With few exceptions, sellers of fine wines who cater to the wealthy are a stodgy little group that has contentedly done business the same way for decades. For Chadwick Meyer, this presented an opportunity he couldn't resist.
The son of the founder of Napa Valley's iconic Silver Oak Winery, Meyer rejected working in the family vineyards in favor of a technology career. Now he's back in Napa and has teamed with wife Aimee, a finance-industry refugee, and wine connoisseur Matt Wilson on Soutirage, an online startup that's revolutionizing the top echelons of the wine business by providing unprecedented customer service at prices often lower than those of brick-and-mortar competitors.
The business operates entirely in the cloud. All processes--purchasing, sales, accounting, shipping and even the inventory manager the company installs in clients' cellars--are integrated in a NetSuite system accessible by iPhone, iPad or laptop. Centralized data means that each bottle is accounted for in real time as it moves from producer to client.
Soutirage--the name comes from the French term for racking, or separating the sediment from the wine--has a staff of 17 wine consultants, buyers and executives, based in an office over the corner drugstore in downtown St. Helena. The company manages most or all of the collections of a select group of oenophiles. "We are singularly focused on a small number of clients who buy a large amount of wine," Meyer says.
It might take 18 months to cement such a relationship, he says, noting that members of Soutirage's sales force--young sommeliers from Michelin-starred restaurants such as The French Laundry and veterans of elite wine stores--fly to meet prospective clients for dinner, often bringing rare bottles to taste with them at home. The idea is for the salespeople to get to know clients so well that they can anticipate their wishes. Meanwhile, Soutirage's computerized inventory system provides up-to-the-minute data on each client's cellar. "I noticed you're not drinking the Côte-Rôtie," a Soutirage communiqué might state. "Please send it back to us. You might prefer this Pomerol. I can ship it to you today, if you like."
There are no newsletters or e-mail blasts; all recommendations are personalized. "Our clients put their trust in us," Wilson says. Wine advisors or wine-services coordinators are in daily or weekly contact with their clients through text, e-mail and phone.
There is tremendous transparency in the wine market; anyone can go to Wine-Searcher.com and see the price range for a bottle. Soutirage likes to keep its prices in the middle of the pack. While a small percentage of extraordinary wines pushed the average price of a Soutirage sale last year to $293, the median bottle sold for $130.
The company has nearly 100 active clients; Sean Parker and Harrison Ford were reportedly early converts. The advisory board includes Accel partner and World Economic Forum member Joe Schoendorf, former San Francisco 49ers president-CEO Carmen Policy and famed restaurateur Thomas Keller. Most have a Napa connection in the form of a winery or residence. "We're invited to a lot of dinners where we meet some very interesting people," Wilson says. And no doubt, they are drinking some very interesting wines.