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Former Credit Suisse Banker Sells Exclusive Wines Online

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Franco Massolino and Kevin Sidders
Winemaker Franco Massolino and Kevin Sidders, founder and president of VinConnect Inc., during a Tre Bicchieri tasting. Massolino, an Italian estate that makes fine Barolos in Serralunga d'Alba, is one of the producers with a mailing list for consumers on the VinConnect website. Source: VinConnect via Bloomberg

Aug. 27 (Bloomberg) -- At first it sounds like another story about an investment banker jettisoning his dull job to cash in on the excitement of wine.

But as Kevin Sidders, a former investment banker at Credit Suisse and Blue Beacon Capital, starts talking about his new business, VinConnect Inc., over our ceviche lunch in New York, I become seriously intrigued.

His company is an innovative take on the old idea of California winery mailing lists. Instead of cult cabs, VinConnect’s many lists offer sought-after European labels, like Burgundy’s famed Clos de Tart, one of my favorites.

Why did it take so long for someone to do this? Especially, as Sidders points out, because direct-to-consumer is the fastest-growing segment of the wine business.

On VinConnect’s website, which started last September, you can put your name down on lists for one or more of 19 top wineries in Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, Piemonte and Tuscany, then wait for occasional e-mail offers and news from each to arrive.

Already 650 wine lovers have signed up for at least one list, says 46-year-old Sidders.

Hedge Funder

One of the first to join was Burgundy fan and hedge funder Michael Ogborne, founder of San Francisco-based Ogborne Capital Management LLC.

“I’ve already drunk the six bottles of Domaine Louis Michel & Fils Chablis I purchased,” he laments in a telephone interview. “I should have ordered two and a half cases.”

Those wines were early releases of four premiers and grands crus bottlings from the stellar 2010 vintage not yet available elsewhere in the U.S.

Ogborne’s latest purchases of Clos de Tart are safely stashed in his cellar. He’s one of 300 people on the historic estate’s list, with more waiting to join.

No wonder. The most recent offer, in May, included a rare magnum ($950) and a jeroboam ($2,180) of their spicy, rich and velvety 2010.

“Buying from a mailing list saves me a lot of time,” says 47-year-old Ogborne. “It helps to have them all on one site. You also develop an emotional connection to the winery that you don’t get when you buy in a shop.”

Expensive Wines

The wines available are high-end and most are fairly expensive, though often cheaper than retail.

For the wineries, selling direct is a way to build a solid core of fans and get to know customers. There’s also greater financial gain.

“A study done by Napa Valley winery Chateau Montelena found mailing-list customers bought three and a half times more of their wines than ordinary customers,” says Sidders, who’s pitched his idea to about 90 European estates. Only two, he says, weren’t interested.

Before starting VinConnect, Sidders was a California cult-wine mailing aficionado himself, and was signed up on 15 lists, including Saxum Vineyards and Pride Mountain Vineyards.

After years playing idea and dollar partner to tech startups at Credit Suisse and then Blue Beacon Capital, Sidders wanted a change. He enrolled in the University at California at Davis’s OIV wine marketing program in 2007.

Eureka Moment

His Eureka moment came on a trip to Italy’s Barolo country in late 2010, when he asked himself why these wineries didn’t sell through mailing lists.

Thanks to the U.S.’s byzantine three-tier alcohol distribution system, it took months for Sidders to obtain licensing, set up warehousing and organize connections via European agents. He can ship to all but 18 states.

Sidders says his customers are passionate about wine, but don’t always have deep knowledge.

“Joining VinConnect’s lists was an easy way to balance out my cellar with European wines,” says Davin McAndrews, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur and high-tech consultant whom I reached on vacation at Lake Tahoe.

His collection is heavy on California, Washington State and Australian Shiraz. A California mailing-list fan, he enjoys the perks of being a top customer, such as access to special tours and tastings.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Among this summer’s VinConnect offers was a three-pack of popular Chateauneuf-du-Pape producer Domaine du Pegau’s 2008 and 2009 Cuvee Reservee reds and 2011 white for $159, about 10 to 15 percent less than at retail stores.

Last month, those on the list for Barbaresco producer Pelissero could buy rare, ready-to-drink 1996 Barbaresco Annata ($95), from a great vintage, and the just-released 2009 Barbaresco Vanotu ($100).

Piemonte perfectionist winemaker Roberto Voerzio’s initial offers were unique six-packs of his brilliant four single vineyard Barolos from the 2007 and 2008 vintages for $1,400, including shipping.

If you’re looking for exclusivity, the best bets among VinConnect’s lists are tiny producers whose wines are difficult to find, such as biodynamic Domaine Vieille Julienne in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and emerging Rhone winery Gourt de Mautens in Rasteau.

Others, like Fontodi (Tuscany) and Vincent Girardin (Burgundy), are fairly widely available in retail shops.

I do have a few reservations. The lack of in-depth information about producers on VinConnect’s website is disappointing.

And so far, most of the limited choices -- 12 of the 19 producers are Italian -- lean toward well-known, highly visible producers that get big scores.

A little buying advice: I know from experience that it’s easy to succumb to mailing-list addiction. Order small amounts at first and don’t stay on a list if a winery’s offers don’t wow you. But definitely put your name down on the Clos de Tart wait list, and pray someone else drops off.

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Jeffrey Burke’s interview with musician David Bromberg.

To contact the writer of this story: Elin McCoy at elinmccoy@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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