commerce meets community Print
Written by Nikitas Magel   


Online Retailer Empowers Consumers with Wine Information & Social Connection
An Interview with the CEO of

Imagine a single place where you could easily buy wines, talk about them with friends old and new, discover ones that perfectly suit your taste, and then share your discoveries in the form of gifts to others.  Welcome to Bottlenotes.  Not your run-of-the mill online wine retailer, it's one that provides customers with an entire suite of services devoted to making the buying of wine not only versatile, but entertaining, engaging, and essentially effortless.  Having first learned of Bottlenotes during the 2009 Wine 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, I was instantly struck with the innovation of its unique business model and soon thereafter charmed with the appeal of its slick website.  Intrigued, I decided to find out more — straight from the source.  I contacted Bottlenotes founder and CEO Alyssa Rapp, who spoke to me from her office in Palo Alto, California, where she shared a brief history of what led up to her company's inception, along with a discussion of some of its exciting and truly distinct features, and finally some insights into how a younger generation of consumers is buying wine and socializing in its context.  Ever more interestingly, she presented some of her broader views on the state of the wine industry and how the evolution of e-commerce will markedly influence the future direction of wine sales and marketing.

NM:  What is Bottlenotes and how is it different from other online wine retailers?

AR: is a destination where you can come to learn about, share information about, and/or buy wine from boutique and estate wineries around the world.  What makes us different is a multitude of things.  First off is the social side of selling; we really are a place where commerce meets community.  But what also makes us different is how we approach both the individual commerce and community functions that we serve.  On the commerce side, we're doing things differently [from typical wine retail sites].  One feature is our personalized sommelier service that, with patent-pending matching technology, enables us send you wine tailored to your personal taste.  We've also launched the first national wine registry a wedding and gift registry for wines — because we learned that our target customer wanted to register for cases and gift packs of wine, though [until now] there'd been no place online to do that.  But the selling that we do is primarily for the new-to-intermediate wine enthusiast and we try to target our offering to that customer, feeling that we do it better than most [online retailers] for that demographic, the Millenial generation of consumers.

"We learned that our target customer wanted to register for cases and gift packs of wine, though [until now] there'd been no place online to do that."

On the community side — while there are a lot of places online to get tasting notes or connect with communities of people (like Facebook) — what we try to do is to help create a community around wine, and also to come up with clever ways to be a source of wine information for that community.  The Daily Sip™ is the best example of that; it's what we hope will become the Daily Candy of wine.  Through it, we publish a fun and interesting bit of wine information everyday: Mondays are Featured Winemakers, Tuesdays are Regional Spotlights, Wednesdays are Wine of the Week, Thursdays are Celebrity Sips [featuring stars like] Gwenyth Paltrow and Gina Davis, and Fridays are Wine Tips & Gadgets.  In the end, we know that new and intermediate wine enthusiasts, really of all ages, come to to learn about, share information about, or buy wine — so, whether we're selling or educating, that's what we really try to keep in mind.

NM:  It sounds like Bottlenotes is in many ways is a one-stop shopping destination for wine — but shopping in the broadest sense of the term in that you're offering a collection of products and services oriented around wine.

AR:  I think that's right.  Our job in the market, as I see it, is serving as a wine marketing firm for wineries and importers, helping them to get access to consumers and building out their direct-to-consumer distribution channel, all while educating and entertaining consumers who will hopefully come back for more of that education and entertainment.

NM:  You mentioned that you've launched the very first of its kind, on a national level, the Bottlenotes Wine Registry™.  Tell me about that.

AR:  The Bottlenotes Wine Registry™ is integrated with WeddingChannel.  They are, as you probably know, the largest wedding registry aggregator online.  And we are really excited about the partnership — lots of other [retailers] came to them wanting to partner in a wine registry but they didn't have the technology that we have, which is one of the many reasons they partnered with us.  It was an idea that came about literally from a single customer: we'd created wish list functionality in the old site (which is nothing new), and one of our clients at one point said to us, "Well, I love my wish list, but I'd really like to use it as a registry."  So a light bulb went off.  We did a kludgy tech workaround to make it happen the first time.  But then we decided that an elegant idea really deserves an elegant solution, and we sought to find one.  And the result was the Wine Registry in its current form.

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NM:  Wow, to my knowledge, this concept and its execution is really unique!

AR:  It's one of the best ideas I think we've had.  We've really have gotten some great traction on WeddingChannel, and we've seen definitely seen some impressive numbers in terms what people register for — they're not small cellars.  We're seeing the average cellar size that people register for to be in the range of thousands of dollars!  And the code that we're trying to crack is that while the typical couple who registers is completely fired up about wine and wants to get it as a gift, the redemption rate of what's actually purchased off the registries is still pretty low.  Now, of course, Macy's and Bloomingdale's and all those guys end up with about a 30% redemption rate — that's what we're really gunning for, because the value of the goods that are being registered for is very high; if we could get 30% of those redeemed, we'd be quadrupling our revenue.  The purchasing intent is there; the bride and groom are registering for the wine.  The question is how we get their friends and family to buy the wine, versus going to other, more traditional registries for their gift-giving.

NM:  The Wine Registry is relatively new, but I understand that Bottlenotes has been around for a couple of years, and that you recently relaunched the website.  How long has been in the mode that it's in right now?

"We're really going after a different consumer, the new-to-intermediate wine enthusiast, as opposed to the serious collector."

AR:  Since November [2008].  We'd been gearing up for this mode six months prior, before which we were primarily an e-commerce site for about two years.  We were still providing the personalized sommelier service, and had just created the registry and corporate gifts & events platform.  But the social side of what we were doing was really limited to what we had created and then rebuilt into the new site, a feature called My Wine Cellar™, which is our trademark name for the online wine journal that we have on our site and which allows users to store information about the wines they're trying.  Although you can use it as a proper cellar tracking service, it's different from CellarTracker (run by a friend of mine), which does an extraordinary job of serving that upper right quadrant of the consumer matrix — we're really going after a different consumer, the new-to-intermediate wine enthusiast, as opposed to the serious collector.  So the [Bottlenotes] online wine journal is a place where we originally intended to be used in a one-to-one way, where the customer would go into site after having a wine they'd purchased, and rate that wine or write a tasting note on it.  But the whole notion of connecting people and cruising other people's notes wasn't the original intention.

NM:  So, the My Wine Cellar™ feature has been around since early on, but has clearly evolved.  How would you say that it's helpful to customers, and how it might be different from other similar online tools?

AR:  When I was running the wine club [at Stanford], I was accruing stacks and stacks of tasting notes — and I still do; it drives me crazy.  There just wasn't a clean, elegant solution for a way to store it all online.  And I'm not just talking about information necessarily tied to bottles in my cellar, but any wines I would taste on a regular basis.  So, My Wine Cellar™ was born out of that spirit and initially tied to the shipments people received.  The goal was (and still is) to try to inspire people to come back and tell us what they thought about the wine, by rating a wine or writing a tasting note so we can make better recommendations the next time around for their wine club memberships.  It was both a customer retention/satisfaction mechanism and a way for us to implement a CRM device where we hoped to learn more about our numbers.  And it did prove to be all that, but what really took off was this notion of writing a tasting note and wanting to see other tasting notes.  Because even though Eric LeVine of CellarTracker (whom I deeply admire) has cornered the market on the very high-end — the people with 3,000-bottle cellars — there's still the mass market of consumers who don't have collections like that, but whom really are interested in reading a ton about wine and even writing brief tasting notes and rating wines, just like they've been trained to do by Amazon or Netflix.


And so, the My Wine Cellar™, which started as a way to just track what you'd received from Bottlenotes, quickly started to become a place that some members started to add other wines that they have had.  Then in 2008, we realized there was a whole social piece of that, which we weren't doing as we needed to.  So we lauched a Facebook application to test this notion of My Wine Cellar™ living in the world of Facebook, where you would have what you thought of that wine, and your friends could see it.  That took off, so when we redesigned, we pulled back in that My Wine Cellar™ feature, which you can still use as a wine journal and a way to track physical bottles in your cellar — but ultimately the key component of that is the social piece, where you can see what your friends have thought and read their comments on the wines you've been having.  I think that piece — the community of people you drink wine with, people whose opinion about wine you respect the most — that's what we're really gunning for the most.

NM:  Is there a way for visitors to to be socially engaged around wine without necessarily posting or reading tasting notes?

AR:  I think that The Daily Sip™ does that.  I post The Daily Sip™ each day to my Facebook feed and it will happen on Bottlenotes as well, sometimes, where people end up commenting back to us: "Oh, Hunter Valley, I loved it too; I want to go back!" or "I love that wine gadget; where can I get it?" or "I didn't see this rosé on your website; are there any others you can recommend?"  These are all the kinds of conversations that have started to happen from Daily Sip™, so that's a way that people have been social in a way that's not tasting note driven.  And people really like it!  The Daily Sip™ has been a very quick win for us, which is really fun, so we're hoping we can ride this wave all the way in.


NM:  I know you've mentioned whom your target audience is, but how closely has that profile matched whom you're finding to be your actual customer base?

AR:  We're really targeting new-to-intermediate wine enthusiasts, but the other reality is that 80% of our user base is under 40.  So, it's not that we only want to target young people; that's not it.  We do want to be hip, fresh, cool, approachable, and sophisticated and all that — but that doesn't mean that you can't be that at any age.  It just happens to be that this Millennial generation consumer, this 20-to-30-something wine enthusiast, is just a really interesting animal to tackle.  We're drinking more wine at higher-than-average price points and in higher-than-average quantities than the Baby Boomers, and wine for us is a daily luxury.  So, it's a different target demographic than any other wine demographic group prior.  We really love wine, and we're willing to pay for it disproportionately compared to our net income, versus the Baby Boomer generation.  And the reason, as one of my board members, Jack Cakebread, said, is that we grew up drinking good wine.  Which is said a bit tongue-in-cheek, but is true!  And the other thing is that it's a social-connecting device, it's a social mechanism.  It's the more sophisticated, 7-to-10-p.m. version of Starbucks — wine for us is a daily luxury.

NM:  So, you're targeting not just Millennials, but people overall who have a good amount of wine enthusiasm as well as knowledge in the online technologies, who are using those tools to educate themselves and connect around wine.

AR:  That is accurate.  It just so happens that so far 80% of our user base is under 40, but that's not necessarily where it'll end up.

NM:  How has Bottlenotes evolved?  What was your vision for it and how has it changed?

AR:  The vision was very different in the very beginning.  It really was this notion of a wine club solely.  I was running a wine club at Stanford Business School with a few hundred members and, in a peter pan sense, was disappointed with it ending — we had been exposed to new and exciting wines on a weekly basis, with wineries and importers coming to educate and entertain us with their products and we, the consumers, were learning as we went.  So, was initially intended to be [primarily] a wine club, where we thought we would target different types of people who would be interested in the wine clubs that we offer.  [We still offer that, with personalized clubs] such as the Explorers Club (which is a term you now see all over the place, but I'll put a stake in the ground and say we named it first!), Limited Addictions™(our invitation-only, high-end club), and Pop! Champagne club.  We've put a ton of energy and thought into different sub-brands for the wine club, and really targeting the consumers for them psychographically.


Overall, we have really evolved as a business model by listening to the customer.  So, if you had asked me three and half years ago if I would be running an e-commerce and media company, I would have laughed!  I mean, e-commerce is complicated enough!  But, truthfully, what we're trying to do now is still fulfill that critical role of serving as a wine marketing partner for certain wineries and importers, and a wine education and entertainment platform for consumers.  Even as the world has shifted, with online communities booming and with how we're all interacting in our daily lives [online and with mobile devices], the way [Bottlenotes] can add the most value to our consumer is still by providing with great wine club memberships, with great vetted boutique and estate wines from around the world.  People frequently comment that every time they open a bottle of our wines, it's delicious — we pre-vet them and we're interested only in direct-selling great wine.

But the content that we've been creating since the beginning has always been intended as a customer retention tool, to keep people coming back for more, because there are millions of people who sell wine and have wine clubs, and so even though ours are personalized, we wanted to keep Bottlenotes interesting, sticky, and different.  And lo and behold, the content that we create that turned into a great customer acquisition engine, and that in and of itself has been a pretty fun and neat product to see evolve.


NM:  And I'm guessing this all makes wine all the less intimidating, especially for the demographic you're targeting who aren't quite wine experts.

AR:  Absolutely!  The reason we're doing all these things is to educate new and intermediate wine enthusiasts about wine in an unintimidating way, by demystifying the wine world.  I'm not a Master Sommelier; I'm not pretending to be, though I admire friends who are and know their knowledge is unbelievably deep.  I have a good palate and I trust my palate, but what I love about wine is that it's a never ending, ever evolving subject that no matter how much I study, there's just an endless amount to go, so much still to learn, and it would take more than a lifetime to master it all.  That's one of the many things I love about it, that it's an ongoing opportunity and challenge.  And I think that as I and my team have amassed an enormous amount of [wine] knowledge, we want to share it in bite-size, approachable ways.

NM:  You mentioned that you pre-vet the wines you sell.  Can you say more about that?

AR:  We taste wine at Bottlenotes as a team.  And in the beginning, when we didn't have any 'street cred,' people asked us, "Well, who is tasting with you?"  Now, given that our whole schtick is to be the trust source of wine information for new-to-intermediate wine enthusiasts, we have a team of great palates as well as esteemed advisory board members who sometimes taste with us and whom are also phenomenal resources.  We're targeting people who really love wine, are knowledgeable about wine, and have tasted a lot of wine, and so we're vetting the wine that we find interesting and, most importantly, that our customers (by completing a personal taste profile) tell us that they're going to like.  So, we're looking for boutique and estate wines, and wines that receive an internal average score of over 6.5 out of 10 points — and we rate on all the traditional metrics: color, aroma, taste, body, mouthfeel, etc.  And we reach out to suppliers we're interested in having, and have now gotten to the point where we have a lot of inbound requests.  Of course, we're not the Wine Spectator; we're not receiving 5,000 samples a month that a team of twenty has to taste through.  But, even though we're small, we're still choosy.  And we're in the wine marketing business — if we don't feel passionately about it, we're not going do as effective a job in marketing [the wines].

NM:  I imagine that pre-vetting is especially helpful in encouraging people to take small risks in buying the wines you sell, especially given the economy.  Apropos, how has the economy affected the wine business overall, from your perspective?

AR:  I can only speak to what I've seen personally, but… people are drinking!  I mean, bar tabs, from the data that I've read, are skyrocketing!  People are drinking.  These are tough times; people want to escape — we all do, at points, right?  But what people are doing is trading down in terms of price.  And so, what that means is that the sub-$20 market should be really happy right now!  If you're not selling out of your product now [at that price point], then it's going to be pretty hard to sell it ever, because this is as good as the climate is going to get for high-quality, inexpensive wine.  But it's really, really tough on the high end, for those $60-and-above wines — there are great wines to be had in the $20, $30, $40 price points, so you just don't have to spend [in that high range] to have a good bottle of wine anymore.  And I know that at the extreme high end, the fine wine market, people are saying "Well, I've got 2,000 bottles [cellared]; at some point I need to stop buying and start drinking, and there's no better day than today!"  So, that's what I see going on right now in the macro wine world.

NM:  Speaking of 'world,' I understand that you've written a book inspired by the very concept of a voyage around it!  Tell me about that.

AR:  The book is called Bottlenotes Guide to Wine: Around the World in 80 Sips.  It grew out of our Winecyclopedia™ — which has yet to be brought back onto; it's one of the last features we've had a hard time getting to, but we're almost there — which is multi-hundred-page wine encyclopedia that has tons of information about regions, varietals, wine-tasting terms, etcetera.  So, when a publisher (called Adams Media) came across the Winecyclopedia™, they said, "We've done a bunch of 'Wine 101' books and we're wondering if you'd like to try to use this Winecyclopedia™ as the basis for a book."  And I said, "Sure thing!"  So, when I was deciding about what the theme would be, I was inspired by the Around the World in 80 Sips Gift Pack that we created at Bottlenotes, which is one of our most popular.  I thought that if this book was to be an intro survey to wine, what better way to go than around the world?

"What people are doing is trading down in terms of price. And so, what that means is that the sub-$20 market should be really happy right now!"

So, we took the Winecyclopedia™, which we created internally, and used it as the corpus for some of the copy [for Bottlenotes Guide to Wine] and then I added my signature touch to the majority of it, by creating the narrative into and out of each of these regions, many of which I've visited.  And it's spiral-bound, so it's something I've seen a lot of people who buy it have it on their kitchen counter where they use it as a reference — when they have a question about a wine they're serving, when they want to look up a region to get ideas about the wines to buy to match with the food from that region, etcetera.  I wanted the book to be like a companion to provide answers to very simple questions about wine.  It starts with a brief history of wine, which is supposed to be the Cliff's Notes version at a very basic level, then goes into wine growing, wine lingo, white wine grapes, red wine grapes, sparkling wine, and then boom, right around the world in 80 sips, from west to east — from Napa to New Zealand.  Then at the end is a Glossary of tasting terms, which a lot of people also say is one of the most useful things about the book.  And I think it's useful, approachable, and fun; something you don't sit down and read and then throw away, but something you keep as a reference.

NM:  One last question.  Now that you've been "around the world," as it were, let's say that at the end of your journey you end up on a desert island in the middle of nowhere… which wine would you want with you?

AR:  {laughing}  I am really a terrible person to answer that question!  My wine taste changes on a weekly basis; I literally cannot choose a favorite anymore.  A flavor of the month is all I'm willing to commit to!  So, this month, the month of April, my significant other had a big birthday and we had his mother's homemade cannelloni with Peter Michael Chardonnay — and it was delicious!  That is the wine of the desert island this month, 'cause he would love it, I would love it, and hopefully we would be on that desert island together!  Now my 30th birthday was in October; I was spoiled rotten by wonderful friends with wonderful cellars who gave me very general gifts of 1978 Haut Brion.  I'm a real sucker for vintage Bordeaux!  I also really love some Oregonian Pinots — Étude is a delicious wine that I think is really elegant, and I come back to it time and time again.  But it really does vary!  I've been on a Champagne kick lately — I have had some really delicious Champagne!  We actually carry a Champagne by Ayala, which is a really phenomenal producer.  I can't get enough of it; I'm serving it at parties and giving it as gifts.  But the other thing I've been really into lately and learning about is Saké, which I think is so interesting, so complex, and again one of these really cool pieces of the wine world that once you get in it, you could spend years studying!  I feel like such a neophyte to where I hope to be in 50 years.  But that's what keeps it fun — the amount of information on wine is literally encyclopedic, and you could spend every day of your life tasting wine and still not taste through the whole world, and that's what's fun!

To learn more, visit Bottlenotes online. v