The Business of Wine—Online Invino
Your own private sommelier, 24/7
Pretty soon, you will wish you had thought of this. So pay careful attention for just a moment.
Let’s say that, (a) you live somewhere in this semi-mythical, vinological/gastronomical region called Wine Country and you’ve grown accustomed to consuming a bottle or two (or more) a week even though your choices are hit-or-miss, or that, (b) You live in Fargo, Fond du Lac, or Philadelphia, where virtually all the wine is either from somewhere else or not worth drinking, and on occasion you’ve had great wine, you’d like to buy some more, but you don’t really have a clue what to buy, where to buy it, or what it’s really worth.
Then consider this: In 2010, there were more than 3,360 bonded wineries in California, slightly less than half the number of wineries in the entire country. In France there are about 27,000 wineries, although many of them are tiny. Italy has, God forbid, an estimated 1 million winemakers—although the number commercially certified is an open question. Even Australia has some 2,000 wine producers, New Zealand adds another 700, and we haven’t even mentioned Spain, Portugal, Germany, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, Canada, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, or Greece. The choices boggle the mind.
So here’s the question: unless you’re a master sommelier, an importer, or a neurotically obsessed wine consumer, you can’t possibly know anything about more than a tiny percentage of the world’s wines, which ones are good and how much they should cost.
What you need is your own private sommelier, or an online guru to guide your choices. In other words, an insider.
Aha! Someone should do that. Someone has.
Meet Tony and Danielle Westfall, founders of Invino, an online wine club with a very simple strategy. “We want to feel like a wine merchant without you ever having to meet us,” says Tony.
We have three rules, adds Danielle. “Does it taste good? Does it meet our margin requirement on price? Is it a good value?”
It’s a simple equation and here’s how it works. Membership is free and members get two e-mail posts every day, seven days a week, each with an average of five offerings.
A typical post in September offered: a 2005 Clos Les Lunelles Bordeau blend that Robert Parker gave 94 points. Retail price was listed at $85 and Invino offered it for $45. That was accompanied by a 2004 Castello di Farnetella Super-Tuscan, retailing at $37.50 and offered at $20.
Other recent offerings include a Pezzi King, Dry Creek Valley 2010 zinfandel for $15 (retailing at $22), a 91 point, 2009 Cenay cabernet from Napa’s Blue Tooth vineyard for $25 (retailing at $40) and a 2006 Spanish tempranillo listed as a Wine Spectator “Best Buy” at $15, offered by Invino at $9.
The bargain prices, of course, don’t include shipping, which is why most out-of-state customers aggregate their buys into case lots, dramatically reducing the shipping cost per bottle. The company is headquartered in Sonoma, and local buyers simply pick up their orders at the warehouse.
And even though that makes for some spectacular deals, Tony Westfall insists Invino isn’t all about price.
“We wanted to eliminate risk and we wanted to get the best price. But we weren’t going to be a liquidator.”
That means every bottle Invino sells has a money-back guarantee. You don’t like it? You get a credit for that amount on your next order.
It also means that every wine sold has passed through a tasting panel of wine professionals. They taste hundreds and hundreds of bottles culled from around the world. Tony recently did a Bordeaux tasting in Chicago during which he sampled 700 wines. He picked 40.
Their wines, and the deals they can offer, come from countless sources. Close relationships in the business help, they pick up lots from private collections, restaurants or retail shops that go out of business. And they go on buying trips to Italy and France.
The tasting experience is then translated into exhaustive notes that accompany each offering, written by a staff sommelier who also has a master’s degree in journalism.
Credibility is critical to Invino’s success. “We’ve always tried to be very true to what we do,” Tony insists. “We had this one wine, very peppery, it was like a glass of black pepper with a little wine thrown in, and we said so. A customer wrote back, ‘I knew I was going to hate that wine, but I had to taste it.’ He didn’t ask for a refund. He appreciated the honesty.”
How was the idea hatched?
Tony had hands-on winery experience with Berringer, Danielle was a marketing expert working for Viansa. The idea was first conceived as a fundraising device following a conversation Danielle had with members of her mothers club. But it quickly assumed a life of its own and they launched it as a commercial enterprise in 2009, with a kickoff on the Daily Candy Web site, where countless new products and services first see the light of day.
That was a Sunday morning that shook the Westfalls to their toes.
“We got 15,000 members the first day…the first morning…the first hour,” says Tony. “I got up at 6 a.m. on Sunday and didn’t go to sleep again until Monday at midnight.”
Adds Danielle, “We had to hire my hairstylist’s daughter to do customer service. It was almost out of control.”
During the first year, Tony—who says he can’t write a coherent sentence—would work from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., and then give his tasting notes to Danielle, who would get up and write all the Web site copy. So together, they had 22 hours of the day covered, working out of their guest house.
Now things have rather changed. They have 800,000 square feet of warehouse space, a professional staff to source, taste, review, and photograph the wine, a second office in San Francisco, and a group of subsidiary companies to further import, market, and sell their products.
Sometime this year, Invino will pass the half-million member mark, with business from Fargo to Philadelphia and beyond.
From the 2012 Fall issue of SONOMA