“Fun” way to buy wine online
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
Sonoma Valley is famous for many things, but Internet innovation isn’t necessarily one of them. Maybe it should be.
One of the Web’s pioneering and most successful “flash” sales sites—wine.woot.com—was founded here in 2005 by brothers David and George Studdert. Flash sites typically offer a single item for sale at a time.
The company, which employs 10 people full time, is housed a few blocks from Sonoma Plaza and ships from a 5,000-square-foot warehouse on 8th Street East. Both David and George Studdert live in Sonoma with their families (David’s daughter, Annie, is a leading scorer on Sonoma Valley High School’s varsity basketball team).
Prior to starting wine.woot, George had successfully run national sales programs for major corporations before starting his own boat lift company in 2001. David had earlier worked at Airborne Express, specializing in direct-to-consumer wine shipping. In 1998, when the states’ attorneys general declared this practice to be illegal, he started his own company to “help wineries ship legally to consumers in non-reciprocal states.”
The company did well until the U. S. Supreme Court’s 2005 Granholm ruling opened the door for wineries to ship directly to consumers. While that was great news for wineries and consumers, it essentially put David out of business.
But another door opened almost simultaneously. David had recently read a Wall Street Journal article about a new company, woot.com, that had pioneered the one-discounted-deal-a-day online business model in 2004 (woot.com was purchased by Amazon in 2010). He was intrigued by the one-daily concept and loved the site’s humorous sales approach.
“I was talking to George, worrying about the end of my business,” David recalled. “Suddenly he said: ‘Why don’t we sell wine on woot?’ He was half-joking, but I had a major epiphany, with bells and whistles going off in my head.”
The next day David sent an email to woot’s founder, Matt Rutledge, who immediately saw the possibilities in wooting wine. Talks ensued and, in May 2006, “almost a year later to the day,” wine.woot became the first offshoot launched by woot.
George, with his background in sales, was a perfect fit for marketing. David’s forte was in logistics and shipping, specifically with wine. When he began to consider the complex maze of differing state regulations involved with shipping wine, he hit upon an innovative solution. He created a separate company, Wine Country Connect, to manage offers appearing on wine.woot, including order fulfillment on the winery’s behalf.
“We were first to market with this idea,” he said. “We positioned the website as an advertising portal to the winery, making them the seller of record. This allowed a delivery footprint that could represent 85% of the country legally. California ABC later cited this model in an advice letter.”
Wine.woot started slowly, with one deal a week. “It just evolved from there,” said David. “Today we’re doing 7 deals a week, about 60 to 65 a month.”
And each deal sells lots of wine, making wine.woot a popular sales option for winery owners.
In early December, Don Sebastiani tried selling on wine.woot for the first time. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “We (Don Sebastiani & Sons) don’t have a direct consumer presence–we have a website, but no tasting room. So I thought, Hey, let’s try this.”
He offered 170 cases of an uncommon wine, the Crusher 2010 Wilson Vineyard Big Orange. Made from a blend of chardonnay and Viognier grapes fermented in red wine style (with must, skins, and extended maceration time), the wine develops an orange hue.
“These wines have their roots in Northern Italy,” Sebastiani said. “They’re stunning wines, uncommon in the world, and even more so here in the U. S.”
The wine went live on wine.woot at midnight, selling in 4-packs for $59.99. The first 4-pack sold 2 minutes and 16 seconds later, and everything was gone by noon. “It blew me away,” Sebastiani said. “Wine.woot exceeded anything I could have expected. I was very impressed.”
Sebastiani was on the wine.woot site during the sale to interact with buyers. “They blew me away,” he said. “The customer base is incredibly knowledgeable, they asked questions at a very sophisticated level.”
David Studdert attributes part of wine.woot’s success to the fact that winemakers and winery owners hang out on the site while their wine is being sold. “The banter between the winery and the buyer is unique, and it offers a great opportunity for learning.”
Another reason for the company’s success is the way it’s turned wine snobbism on its head with irreverence and audacity, which appeals to its young, tech-savvy demographic. A recent description of L’Aventure’s 95-point Estate Cuvee starts this way: ” You don’t HAVE to go sneaking around to enjoy it but, hey, it’s your L’Aventure. You can do what you want.”
All the serious information is there, too, of course, along with unedited customer rankings and comments/questions about the item being sold.
And then there are the many surprise deals and fun aspects that pop up with regularity. Woot-offs are a no-advance-warning, 48-hour period filled with one special deal after another. One day a week there’s a “wine-related” offer (a half-dozen goat cheeses, for example). The occasional bottled offerings from Woot Cellars, like the recent 2009 Blitzen 6-pack produced and bottled by Ty Caton Vineyards, are wildly popular.
The bottom line, according to David: “Woot is the most fun place to buy wine online.”
And the future looks bright. “We’re still at the cutting edge of the industry,” he said. “We’re getting bigger online and the upside is enormous. Buyers are becoming more comfortable across the board. Wine buyers are becoming younger, willing to try new things. Wineries want to capture those younger drinkers.”