Who is the world’s most talented winemaker? An impossible question, surely… Well let me tell you. This supreme craftsman is responsible for creating the largest number of fine wines in history, spanning both Bordeaux and Burgundy of the highest calibre, many of them drawing astronomical sums at auction and delighting the most discerning palates. Until, that is, they turned out to be fake, and maker/counterfeiter Rudy Kurniawan fell out of favour and straight into a Texas prison.
Of course, no genuine wine lover would knowingly drink fake wine, for the same reason that you wouldn’t wear a fake Rolex or hang a fake Picasso. Even when there is great artistry in the forgery, authenticity is much more important. And that’s why NFTs (non-fungible tokens) have value in the metaverse.
I can almost feel the collective eyeroll in response to that sentence. Terms such as ‘NFT’ and ‘metaverse’ still sound either inscrutable or fatuous to many. But just as Wi-Fi, tweet and emoji sounded absurd in their early days – or, indeed, as cru classé, DRC and Trockenbeerenauslese sound to wine neophytes – the lexicon of the blockchain is becoming part of our daily lives as the internet evolves into Web 3. For all the eyerollers, I suggest you pour yourself a glass of something delicious to get you through the next bit…
Chapter and metaverse: what are NFTs and how do they work?
First, though, back to basics. NFTs are online tokens that denote ownership of any asset, especially digital items such as image or video files. Their key advantage over traditional contracts of ownership is their reliance on blockchain technology, which provides a public, immutable, decentralised ledger. This means NFTs can be traded between individuals, and the blockchain independently verifies that ownership. Web 3 is based on the principle that users will have direct ownership of digital assets, allowing peer-to-peer tradeability (as opposed to Web 2, where we create digital identities on social networks; the content may be user-generated, but it is owned by a handful of corporations making money from their users’ creative output).
To illustrate NFT ownership, take the recently re-published ebook Bordeaux Legends by Jane Anson. A limited edition of 100 copies were sold via NFTs. Purchasing one of these NFTs gives the owner a digital file of the ebook. That digital file can be infinitely copied and distributed, but the NFT itself – the contract describing the original transaction – denotes true ownership. Owning the NFT proves that you bought an authentic, original copy. It’s like buying a first edition signed by the author as opposed to a reprint signed by someone else – the content is the same, but the authenticity is decidedly not.
It’s all about authenticity
A similar parallel can be made between a bottle of Lafite that is legitimately ex-château and another that is ex-Rudy. Even if the contents of both bottles tasted the same – or even if the Rudy bottle tasted better (which might sound heretical but is entirely feasible), the lack of authenticity in the Rudy bottle renders it worthless.
In these early days of Web 3, many wine endeavours are focused on offering traceability and authenticity for physical bottles of wine, in an effort to defeat the fraudsters. This is a logical application for NFTs because of their intrinsic immutability, although it is not without challenges – not least how to reliably link an NFT with a physical object. However, there is an entirely different application for NFTs: the metaverse.
In these early days of Web 3, many wine endeavours are focused on offering traceability and authenticity for physical bottles of wine, in an effort to defeat the fraudsters
The metaverse could be defined as any online platform where each protagonist has an identity. Vivino is arguably a sort of metaverse – a place where we share bottle shots, tasting notes and price information, earning accolades and rankings for our digital identity in return. Online gaming is the best-known example of the metaverse in action. Minecraft, Fortnite and Roblox are massive online arenas where gamers roam freely, interacting with other players represented by customisable avatars. Huge sums of real money are spent in these metaverses: Roblox players spend around $3m on in-app purchases every day – and that’s just on Apple devices. Sometimes these purchases have a value in games (such as tools), but they are often purely cosmetic (such as clothing).
Where do NFTs come in? They offer proof of ownership. Until now, most digital items purchased are still owned by the platform that created them – including the millions of dollars’ worth sold to Roblox users. Within a few clicks, the game owners could delete or devalue them, whereas NFTs give you outright, authentic ownership – just as with Anson’s book.
Virtual vineyards and vintages – how wine and the metaverse come together
Love it or hate it, the metaverse is the next iteration of the internet – and wine wants a piece of it. Many different metaverse platforms already exist, and brands are already establishing a presence there. Decentraland is a virtual world made up of 90,000 parcels of land, including space purchased by Samsung and Coca-Cola. Just as in the real world, location is everything, which explains why 6,000 virtual sq ft of prime Decentraland real estate sold for $2.4m in November 2021.
Scratching your head? Consider the value of website addresses. Any internet user understands that wine.com is going to be more valuable than buy-cheaper-wine.com, which is why the former sold for $3.3m in 2009, while the latter is still for sale at $20 as I write. Even if both URLs delivered the exact same content, there is still huge value in one address over another, just as there is on a Monopoly board – and just as there is in the metaverse.
With so much money involved, it won’t be long before wine brands enter these virtual worlds. One company aiming to do exactly that is Metapolis, co-founded by wine lover Max Kantelia. He foresees producers inviting their customers into a virtual tour of their vineyards, showing them the growth cycle of any given vintage – how much more enjoyable would that be, he asks rhetorically, than the barrage of email offers that accompanies every Bordeaux en primeur season, for example?
How can people experience the metaverse in the context of wine?
Events can be made multisensory – for example, integrating video, creating original music or curating a playlist – and wine will be a vital part of this, either sent to your door, as with the tasting kits that proved so successful during lockdown, or by encouraging BYO. It’s comparable to the webinars with which we have all become so familiar, but upgraded to Web 3 standards.
Other than your favourite Zalto or Riedel, a laptop or smartphone is all that’s needed to experience the metaverse. However, accessories such as virtual-reality headsets allow an even more immersive experience. There are several types available now, and when Apple launches its version in 2023, their prevalence is bound to increase.
Other than your favourite Zalto or Riedel, a laptop or smartphone is all that’s needed to experience the metaverse
But the metaverse needn’t be experienced in isolation, hooked into a device. Wine tasting is fundamentally communal, so groups of people could gather in real life and still participate in the metaverse. Kantelia gives an example of people entering a dome inside which the Metapolis platform would be projected, similar to a planetarium. Using augmented reality glasses (the ocular kind, not the Zalto kind) could further enhance the experience, allowing groups to enjoy wine together in real life and with others in the metaverse, all at the same time.
In these online worlds, wine lovers would inevitably covet the virtual equivalents of their real-world passion. Metaverse cellars will allow us to display our collection of bottles that are owned or have previously been drunk. And of course, it won’t suffice to display a copied image file of a rare bottle – only NFT-backed assets, those with genuine authenticity, will matter.
From virtual tours to gamification
Clubs such as wine members’ club 67 Pall Mall could create a metaverse version, allowing prospective members to visit virtual renditions of its physical clubs in Singapore, London and beyond; or to have members-only areas that offer access to exclusive events and content. Club dVin is already offering something similar, allowing its members to create NFT-backed ‘digital corks’ and ‘tasting tokens’, conferring proof of ownership and proof of consumption respectively.
Elsewhere on Web 3, WiV – a builder of digital wine cellars by transforming physical bottles into NFTs – is aiming ‘to put wine at the centre of the metaverse’. It is developing several wine related destinations: a virtual wine bar on the CryptoVoxels platform and a vineyard on The Sandbox. The former is a simple room displaying wine paraphernalia where anyone can visit to chat about their common interest – a bit like the metaverse equivalent of an online chat forum. The latter will be much more interactive and gamified, encouraging visitors to ‘build knowledge about the world of wine all the way from the vine to glass … a world that will expand knowledge of growing, making, collecting and selling wine, helping people understand its potential as an investment asset and why wine is such a passion’.
The collecting/investing element brings us back to NFT-backed fine wine trading
Collecting and investing is the underlying business model behind many of these ventures. In fact, WiV is using this model to develop the Wineverse – ‘a land where you can take your wine investments and plant them’. Purchasing NFTs that are linked to real-world assets – bottles of wine, presumably – allows you to create a virtual vineyard. ‘The vineyard you create will be uniquely yours, as you embark on this journey of growing the value of your wine investments.’
In a demonstration, WiV showed barrels of wine intended to represent en primeur purchases, plus vineyards and wineries with gameplay to introduce users to the culture of winemaking. There are also virtual classrooms that can deliver a more immersive and interactive version of the webinars that have become so commonplace since the recent lockdowns.
WiV founder Tommy Jensen wants to ‘bring everyone involved in wine into our wineverse’, adding that ‘having a nearby commercial centre is key – a place where you can invest and trade and see virtual representations of your wine’.
Blockchain, NFTs and the metaverse are here to stay
There are plenty of promises being made, but so far nobody has launched a usable example of a wine-themed metaverse. As a result, it’s easy to be sceptical, especially when extravagant returns on investment are being touted. And it’s inevitable that many of these ventures will end up in the virtual gutter. Even the most convincing companies seem to be some distance away from launching.
Despite the bold claims, nobody can be sure how Web 3 will turn out. Much like the dotcom bubble and every new vintage of Burgundy, there is excessive hyperbole and overvaluation at this early stage. That will pass, but blockchain, NFTs and the metaverse are here to stay. Our desire for authenticity applies just as much in the digital sphere as it does in the real world – and wine is already in the metaverse, just waiting for us to charge our glasses.