When it comes to wine—as with many things in life—there’s no accounting for taste. Some people love oaky, buttery Chardonnays or heavy Cabs while others prefer a delicate Pinot Noir. They may prefer a sweet Riesling to a crisp one. Every wine lover’s palate is as different as the wine lover themselves.
This realization—along with the desire to help small, artisan wine producers become more discoverable to consumers—led Dave Shefferman and a few friends to found Wine Savage, a curated wine club that’s using technology to bring artisanal producers and consumers together based on their personal “taste” profiles.
For Dave, Wine Savage is a opportunity to combine two things he loves—disrupting markets with new technology and wine. An entrepreneur with a background in technology, he’s worked in business strategy and product management for a variety of tech startups in various industries such as consumer finance and real estate, including a stint at real estate website Trulia. In addition to running Wine Savage (which he took a year off from full-time tech industry work to get started), he’s currently the VP of Product Management for Lotlinx, a startup that provides lead and traffic generation for automotive dealers.
Dave says he developed a love for wine from small artisan wineries after moving to California and discovering the wine culture here. An East Coast native, he realized that he had a “pretty decent” palate and was able to recognize different varietals, high quality vs. low quality and could taste the difference between artisanal and mass produced products. Over the years, he also discovered that he had a preference for artisan producers and began developing relationships with some of the small producers whose wine he enjoyed and would often share those wines with friends at dinner parties.
“My wino friends would always just love the wines I brought and would ask how I found them, where did I find them, how can they get some, and it got to the point where I actually started buying wine for friends and hooking them up with small producers that I found,” he said.
As he got to know some of his favorite producers, he realized there are a variety of distribution challenges for those in the wine industry, particularly for small, artisan producers who don’t make a lot of wine and may not be able to afford to hire a distributor to help them get their product into liquor and grocery stores, restaurants and bars. Most small winemakers are forced to do their own distribution out of necessity.
“I realized that there was an opportunity to be the middleman and build something that would be focused on seeking out really small producers and seeking out the consumers that are looking for those really small producers and matching them up,” he said.
Dave likes to think of Wine Savage as a kind of “Pandora for wine,” he says—or a curated wine club. Much like how the music service “curates” music for listeners based on their musical tastes and similarities among artists, part of Wine Savage’s strategy is to use data algorithms and personalization to try to match consumers’ taste preferences with the wines whose characteristics fit their taste profiles.
As such, another goal of the company is to build out a decision support system to facilitate matching profile attributes for different consumers and different wines. In addition to the original profiles of each, the system also considers the feedback loop from consumers when they try each wine—this should allow the system to become more personalized as time goes on by adjusting and tweaking each profile based on preference. This combination of technology and taste, so to speak, is something fairly new and unique for the industry. Although Dave says there are others trying to solve that problem and cater to individual palates, there are varying levels of success and legitimacy, he says.
“I think that we’re onto something—some of it’s objective, some of it’s subjective. I’d love to get it a lot more objective, but that will take time,” he says.
The real goal, according to Dave, is to find good wines. Because the definition of a “good” wine is clearly subjective, Wine Savage employs a tasting panel that consists of 12 wine aficionados, winemakers, sommeliers and people he’s met at trade events that help determine which wines will become part of the Wine Savage club portfolio. Nearly all the panel members have an active role in the wine industry, Dave says, and the objective of putting together the panel was to cover the gamut of palates. “I don’t trust my own palate entirely, because I would just put on things that I like,” Dave says. The panel meets once monthly to taste wines suggested for inclusion in the Wine Savage portfolio.
As the panel tastes, they also create a profile for each wine brought into the club. Conversely, when consumers sign up for Wine Savage, a profile is created for them that caters to their palate and what they like. Then particular wines are matched with the consumers’ preferences. By filtering the characteristics of each wine profile with each consumer profile, the club is able to personalize each wine shipment with products that each consumer should enjoy.
“If they tell us they don’t like big, bold reds, they’re not getting a Napa Cab,” Dave said. “If they tell us that they like a really fruity Pinot, they’re probably not getting something from San Luciano—they’re probably not getting earthy Pinots.”
“It is almost like having a personal wine concierge, a personal sommelier,” Dave said.
The company itself consists of Dave and a few friends, although Dave runs the day to day operations along with an intern, a CTO and some developer help. Prior to incorporating in April 2013, Dave says, he did a good year’s worth of research talking to producers and people in the industry to determine the viability of the concept, as well as investigating the legal requirements for alcohol sales. He puts the impetus for the business down to both having an entrepreneurial personality and recognizing that there was that opportunity to better match producers and consumers for their mutual benefit. “It’s something that’s not being well filled in the market,” he said.
Dave believes that this type of business model for matching wines and consumers hasn’t been tried in the past because matching tastes is an extremely difficult, challenging problem.
“There is no good way yet to profile a wine—there’s a lot of folks that are trying, but I don’t think anybody’s come up with an answer to objectively, time and time again, profile a wine. At the same time, there’s no tried and true format that anybody’s implemented to profile a consumer’s palate. We think we’ve done a pretty good job at both sides of that. And so far our consumers are agreeing with us.”
“It really is just a recognition that everybody’s palate is different. Some gravitate toward sweet snacks, some gravitate toward salty snacks or both. Just as they do with that, they do with wine—they gravitate toward different things,” he adds.
The Wine Savage portfolio contains just over 100 SKUs from approximately 40 producers. Dave says the different wines and numbers of producers constantly varies depending on what’s being brought into the portfolio, what sells out and what the panel wants to include. Currently all wines in the portfolio are domestic, although not all of them are from California—some are also from Washington and Oregon, and they’re looking to expand that. Each wine also comes from a small production—the club purposely puts a cap on the production level. For a wine to be considered, it must have a production of under 5000 cases.
“We do look for folks that aren’t widely distributed, if at all,” Dave says. “So we’re really looking for the hard-to-find gems, the next cult wines. If they’re successfully already building out their sales channel and getting the product out there, we’ll look at it, but it’s less interesting if it’s easy to find. We want to be about discoverability for the consumer and truly discovering something new that they wouldn’t find otherwise.
And success for me is a consumer trying a wine in our wine club, contacting the producer directly and joining their wine club. That consumer’s always going to remember that they found that wine through me and they’ll always be looking for the next amazing wine that they love and will go join a wine club. And we’ve had that. And the producers love us for it,” he said.
Dave says another consideration when looking at wine producers is their backstory. The club also likes to highlight producers and farmers with interesting backgrounds. Many of their producers, according to Dave, work at well-known wineries and have their own side projects or are farmers who also produce their own wine under their own labels in addition to selling their grapes. “We’re looking for interesting stories. And most of all, looking for quality wine.”
Consumers in the club can select whether they want three, six or 12 bottles either each month, every other month or third month as well as the average price per bottle they’d like to pay. Dave says the base club average is about $40 per bottle, which allows them to put wines ranging from about $20-$60 in a box for any particular customer.
The plan for the business is to grow slowly and strategically so they can maintain the level of personalization that allows them to best tailor each wine to each palate.
In addition to the personal club, Wine Savage also works with some area tech companies, such as Google and Plantronix, to provide corporate wine clubs to employees as an employment benefit. Interested companies can sign up and then employees make a commitment of six bottles per quarter at approximately $150/six pack.
When asked whether Dave would consider Wine Savage to be a tech company or a wine company his answer was “Yes. That would be a ‘yes.’ Yes to both.”
What drew you to wine?
I think it was proximity to California wine country. I didn’t grow up with wine. It wasn’t until I moved out to California that I discovered wine and started to develop a palate for it and really enjoy it.
Why create a wine club and do wine curation?
Mostly the recognition that there’s a need for it. The recognition that there are consumers who are looking for small labels and who really enjoy wine from small producers and that there are small producers that are scrambling to find consumers. So recognizing that there’s a market need and an opportunity seemed like a good place to start a business.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I come from an entrepreneurial family. I’ve been involved most of my career in either entrepreneurial pursuits of my own or small start up organizations. And the inspiration comes from a strong desire to disrupt current markets with new technology.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in starting the business and what advice would you have for others?
Fail fast. I’d say that’s probably one of the best pieces of advice out there. It allows you to test different concepts, it allows you to experiment and it enables the opportunity to find something that will be successful. You can develop things that will give you a relative indicator of success or failure relatively quickly.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Once we got past the hurdles with ABC [California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control], the biggest challenges have been too many ideas and not enough resources or time. So really honing in on what we think the best strategy is, executing on it and quickly iterating if we need to redirect. The site is a little over a year old—we’ve already done a complete redesign and complete rebranding.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
I have something that feeds my soul and something that feeds me. And they’re somewhat intertwined. Wine is a wonderful industry to be in. The people are fantastic, and the product is a lot of fun.
What’s your favorite wine that you’re offering?
That’s almost like asking which is your favorite child. It truly does depend on my mood, whether I’m having it with food or having it alone and what’s at my fingertips. The downside to my business is, I really do like everything that’s in the portfolio!
What other local artisans do you admire and why?
There are a lot of amazing folks that are out there in the artisan world. Fred and Wendy Nunes of Nunes Vineyard are amazing farmers, their fruit goes into Papapietro Perry, the Belle Glos Meiomi label and they hold some back for their own label.
Mark Farmer of Euclid, he was the cellar master and I believe assistant winemaker for Opus One for the last 25 years and he has his own side label, which is fabulous. And three dozen some odd labels that we work with that all have their own unique stories.
Part of what we also do on the website is we do profile the winery and producer on the website to give a little bit of history and backstory, what their roots are in wine and where they came from.
If you had to choose your last bottle of wine, what would it be?
Just one? Probably one each out of my portfolio. I’m trying to think if there’s any one that I’ve been giving any preference to lately—there really isn’t. Actually, it’s funny—I usually don’t drink white wine, but spending more time out in the East Bay in the summertime now, I’m actually finding myself ‘oh, it’s warm, I could go for a bottle of white.’ There’s a Cuvee Cellars Chardonnay that’s fabulous. And I’ve found that for someone who doesn’t drink white wine, I’ve been drinking a fair amount of that lately. Love the wine, it’s a great Chardonnay and I’m finally in an environment where I’m drawn to drinking white wine.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef/vintner?
I really enjoy Ethiopian and Eritrean food. And other than that, I enjoy trying new things and experimenting with new things. I’m also a big cook, so a hobby of mine is trying something at a restaurant and then trying to recreate it at home. I have tried making Ethiopian at home—not entirely successful yet. Injera is hard to make.
Logo courtesy of Dave Shefferman, Wine Savage.