team of wine educators, product designers, software engineers and media producers to create a platform where people can meet responsible winemakers and taste their wines alongside expert wine advisers, no matter where they are.

(Related: How I learnt to love sweet wines)

How does Vivant curate the wineries to feature?

Our wine advisers and team members reach out to winemakers whom they find particularly interesting and whom they feel might be a good fit with our values. Since our launch, many winemakers have approached us about becoming involved in the movement.

Before onboarding, our winemakers sign the Vivant pledge, promising to grow grapes and make wine with respect for consumers and the environment. This means no synthetic chemicals in the vineyard, no additives in the winemaking process and the complete traceability of the grapes, the actual winemaking and the ageing process.

The pledge also includes a commitment to workplace equality and diversity, which are fundamental to our values.

You were in the tech industry before taking ownership of Chateau de Pommard. What similarities have you noticed?

The world of tech is constantly changing and innovating, while the wine industry is stuck in the past in many aspects. For example, historically, producers sold directly to wholesalers, so they didn’t need to think about their brand. In Silicon Valley, we do things differently because the strategies rely on a consumer-focused model. At Chateau de Pommard, we’ve adopted such a strategy. Now, 90 per cent of our sales are direct-to-consumer.

The one similarity I have found is that there is a thirst for knowledge in both industries and an awareness of sustainability and environmental impact.

Yes, the world of wine is traditionally old school, but we are seeing a new wave of wine lovers, drinkers, collectors, educators and growers demanding more from the industry we love.

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What has owning a winery taught you?

Besides some of the more technical aspects of winemaking, I learned so much about sustainability.

After becoming stewards of Chateau de Pommard, my family and I focused on learning and applying more sustainable techniques to our winemaking. Our winemaker Emmanuel Sala began his career 25 years ago making biodynamic wines in Alsace with Domaine Josmeyer. He started eliminating chemicals in our vineyard 12 years ago when he took over as head winemaker. I’m a big believer in data, so I did my research when he approached me about organic and biodynamic practices. The Journal of Wine Economics published a study in 2016 that examined 74,000 reviews and ratings of fine wines and found that biodynamic and organic wines scored 4.1 per cent higher than conventionally produced wines – and these are wines that are already rated 85 points and above. It was a big deal.

I did my primary research by tasting. We’ve done lots of experiments in the winery over the past five years with different sulphur levels, for example, and the difference was clear. I also started to appreciate some cosmological principles involved in biodynamics.

Today, we’re applying all of these principles to our 20ha vineyard.

What can big data do for the future of wine?

Evolution is unavoidable. Technologies like Vivant are ultimately designed to improve the industry as a whole by shining a spotlight on the processes used and the level of sustainability across the board.

Cloud-based technologies give us a great advantage and enable us to focus on the user experience.

From a big-data perspective, we will, in time, be able to show progression within the industry by monitoring sign-ups regionally, tracking the experiences and wines people are most interested in and the progression of members through their educational journey in this world.

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