When you think about the wine industry, two extremes come to mind: retail locations that sell wines and spirits, where a wide range of bottles are on display, and on the other (more high-end) end of the spectrum, wineries where the tasting experience is as immersive as it gets.
So, what if we told you there was a middle ground? More specifically, a retail destination where visitors could enjoy the wine tasting experience before choosing the perfect bottle(s)? That place is Manhattan-based Taste Wine Company, and it’s shaking up the industry by making shopping for wine more accessible and fun.
Founded by Gary Landsman on July 1, 2015, Taste Wine Co.’s mission is to help consumers find a wine they love every time they visit. A wide variety of wines and spirits are sold at its New York City location (at 50 3rd Ave), as well as on its website, where bottles are sold throughout the U.S. Although the actual tasting can’t be done virtually, Landsman also launched an app, ensuring online shoppers can also get in on the fun. (More on the app in a bit.)
Landsman’s mission is also to remove the pretentiousness or snobbery of wine tasting, as stated on the website’s homepage:
This is a place for wine lovers. For people trying to find their taste. And for people who like to share and enjoy the great world of wines.
According to Wines & Vines (2017), total wine sales topped $60 billion in the 12 months ending May 2017, up 3% from the previous year. And considering that 120 million Americans drink wine (Nielsen, 2017), this is certainly an industry that merits some good cheer.
Learn more about how Landsman is attracting the general wine enthusiast, one sip at a time.
The Taste Of Success: How Wine Education Filled a Retail Gap
After all, the ability to try what you’re purchasing can be an essential part of the shopping experience. Landsman explains: “We try on clothing, test-drive cars, sample perfume, etc. At wineries, samples are offered. And at every level, for those of us in the wine industry, we always taste the wine (and spirits) before agreeing to import/distribute/carry/sell it.”
Yet consumers are being told they must purchase their wines in an ‘analog’ old-fashioned way — look at a label or ask someone else if you are going to like it. It doesn’t make sense.
This void presented an exciting opportunity for Landsman.
So, how does a former MBA student and former equity trader end up spilling his life savings into the wine industry?
It takes a true passion for wine and a lot of risk-taking.
“Upon completing my MBA (I received it at night while acting as an equity trader from 1999 to 2002, I left the finance world and stumbled into the restaurant business with an old friend. An interest in wine became more of a passion. I left the restaurant world in 2004, and then in 2006 I sublet my Manhattan apartment to work a winery harvest season: first in Israel for five months and then in Napa Valley for another five months.”
Once Landsman returned to New York, he delved into wine blogging (ever so fittingly as the “Wine Tasting Guy”), and then got more of a taste for the wine business while working as a salesman for an importer, and managing the marketing for a mid-sized wine and food importer and distributor.
In 2014, Landsman started fully focusing on Taste Wine Co.: this meant speaking with potential investors, seeking app and web developers, sourcing the eventual wine tasting machines, and seeking a New York City location. He finally chose his current location, which is in the vicinity of NYU, SoHo and the East Village. (Considering his target demographic is millennials, this is a logical spot!)
A Perfect Pairing: Taste Wine’s Multichannel Approach With a Retail Location, Online Shop + App
Marketing was not a super obvious avenue for Landsman and proved to be tricky. After experimenting with hyperlocal Facebook advertising, phone booth ads, a Yelp ad campaign, and local coupons, Landsman found that the ROI simply wasn’t there.
“These were all costly and we don’t have any evidence that any of them were at all successful. Current marketing is really all organic, word-of-mouth.”
The alternative? An app and accompanying review system as a way to foster word-of-mouth marketing.
At Taste Wine Co. users are able to utilize the free app to learn about the wines on offer, and then taste from up to 50 wines available in their tasting machines at the store. This way, much like wine industry professionals or winery visitors, consumers can taste before they buy — ensuring that they will truly love the wine they purchase (and not just drink it because it has a cool label but isn’t really that good).
“While the hybrid wine bar/store model has been around for a while, these establishments charge customers for tastes or samplings of wine. It makes sense when people want to taste really expensive wines they might not buy entire bottles of. But if a consumer simply wants to know if they will like the bottle they are considering purchasing, why should we charge them for that? Are we charged for trying on a pair of pants or spraying ourselves with cologne we may be interested in buying? Of course not.”
“Knowing that we wanted to give away samples of wine for free, we sought to come up with a “quid pro quo” model: We want to give customers the ability to taste for free, but how can we somehow get something out of it as well?," he says. "So, we thought of user reviews."
I think we all are paying a lot less attention to ‘expert’ reviews these days and more attention to what other people like us think about a product we are considering.
How does it work? Landsman explains:
“Download our app and we’ll start you off with 100 points. Redeem your points to taste the wine from the machines (15 points for a taste from a bottle that costs $15; 20 points for a taste from a bottle that costs $20, etc). As soon as you taste, the app will prompt you to first rate the wine you tasted – for which you will earn back 10 points — and then review or as we like to tell our customers, ‘comment’ on the wine they just tasted to earn another 20 points. These ratings/reviews are helpful for us and the other customers. And really, it’s become a game. Imagine that… FUN at the wine store!”
These points help customers “stay in the game” and continue tasting more wines.
TAKEAWAY: Incentivizing the consumer ratings and review process can serve to increase word-of-mouth marketing (and democratize wine tasting in the process).
The app starts off with a little questionnaire about people’s preferences for things such as coffee (black, sweet or none), snacks (salty or sweet), and volume (loud or quiet), which helps Taste Wine Co. create a personalized Taste profile. This also allows Landsman and his team to start making recommendations based on their algorithm. (This algorithm is further refined as in-store users taste from the machines and rate the wines.)
“So basically the app allows customers to ‘unlock’ the machines and taste, while also helping to form a taste profile so we can recommend great wines that the customer can then hopefully taste in store.”
Taste Wine Co. launched more of a loyalty program with Smile.Io for its online purchases and so far, the customer feedback has been positive.
Sharing Some Wisdom: Advice For Aspiring Entrepreneurs
Yes, the prospect of being your own boss is exciting — after all, we’re constantly reminded that “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” While passion is key, it also takes grit, hard work and a large amount of risk-taking to be an entrepreneur.
When it comes to wine and retail in general, Landsman explains that it’s not all rosy:
“Retail is so challenging. Manhattan rent is obviously massive. And while we have had some amazing employees at varying times since we’ve been here, we find that most of the talented people we’ve had that work here have aspirations greater than working in retail, so they move on and we have to find new employees, retrain them, etc.”
Landsman took his entire life savings and had to borrow money from family to open the store — his new business was entirely bootstrapped. That moment when he quit his job, made the first significant payment to the app developers, and wrote a large check to sign a lease for his Manhattan space is when he realized: this is real.
“In the end, succeed or fail, I believe that what we’re doing is disruptive and in the best interest of the customer. I somehow stumbled into this idea and had I not followed through with it, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. I think aspiring entrepreneurs need to know that it is not easy and not for everyone. You need to be so passionate about what you’re thinking of doing and have the full support of your significant other. And you need to be prepared to deal with the unexpected — as it, whatever it is, will happen. And of course, you must have a ‘never give up’ attitude.”
If you have a solid idea, an insane work ethic, a thick skin, and a bit of ‘crazy’ to you, no other profession in life will be as rewarding as running your own business.
He’s not sure which of these risky moments was the most sobering, but he knows for sure that he loves every minute.
“Who knows. The whole experience was (and is still) surreal.”
What’s next in store for Landsman?
“We want to continue building on what we’ve been building these past two years. Hopefully we’ll be able to get our social media game on track a bit. And who knows… maybe a second location is in our not too distant future!”