THE BLOG
11/24/2014 02:40 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Outsider Wine Merchant Transforming Intimidation into Excitement Shoppers

Outsiders. Outsider Artist. Outsider Voices. Outsider Entrepreneurs.

The adjective certainly draws the eye.

Isn't every entrepreneur an outsider in some way? The entrepreneur must hover outside of the market to see a gap; must be daring to answer that gap with no assurance of success; must be willing to go outside of convention and give everything to the idea, the business.

After all as Woody Allen said, more or less: "It's a wonderful thing to be ahead of your time. Ideally, though, about 15 minutes ahead!" for successful innovation requires that consumers can make the leap to the new model without it feeling too alien. I think we've found the right degree of innovation in the way we guide our customers.

Through friends in Princeton and the guys at Tigerlabs, I got to know Mark Censits--an entrepreneur who turned his outsider status in the wine industry into a successful business that grew from Princeton to the greater New York Metro area. This outsider status allowed Mark to innovate the traditional wine shop model to become more friendly to the consumers it serves--and Mark's stores even cater to the tastes of the local communities they individually serve.

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I asked Mark to share his experiences, how he identified the gap in his market, the guts to make it happen, and got a few tips for wine drinkers too!

Steve Mariotti: First of all, why do you call yourself an outsider?
Mark Censits:
I call myself an "outsider" because prior to starting CoolVines, I had no connection to the wine industry, except as a consumer. Like many other consumers, a frustrated one. Unless we're in an environment where we can taste wines before we buy them (and even there, many people don't trust their own taste. That's an whole other article on the psychology going on there!), all we have to go on when making a selection is what is written on the label or what others have written about the wine.

As I grew into adulthood, I became increasingly interested in wine as part of a lifestyle. However, I found the environment to be incredibly complex and obtuse.

SM: How did you turn that outsider status allow you to identify a gap in the market?
MC:
It seemed that no matter how hard I studied information about wine - reading wine magazines and books, going deep into certain regions or types of wine, I'd still have the same experience of walking into a wine shop, staring at the "wall of wine" and not knowing what to buy. Or, I'd have the experience of drinking a wine that I really enjoyed and not know how to use that experience to find similar wines.

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One time I asked a wine shop to recommend something new for me; something I'd never had before. They gave me a Bergerac (a red wine from this region in the southwest of France). I loved it. But how, I wondered, do I use that information to find ANOTHER wine that I'll like? Was it the winemaker? The grape variety? The region? The vintage year? It was very frustrating. I think I bought another bottle of the same wine out of desperation, but my question remained on my mind.

SM: How did you land on a solution to this quandary?
MC:
I starting thinking about how wine could be presented to customers who, like me, are enthusiastic about, but not expert in, wine. I focused on the taste experience of the wine, rather than its ingredients or pedigree. I categorized wines into families that transcended regional designations, grape variety "recipes" --instead grouping them on similar taste profiles. All light, crisp white wines went together in one group, as did all big, flavorful red wines.

The categories changed in number and definition as I tried to find a new taxonomy for wine that would make sense to wine drinkers, rather than wine academics. Along the way, I found others who were trying to do the same thing. Although I was in a way disappointed to find that I was not the inventor of such an approach, it was also comforting to realize that others were hearing this same question in the market.

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After all as Woody Allen said, more or less: "It's a wonderful thing to be ahead of your time. Ideally, though, about 15 minutes ahead!" for successful innovation requires that consumers can make the leap to the new model without it feeling too alien. I think we've found the right degree of innovation in the way we guide our customers.

SM: Why is wine so complicated?
MC:
Even if you were knowledge enough to decode the label - knowing what is meant by the appellation systems in Europe, or the grape variety labeling in the US and other "new world" wine producing regions. Even if you studied enough to know which vintage years were considered good ones in each region around the world. Even if you knew the competitive market price for a given wine and whether this store was selling you a good value or not. Even if you knew all those things, there are still nuances to wines made by different wineries/winemakers from the same region, with the same grapes, labeled and classified in the same way, in the same vintage year, and sold at the same price. Put succinctly, you won't know if you like a given bottle of wine until you taste it.

SM: How can wine consumers find the best value when shopping for wine?
MC:
I know my answer is going to sound a bit self-serving, but Shop at CoolVines!

However, out of genuine respect for the many other wine merchants who are truly on the same quest of helping their customers enjoy--and not stress over--wine, and that is this: find yourself a store, or store(s), where the wine merchant has a point of view about wine. A store where they care about, and endorse, the wines that end up on the shelves of that store. That already puts you in a much favored position, eliminating wines that don't fit that shop's criteria and standards for quality, value, and whatever other criteria they use (the store might sell only organic wines, or only Italian wines, etc.).

Now, get to know the staff, or more importantly, have them get to know you--what you have liked, and not liked, from your experiences both in and out of their store. Let them do a lot of the homework for you, in other words, so that you can focus on the best part--enjoying the wine!

SM: What does the future of CoolVines look like?
MC:
Well, after starting in Princeton and Westfield, NJ, we just opened our 3rd store, in Jersey City. We plan to continue expanding, reaching the many underserved markets in the NY metro area. Each of our stores has its own feel, with wine (along with beer and spirits) selections that are tailored to the local market, but each maintains the same disciplined approach to selecting and presenting wine to our customers. We're also working on a very cool web application which we hope to launch shortly, which will enable each of our customers to maintain an ongoing dialog with us, providing feedback on wines they've liked or not, enabling us to make customized recommendations for new wines to try.

SM: What are you drinking these days?
MC:
I love so many types of wine. I often joke that my favorite wine is the one I'm about to try for the first time. I love the diversity in the many styles and expressions of both the land where the wine begins and the people who make or turn those fruits into this magical elixir. So, I like trying new things.

Lately I've been enjoying aged rosés, a wine not typically known for great aging potential, but some winemakers have figured out how to create them and the results have been quite intriguing. I've enjoyed exploring white wines made with skin maceration (soaking) and exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process - so called "orange wines". These wines are definitely not for everybody, and at times even push my boundaries beyond what I find palatable...but they are definitely cool. But my great love might still be the wines of Piedmont Italy made with the nebbiolo grape - Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara, as well as the varietal nebbiolo of Lange. I know no other wine with the combination of delicate floral flavors and scents combined with the strong crisp acid backbone and tooth-roughening tannins that make this wine age so beautifully.