Here’s how day one progressed as we nervously visited wineries in Napa.
Our first stop was actually not with a winery but with a gentlemen of the wine industry whose nickname is “pooch”. Pooch is actually a phonetic variation of his last name and if there is such a thing as a wine whisperer Pooch is it. Pooch has been in the wine industry for 30 years, knows nearly every winery in the valley either through years of first-hand dealings or through multiple business interests or visits, and is a 25-year wine judge at numerous prestigious California wine competitions. If this idea had merit Pooch would know.
We met Pooch at a restaurant just off Interstate 80 about five minutes outside of Sacramento where he lived. We had never met him and were introduced by a third-party who had heard what we wanted to do and indicated Pooch was an excellent source to determine if our idea had legs. As we were walking from the parking lot into the restaurant a man approached us with medium build, salt and pepper thick hair, requisite California earring and equally requisite tanned weathered California skin. “Denise and Martin?” We introduced ourselves, shook hands and entered the restaurant. Sitting in a booth Pooch went through his resume. It indeed was impressive. His knowledge of Napa was borderline encyclopedic. This alone was awe inspiring, however when we learned the many wine panels and competitions over which he presided, I started to get a queasy feeling, does our idea really have merit? After Pooch concluded and after soups were cleared away he asked, “So whadda ya got?” It was now time for my refined, measured and well-rehearsed pitch. You know, the one I developed walking from the parking lot into the restaurant.
“Pooch, we own a boutique wine store in Chicago and over the last few years we’ve learned a few things. First, a great many people love wine, however they feel intimidated in its selection for fear of somehow making a mistake. Second, we learned the legally required three-tier wine distribution system benefits only the distributors of wine across the United States and, excluding rare exceptions, the wineries producing 50,000 or more cases.” Pooch chimed in: “You got that right. Go on.” He leaned closer and I knew we had his attention. I continued, “We also know wine consumers enjoy access to great wines however most of the best wines are made in small production, often under 1,000 cases, and as such, the consumer is shut out as distributors don't carry them.”
“Right again. You solve that problem and you’re onto something”. Now it was time to share how we believed we had solved the problem.
“Pooch, what if there was a digital marketplace where wine consumers could gain access to the best wines from Napa and Sonoma, all reduced in price, purchase as much as they want and have it delivered to their door? Further, what if consumer access to this marketplace was free?” There was silence. Ten seconds. Then ten more. Then a series of rapid-fire questions from an industry lifer.
“Why would the winery reduce their price?” was his first question.
“Because we give a portion of proceeds to a charity the consumer picks.” I replied.
“Brilliant. And how do you keep the discounted price from being seen by massive discounting curators like Wine Searcher and such?" He followed. This was an important distinction for us as we hold sacred protecting the winery and helping them grow. As small business owners we want to help other small businesses especially wineries!
My answer, “The consumer has to enter their own user id and password.” He smiled. And then asked another question, “So the wine stays on the site forever? How do you keep it fresh and not some massive, stale digital storefront?”
He was now asking questions we ourselves had asked hundreds of times as we tested our idea. These answers were easy and I said, “A new wine hits the site each week and consumers have a finite measure of time before it disappears. We hope this creates an urgency similar to the way Group On has worked. If they snooze, they lose.” His smile grew and then he summed up our well-crafted pitch himself:
"Basically I join your site for free and once a week I receive an email about wine I cannot get in my area. A wine exclusively from Napa or Sonoma that you guys have vetted because you know what you're doing and the juice is good. The wine is discounted in price to both help my purchase decision AND because the winery wants to help raise money for charity. And let’s be honest, they get asked to donate to charity nearly every day so that gives them an opportunity to honor philanthropy which they all want to do any ways. Then the winery ships my order direct to my door and I don’t have to do anything else?”
“That’s correct, except at the end of your purchase you have to select which charity we designate proceeds towards.” was my reply. When someone gets it, it's a very easy plan.
His final question: “And that’s it? No membership fees, no minimum monthly requirements? I buy what I want when I want and every single purchase helps a charity?”
“Holy shit. That’s genius.” He smiled contently and was in. He then shared a dozen more wineries/contacts he knew would want to be featured.
We got back in the car and before placing the key into the ignition we looked at each other. Nausea had been replaced by adrenalin. I asked Denise, “Did this wine industry professional just call our idea ‘genius’?”
“Yes. Yes he did.” Denise mentioned, staring out the front windshield in a bit of a daze.
We let it sink in. We were on to something and the adrenalin was surging. Now we had nine more appointments with winemakers and winery owners in Napa/Sonoma over the next two days. Arriving at our first meeting, a mountain top vineyard owner we knew personally and met with the family in their living room. Two minutes into the pitch the owner stopped me: “So we place a wine on your site which is user id and password protected, people buy it, select a charity and we ship the wine direct to them? And you're going to do a video of the winery which we can further use in our marketing efforts?”
“We’re in. Would you like to taste the new releases?”
Meeting after meeting resulted in the same conclusion. The pitch at meeting's nine and ten was much better than meeting's one and two. The idea’s transparency was its brilliance as every party benefitted—consumer, winery and charity. We were going to leverage the internet, bypass multiple middlemen, get fantastic wines into the hands of wine lovers everywhere and raise money for some amazing charities. We had just one challenge—we didn’t have a website, a legal company or any money. Okay, three challenges. Flying back to Chicago we didn’t care—our idea had repeatedly been called genius and brilliant by some of the biggest names in Napa. And that felt pretty damn good.
Today every purchase (hint: click that to buy wine) still helps a charity and it still feels pretty damn good, right? Stay tuned, I’ll shoot you an email about how we almost didn’t launch and it all came down to ABC.
To drinking the best wines,