MONTREUX, SWITZERLAND – Catheters and needles were not things I expected to hear about at a wine conference, but the inventor of Coravin, Greg Lambrecht, comes from the medical industry.”I wanted a way to drink wine from a bottle without pulling the cork. Luckily I was very good at needles.”
His first medical invention, while a student at MIT, was a catheter, “the very first product I made”. Happily for us, he later turned some of his attention to wine.
Coravin is now one of several Lambrecht inventions – he’s patented more than 100 – a tool to access wine without removing the cork. It was 15 years in the making. The company he created to make and sell it is his fifth; he’s sold two.
His Coravin product made a huge splash in the business and wine worlds, figuratively speaking, in early 2013 – then hit a crisis before making a comeback.
Seven-fold sales before the bottle burst
Today the US-based company sells its system for $299 (online price) and ended its first year with 50,000 systems sold. Company founder Lambrecht says the product is now shipping to 23 countries and is used by 1,000 restaurants and wineries. It will launch in Hong Kong in November.
Lambrecht shared his experience with 200 people attending the Digital Wine Communications Conference in Montreux (DWCC 2014) Friday morning 31 October. It’s a tale of ups and downs, honesty with consumers during the downs, and, ultimately, success.
It wasn’t clear at the outset that this would happen. In December 1998, he was 29, had loved wine since he was 16, had 40 different fine bottles, many of them gifts from doctors who appreciated his work – wines he was sometimes told were “too good to drink”.
It was a phrase he found odd. “I wanted to learn more and faster. I wanted to learn as much as I could. Then my wife became pregnant and she stopped drinking altogether.”
Must be a way to drink 9 wines alone in an evening
He wanted “to open four white Burgundies in an evening, or open nine different bottles in an evening. I wanted a way to drink wine from any bottle I own, any day of the week, without the commitment that comes from pulling the cork.”
How, he wondered, could he extend the life of an open bottle. He tried various systems and found “they weren’t working”.
His first attempt used helium gas, “a dismal failure”. He then made a what he calls a workhorse version that would allow him “to change the needle, change the gas, experiment. I found the right combination over eight years of experimentation. But I didn’t realize that others had my need.” He started to make a dozen a month for friends, and the demand grew.
Thanks to his previous experience in the medical field, he was able to set up a company quickly, find investors and get a product on the market. The press covered the launch, restaurants and sommeliers liked it, consumers bought it. In the first six months the company sold 23,000 rather than their target of 7,000.
And then the bad news began to come in: bottles were breaking at a rate of 1/70,000. The bottoms came off the bottles, or a piece of the shoulder. The bottles were damaged or had flaws.
Coravin learned a hard lesson about its product: even at low pressure, bottles cracked, broke.
The company immediately stopped selling the product and contacted US, EU and Hong Kong authorities. They “created and tested a solution” (a kind of sleeve) that was approved by governments. They sent it to all existing customers, 60,000 in six weeks.
The firm’s crisis taught them another lesson, that there is nothing like bad news for getting press attention. Within days Coravin’s production-halt news had reached an estimated 80 million people, says Lambrecht.
But by 2014 the product was back on the market and selling well.
The crowd in Montreux loved Lambrecht’s business confessions, but what they really loved was his final one, in answer to a question about the biggest challenge he’s faced with Coravin.
“Surgeons read instructions. At home, no one reads instructions!”
So here’s a challenge for you: instructions for how to pour vintage wines without removing the cork. (2 minute video)