I love wine. My stepfather, George, introduced me to wine and I have never looked back. In my life I have had the opportunity to drink first growth Bordeaux and Burgundy from the casks stored in the deep and dark caves of their original vineyards. I have visited almost every vintner in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys of California, sampling their spectacular wines. I have tried the wines of Cyprus,North Africa and many other great wine producing regions, all while standing amongst their vines.
Today, as an investor, I own thousands of bottles stored in five cellars in four countries. I trade wine futures and am a member of the secretive Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. I love wine and I drink plenty of it!
Wine is a multi-billion dollar business in America, yet it is the only beverage we drink that is not available in an attractive 5oz single-serve package format. Why is that? Wine is a delicate substance. If stored in small quantities in containers that have any air leakage whatsoever, it will turn to vinegar in a few days.
There have been many attempts by packaging companies to develop technologies to create a single-serve wine container. All have failed to gain any traction. To be successful, a single-serve container must be made of plastic, so that it can be sold at sports arenas, and concert halls and other public venues. The seal that covers the wine must be perfect, so that there is no air leakage for months. That way, the wine can remain as the vintner intended it to taste when you take your first sip. Also, the package needs to look like a glass of wine rather than a jelly jar stacked in your local grocery store. So far, no one has been able to solve these multiple problems. As a wine-loving Shark, I can't help thinking what a spectacular investment opportunity this is.
Anyone who watches Shark Tank knows I take the lead any time a deal that has anything to do with wine walks in. I have seen so many bad wine deals come and stand on the Shark Tank carpet: commonplace bottle openers, nitrogen wine storage systems and even a wine dispenser that looked like a vending machine. All poo poo.
Kurt Russell makes his own wine too. We share a passion for the grape. He invited me to his winery in Rita Hills CA to get my hands dirty. Oh yes we drank a few bottles too!
Why can't someone bring me a 5oz. single serve wine concept that works? That would be a billion dollar idea.
Then it happened.
Last year, during season six, in walked Zipz Wine. While the other Sharks' eyes glazed over with the thought of sitting through yet another wine accessory pitch, I knew within seconds that Zipz was different. The packaging looked like a wine glass! The stem was transparent, so you could see the color of the wine you were buying. The design was so strong that you could stand on it. The company claimed that the seal was unique and that each glass could store wine for close to a year. They had a patent.
I kept my mouth shut and sat back in the weeds while each Shark dropped out one at a time like the beer swilling bozos they are. They had no idea what they were looking at and I had no interest in sharing the deal with anyone.
The problem? The Zipz guys were greedy pigs. They wanted a $25,000,000 valuation and they had no sales. It was extremely painful for me to offer them a $2,500,000 option to buy 10% of their company on the contingency that I could convince a major retailer to carry a single-serve wine, something that has never been done in the wine industry. As it turned out, this is the largest deal ever done in the Shark Tank.
The hard work begins.
One of the great things about being a Shark is that everyone returns your calls. This is a huge advantage for the entrepreneurs you invest in. Getting doors open is sometimes half the battle when you are building a business.
Alex Kenjeev heads O'Leary Ventures - the company that manages all my Shark Tank deals. As soon as Alex closed the Zipz wine deal I called Pat Roney. I had never met him before. What a surprise! He watches Shark Tank and knew about my passion for wine.
Pat Roney is the President Vintage Wine Estates in Napa and Sonoma. If you are involved in the wine industry you know who he is. Vintage owns multiple wineries and produces some of the best wines in the world under multiple brands for many giant retailers. Vintage has the logistics infrastructure to ship a single hand etched bottle to a customer anywhere in the world or drop ship 100,000 cases.
Roney had watched the Zipz episode and told me I might have bitten off more than I can chew. The wine industry has been burned so may times trying to launch single serve packaging that all the major players had stepped back. None of them would go first with yet another attempt when every preceding packaging technology had failed. Someone new had to blaze the trail and prove out single serve in the market.
I decided it would be me - and O'Leary Fine Wines was born.
97% of the wine sold in America is priced under $14.95 and yet almost all of it is not what I would drink. I don't want to go blind when I drink wine; I want it to be a wonderful experience. I told Roney I would launch O'Leary Fine Wines to prove the single serve format in the market--but not the way most celebrities do. They slap their name on a bottle of crap and expect their fame to get consumers to buy it more than once. Their brands almost always fail. Wine lovers are not stupid - they know swill when they taste it.
I told Roney I would never put my name on a bottle that I wouldn't drink myself and serve to friends and family.
Pat took it as a challenge, he invited me to blend my own wines from the pick of each harvest from any of his nine vineyards--but he had one condition. O'Leary Fine Wines would have to be a 50/50 partnership between Vintage Wine Estates and O'Leary Ventures. No way Roney was going to give me access to his grapes and global distribution logistics without paying a heavy price. I slept on it and told Alex to paper the deal the next morning.
My wife Linda has a remarkable palate for wine. I am always amazed how she can distinguish one region from another, new world wines from old just from the look, nose and taste. I hide the bottles and she beats me every time. A marriage based on a good wine cellar can last forever!
I took Linda with me to California and we began working with the Vintage Wine Estate winemakers. I made the decision early on that any wine I put my name on has to be spectacular, so we worked really hard on achieving that goal.
After months of trial and error, working and reworking, I think that our Chardonnay is close to perfect -- I know that for me, it has already become my mainstay white wine for friends and family. And I love our Cabernet too -- the arrogant audacity of its nose and its smooth and elegant approach on the palette just blew me away when I first tried it. Linda and I also blended a special Family Reserve red Cabernet, which is actually my favorite, but unfortunately there's only enough for the first orders, as a collector's item. I keep re-learning that wine is a tough industry!
Our plan is simple. We launch the O'Leary wine in traditional 750ml bottles on April 26th on QVC at noon. At the end of May, we begin to make the O'Leary single-serve white Chardonnay and Cabernet - right in time for the summer season when single serve wine will fly off the shelves. I can't wait to stack my lake house dock fridge with single-serve O'Leary Chardonnay. It drives me crazy when my daughter's friends open a bottle and leave it half full. Single-serve solves this problem forever.
Assuming success of the single-serve O'Leary Fine Wines (and I do!), we then plan to invite any major wine brand interested to try it. The Zipz team is almost finished a facility that can produce millions of units using their proprietary sealing technology and single serve packaging formats.
Can a Shark Tank deal make single-serve wine a staple in America? Damn right it can. Watch it happen.