Coravin: Greg Lambrecht's Corker of a Wine Idea
The Coravin 1000 Wine Access System is equal parts sleek and menacing, like a medical device designed by Darth Vader for Prada. Machined out of stainless steel, plastic, rubber, and matte-black zinc, the instrument has a satisfying heft, with powerful clamps that grip the neck of a bottle. A surgical-grade, Teflon-coated needle stabs through the cork. A click of the Coravin’s trigger injects a puff of argon gas. Out comes the wine in a steady trickle. The point of the Coravin isn’t that it extracts wine—a $4 corkscrew can do that. This thing costs $299 because of what happens to the wine left in the bottle, which is, as far as the most sophisticated palates in the world can tell, nothing.
Wine starts to turn into vinegar the moment it’s exposed to oxygen. It’s money down the drain every time someone discards the remainder of a bottle or doesn’t open one in the first place because all she wants is a glass. Since hitting the market in July 2013, the Coravin has been quietly changing the economics of the $300 billion trade—from restaurants, which are putting high-priced rarities on their by-the-glass menus, to private collectors, who can taste trophy vintages that were once too good to drink. Robert Parker, the industry’s uber-critic, who ordinarily deplores gadgets, has called the Coravin “the most transformational and exciting new product for wine lovers” of the past three decades.
Greg Lambrecht, who invented the tool in his Massachusetts basement, says the Coravin can keep an “accessed” bottle of wine fresh indefinitely. To prove it, he stages blind taste tests around the world. In September, at a restaurant in London, Lambrecht put on his biggest one yet, challenging 18 sommeliers, restaurateurs, and other elites of the city’s wine scene to tell the difference between bottles that had been pierced by a Coravin four months earlier and others from the same case that had remained intact. With a clink-clink-clink of his glass, he brings the crowd to order.
“These big blind tastings are becoming a bigger part of my life,” Lambrecht begins. “There’s nothing more exciting, or threatening, than gathering a bunch of people to validate that the technology actually works.” Out of sight downstairs, a Coravin colleague, one of 312 people worldwide with a Master of Wine certification, is pouring 20 identical place settings: Everyone gets five glasses of red, a 1996 Château Haut-Bailly Bordeaux, and five glasses of white, a 2012 François Cotat Sancerre. (The two extra settings are for me and Lambrecht.) An unknown number come from bottles first penetrated by Coravin 132 days ago, and the rest from bottles untouched until just now. The task is to tell which is which.
As the members of the jury get to tasting, the room goes silent but for the clang of stemware and the gross mouth sounds one makes while aerating. When the results are revealed, just one person out of 20 has correctly ID’d all five reds, and the same is true of the whites. There are murmurs of “wow” and “impressive” from the demure professionals at the long table. Michael Sager-Wilde, an up-and-comer of the East (i.e. hipster) London market, speaks for the rest when he says loudly: “That’s f---ing nuts.”
Lambrecht, whose default mode is a beaming confidence, looks especially pleased. “You really can’t get better odds than this,” he tells the group. “This is just about perfect. This is the kind of thing that makes you smile bigger than anything else.”
Afterward, Lambrecht plies the entire panel with a three-course lunch and three more primo vintages. He needs these people on Team Coravin, featuring the device in their restaurants and enthusing about it to curious customers, before the October launch of five e-commerce sites in Europe. “You guys are our front line,” Lambrecht says. “If you need instructions, lessons, anything, let us know.” He needs to establish Coravin as a mass luxury consumer brand along the lines of Vitamix or Keurig before competitors figure out ways around its patents—and to hook customers on repeat purchases of the high-margin argon canisters that make the device work. They retail for $11 and are good for about three full bottles.
The marketing push involves near-constant European travel and relentless schmoozing. But someone has to do it. “My goal, if I’m going to fail,” Lambrecht tells the table as the cheese course is served, “is to have an enormous amount of fun.”
Lambrecht has gained 20 pounds in 18 months, which, considering the caloric payload of the average sales call, isn’t that bad. At 45, he’s generically handsome and dresses in standard-issue slacks and blazers. His distinguishing feature is a constant sunniness. Lambrecht’s grandfather made weapons for the German military during World War II and was brought to the U.S. afterward, along with Wernher von Braun and 1,500 other rocket scientists, as part of Operation Paperclip. “He came up to me at a very influential moment when I was 12, very close to when he died,” Lambrecht remembers. “And he said, ‘I’ve killed enough people. You should work on something that is positive and that we’ll never have enough of.’ ”
Lambrecht studied nuclear engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and after a stint working for an energy company in Japan, he switched to medical engineering. He invented a string of products for Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer, including an implantable device that delivers chemotherapy drugs. “I got good at needles that didn’t do damage,” he says. He also developed an appreciation for wine, as surgeon colleagues occasionally gave him nice vintages as gifts.
One day in 1998, with his wife pregnant, Lambrecht got frustrated that to enjoy a glass he’d have to watch the rest of a bottle go bad. “I remember sitting in my kitchen,” he says, “holding a bottle of wine, holding a needle, and going, ‘There has just got to be a way that I can use this to get wine out of that.’ ”
Traditional wine preservation tools merely slow down decay. For $10, handheld pumps for the home can extend the life of opened wine for about a week; restaurants can install large, multi-thousand-dollar nitrogen systems that can preserve a few bottles for perhaps twice that time. In his basement machine shop in Natick, a town of 33,000 next to Wellesley College, Lambrecht wanted to invent a device that prevented oxidation from even starting.
He knew he wanted to leave the cork in the bottle. “Cork is the most elastic solid that we’re aware of in nature,” he says. “It’s so phenomenally useful. It’s in shoes. It’s in flooring. It’s, you know, everywhere. You can crush it down to 10 percent of its volume and it will come back to 98 percent, which is why it can seal a bottle for 100 years.” To pierce the cork, trial and error led Lambrecht to a 17-gauge stainless steel needle, the same scary size used for epidurals. He gave it a pencil point with holes along the needle walls, so as not to core the cork as it enters.
To make the wine pour faster and prevent vacuums, Lambrecht had to find a gas to pump into the emptying bottle that wouldn’t react with its contents. “I tried nitrogen, carbon dioxide, argon, helium, argon–carbon dioxide mixes, different gases with different lines to see what didn’t affect the flavor. I should have guessed argon was going to be the one,” he says. As a noble gas, it’s almost totally inactive. “Argon means ‘lazy’ in Greek. I call it ‘antisocial.’ ”
It took four years to develop the first prototype; there would be 23 iterations in all. His young son called the gadget the Wine Mosquito because of the needle. Lambrecht’s collection grew from 40 bottles to nearly 1,800 as he spent eight more years testing the device—he’d buy a half-case, tap into one bottle, then compare it to an intact bottle at 3, 6, 12, and 24 months, tasting for the slightest discrepancy. Finding none, he kept going—and became convinced that the diversion he’d created to sate his own curiosity had commercial promise. “If I couldn’t tell after five years,” he says, “it was like, OK, I think this works.”
Lambrecht had quit his job in 1999 to start his own companies, including Intrinsic Therapeutics, which develops spinal implants. By 2011 he had a large network of venture capitalists to tap. “I went back to my favorite investors and I said, ‘Do you want to invest in something that’s not medical?’ ” he says. He raised $1 million in one week. IDEO, the design firm famous for the first Apple mouse and other notable interfaces, helped Lambrecht turn his ungainly shape into a polished product. In April 2012 he hired Nick Lazaris as chief executive officer after first approaching him to serve on the board. (Lambrecht remains chairman.) Lazaris had spent nine years as CEO of Keurig and then two more as a director of its acquirer, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, turning the pod-brew coffee system from a novelty into a $254 million business. The idea is to apply the same razor/razor blade model to Coravin, where they figure the real money is in recurring sales of argon capsules.
Lambrecht and Lazaris gave Coravins to a dozen restaurants and 50 private collectors in the U.S. in summer 2012 for real-world testing. “They broke everything,” Lambrecht says. “They broke the trigger. They broke needles. They broke the clamp.” But the essential function—keeping accessed wine from spoiling—worked.
In his travels, Lambrecht has found that the device is a geographical Rorschach test. Napa Valley, with its Silicon Valley DNA, loves new technology. “It was a heartbeat,” he says. “ ‘It’s new? Great. How do I use it? Wonderful. Thanks. Perfect.’ ” New Yorkers were more conservative, focused on how the Coravin would fit into high-end service. Parisians demanded blind tastings, while Londoners, with less to prove, were quicker to sign on. Burgundy’s farmers tend to think of the Coravin as a tool, he says, while Bordeaux is run by CEO types who only want to know about sales projections and counterfeit risk. (The needle leaves a telltale scar on corks, making fakery unlikely.) The most hostile country by far is Germany. “I literally got a two-page hate letter from a sommelier in Munich,” Lambrecht says. “I flew out to see him, because it was eloquently written. It was all, ‘You are a techno-fetishist, you Americans are chemical, GMO …’ ” Lambrecht didn’t make that sale.
In economic terms, the Coravin cuts risk and opportunity cost for sellers, while lowering entry prices for buyers. Restaurants can put extraordinary (and extraordinarily priced) wines on their by-the-glass menus, when before they never would have taken the chance. Joe Camper, head sommelier at Bar Boulud Boston, was working at Eleven Madison Park in New York when the three-Michelin-star restaurant adopted the Coravin. “It completely changed our by-the-glass program,” he says. Oenophiles got to taste Dagueneau Pouilly-Fumé for $40 and a 1995 Château Mouton Rothschild for $195. Because Eleven Madison’s tasting menu had dishes that mostly paired with white wines and fewer that called for red, diners tended to buy a pricey bottle of the former and a cheaper glass of the latter. Now they could spend big on both. “It really helped revenue,” Camper says. “You were at best selling them a $35 glass. Now you were able to really increase that, and the sky’s the limit, depending on what you want to pour.” At his new restaurant, Coravin is “a way to try and make accessible a few more trophy wines,” like a 2011 Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Echézeaux, a bottle of which goes for $1,795.
At North End Grill in Lower Manhattan, Coravin enables an unofficial half-bottle program. “It increases the spend for people looking for half-bottles,” says Wine Director Mia Van de Water. Half of a nice 2001 Bordeaux might sell for $60, when pre-Coravin the customers might have bought two glasses of a plainer wine for $32. “But mostly I think it pays off in the intangibles,” Van de Water says, “the hospitality and the goodwill of saying, ‘No, we don’t carry half-bottles, but I can make this happen for you.’ ”
Wine bars have used Coravin to move stubborn, high-priced inventory; auction houses could in theory verify that rare lots are unspoiled and authentic. But most customers, about 70 percent, are individuals. “It’s fundamentally a consumer product,” says CEO Lazaris, who draws heavily on the Keurig model. “With Keurig, it was ‘Why make a pot of coffee when you only want a cup?’ With Coravin, it’s ‘Why open a bottle when all you want is a glass?’ ” Coravin is getting an early boost from restaurants the same way that Keurig machines made their beachhead in offices, getting users hooked on the convenience of single servings.
In June, Coravin had its first crisis when some customers reported that the bottles they were piercing had broken. The company received 13 complaints: Eight bottles split in two, four cracked and leaked, and one burst into four pieces, resulting in chipped teeth and stitches for the user. Lambrecht pulled the product off the market for a month. “It wasn’t that we were applying so much pressure that the bottle couldn’t take it,” he says. “It’s that the bottle had been dropped and cracked somewhere along its life span, and then you apply pressure.” Lambrecht estimates that 1 in 70,000 bottles fails. Coravin issued a quasi-recall, shipping each customer a neoprene sock to cover a bottle while it’s being pumped full of argon. Fewer than 1 percent of customers asked for a refund. All of the European sommeliers and most of the U.S. ones I spoke with said they wouldn’t use the prophylactic, which hides the label and looks dorky.
The recall doesn’t seem to be inhibiting Coravin’s early evangelists. “This is the most exciting product in my career,” says Edward Gerard, the wine buyer at Harrods, the U.K. department store. “As soon as I saw the launch in America, I immediately clocked that it was going to be the thing that revolutionized the whole industry.” Budding oenophiles can use it to learn about wine—sipping, say, five different malbecs in one night to see the varietal’s range—and become smarter buyers. Gerard thinks for a moment to come up with an appropriate analogy. “It’s not quite as dramatic as [the invention of] the World Wide Web,” he says, “but it’s up there with the launch of the search engine.”
Coravin raised $14 million in venture funding in January, without disclosing a total valuation. Lambrecht says the company sold 45,000 to 50,000 units in its first year, suggesting revenue of up to $15 million, not including sales of argon. Next year, Coravin plans to launch a good-better-best lineup, with the current product in the middle category; the cheaper model would have more plastic, and the deluxe version would gain features that restaurants have asked for, like an argon gauge.
Coravin doesn’t work on artificial corks, which don’t bounce back like the natural stuff, nor screw-tops, which are roughly a quarter of the market. Lambrecht says he’s working on a solution to the latter, but won’t give any details. After Europe, he intends to expand in 2015 to Asia, then South America, Australia, and New Zealand. “I will measure my success by the percentage of wine that is poured through our system,” he says, “whether it’s sold to restaurants or consumed at home. That’s my view of us affecting the world. That’s the goal that I want to get to.”