Helping wineries build websites is a huge part of what we do. It never gets old, because it’s always a challenge. Why? Partly because just about anybody can sell anything online these days, but as soon as you’re selling that aged grape, things get a bit, well, interesting from a regulatory standpoint.

The other, more elusive challenge is the not-so-simple matter of content: that word that gets bandied about quite loosely in our digital world, and can mean so many things. For the sake of this post, let’s just define content as images-and-words. They absolutely define the fundamental structure and visual design of websites.

As Balzac’s creative director, I often find myself in the somewhat humbling and thoroughly modern position of allowing content to drive site design, while “visual design” in the traditional sense takes a passive, backseat role. Equally humbling for our new clients are the many “I hadn’t thought of that” moments that are revealed when they fill out our initial questionnaire.

It got me thinking about what’s most important to consider when getting any winery’s website off the ground. So, let’s turn winery website design inside-out for a minute, and take a look at the “Balzac way” of starting your website design project on the right foot…

Photographic Content Drives Site Design
With an explosive increase in bandwidth available to the average customer, modern websites have become far more visually expansive. Expectations are cinematic—site visitors expect an immersive experience that brings them into the middle of the “action”. So it’s up to you, dear client, to define what “action” means. Think of your website as a giant, empty bucket: the very first thing people will see is likely to be an enormous image of your location or product—inhabiting at least 75% of their initial screen view—with an extremely modest amount of copy reinforcing your brand message. With your entry page, you have but a single opportunity to establish a connection with your visitor, and it’s short attention span theater: suck ’em in or lose ’em forever.

As such, every single aspect of site design, from that expected “masthead” of logo-and-navigation that people’s eyes dart to first; to the structural composition of in-depth winemaking pages; right on through to that purchasing experience that you (literally) bank on visitors stick around for; everything is completely driven by photographic content. Every cute visual detail from your style guide that you can pile on top of that is secondary. In the first decade of website design, border treatments, magazine-style text layouts, and other traditional visual cues could get you where you needed to go. These days? If you don’t have lush, expansive photography ready to go, your bucket stays empty. It’s one of the very first things you need to consider.* Websites are really just a shell waiting to be filled those images and words.

Get In, Get What You Need, Get Out
This is what your visitor wants. Got it? Good.

I’ve seen many winery websites that uses clever-clever navigation, next-level motion graphics, and interactive activities to position itself as a place for visitors to hang out and goof around for a while. Let’s face it: they’d rather check out cat videos on their Facebook feed. If they’ve already taken the time to cruise over to your winery’s website, consider yourself one lucky business owner, and honor that gift. They’re here to find out about your wine—don’t let them down!

Studies that track eye motion in website visitors have clearly shown that the people have developed certain idiosyncraticies consistent with common expectations in website navigation.  In the vast majority of monitored activity, when people visit a website their eyes dart first to the upper left, then the upper, right, and finally upper middle. All this before they even let their peepers settle on all that cool stuff you put dead-center and “above the fold”. Give the people what they want: top-of-site horizontal navigation, with your most important branding messages on the extreme left, and your purchasing options on the extreme right. Everything else goes in the middle, and if you do the first two things right, maybe they just might stick around.

Own Your Website’s Future
We’ve seen the future of winery website design, and it’s segregated (sorry). Ever since selling wine online has come out of its most basic infancy, many of the big players in the game have touted “turnkey” systems where your site’s “brochureware”… the part of your website where people first identify with your brand and figure out what you’re trying to sell… is hosted under the same proprietary platform (which that vendor has invented and coded from the ground up) as the visitor’s “shopping experience”. On a basic level, it makes a ton of sense: the winery owner can control every aspect of their site’s content and wares from a single online control panel with a single set of login credentials.  And if you update your vintages, harvest facts, sales specials, etc, those changes happen site-wide with no need for duplicated efforts.

So what’s the problem with turnkey? The simplest answers are: WordPress and Ownership. Or to put it a little more globally, the issue is open-source.

While the turnkey systems rest on the laurels of one-stop site control, they simply cannot compete with the intuitive, user-friendliness and ease-of-use that open-source platforms (website construction systems that can be shared and easily manipulated by any code monkey worth their salt) offer. By their very nature, open-source platforms like WordPress—the global leader—have been universally adopted by coders and regular people looking to build their own websites alike, has created a symbiotic relationship and driven an exponential increase in ease of content management. This in turn has created a “WordPress culture” where the percentage of layman website administrators who understand the basic idiom of the WordPress “dashboard” (it’s set of online controls) dwarfs every other platform.

What was that I said about ownership? Well, to backtrack a little, the other “catch” with those aforementioned turnkey systems is that you are really just renting space on their NON open-source, proprietary platform. Every single one of the big players in the turnkey wine eCommerce game charge winery owners a minimum monthly “rent” of $150 for your shopping experience and brochureware. Let me be clear: this is not a ripoff. The glory of these shopping cart systems is in their ability to automatically navigate the hellish intricacies of selling alcohol online: compliance issues, fulfillment issues, state-by-state licensing and taxation issues…the list goes on. Any of these turnkey systems contain complex systems that provide the winery with tools to sidestep such intricacies with ease. You need this.

The problem is, your “brochureware” is on that platform as well. If you stop paying “rent” on that platform, you can’t just take that 75% of your website design to another turnkey solution and have them host it like nothing ever happened: their code will be totally different than the code your site was first built in. You’ll have to rebuild from the ground up. Yeesh.

I’m not some kind of oracle here: the turnkey peddlers are starting to see the writing on the wall. We’re already seeing a couple of the big players reposition themselves as providers of the comprehensive shopping cart system, while recommending that customers do in fact create the rest of their website on an open-source platform. And we’ll certainly see the rest of them pivot to this position in the next half decade. The question for now is: how elegantly do they deal with “segregation”…

Know Thyself, Know Thy Shopping Cart
You’ll recall I’d said something earlier about not duplicating your efforts as a site admin. E.g., if you change what vintage of your wine is available in your shopping cart, that new vintage and whatever winemaking notes come along with that should also change on your site’s “Our Wines” page without a lot of fuss. This is just one of many examples where you need your shopping cart to be able to “talk to the rest of your site in real time.

With the sea-change from turnkey wine eCommerce to the cart-plus-front-end, multi-platform ethos, the big issue becomes how elegantly these two elements can communicate with each other. How handily the various shopping cart services have developed code to bridge this divide is… and will continue to be… the element that defines their future success. It affects not only administrator and user experience, but the bottom line of how expensive it is for your web development partner to build your WordPress website and make it play nice with the shopping cart.

Add to this some other questions, such as how handily your shopping cart system deals with the POS needs of a brick-and-mortar winery (when applicable) or how well their purchase reporting plays nicely with your wine warehouse, and whom you choose to host your shopping cart becomes an extremely personal choice.

If you’re on the brink of making this decision, we’d love to help you figure out what’s best for you. You know where to find us.

*We’re also experts at photography and art direction, with a large roster of recommended professional to recommend and a peerless eye for communicating brand through proper direction. Just ask.

Adam Sullivan is Creative Director with Balzac Communications.