Forget stomping grapes. These savvy entrepreneurs have transformed their passion for wine into lucrative businesses.
Steve Bachmann, Vinfolio
Five years ago, Steve Bachmann abandoned his 17-year career in investment banking to open an online shop for devoted wine collectors. Bachmann himself was no stranger to fine wine -- at the time, his personal collection was in the thousands.
Bachmann's vision was to tailor a one-stop solution for aficionados within a field whose existing services he saw as rather fragmented. "We wanted to streamline the process," he says. "People always get excited when they find out the scope of what we do." The website goes beyond a typical wine store by providing expert information, community functions, and access to other members' private collections.
Bachmann knows that investing in fine wine often requires selling as well as buying, so it's not uncommon for him to purchase new varieties from his customers' collections. In total, Vinfolio purchases 70 percent of its inventory from private collectors. Vinfolio's own collection-management software called VinCellar is another way to attract wine-minded Web surfers and keep them coming back to the site (32,000 users are currently registered to the service).
So far, the strategy is working. Last year's sales totaled more than $14 million, and this year, the company expects to break $30 million. A Hong Kong office, set to open in the fall, will tap into the growing Asian wine buyers' market.
"The VinCellar software is something that wine collectors and enthusiasts can visit every day, so it helps us create a shared mind with them, and gives us an opportunity to educate them about the wine they own," Bachmann says.
To help promote his company as a veritable voice of authority in all things wine, Bachmann also hosts three blogs on the Vinfolio site. One is devoted to California wine, one to staff picks, and one to his own thoughts on the industry. Besides enabling a sense of community, the blog lets Bachmann view his own work from an analytical level, outside of the daily frenzy of running a business, he says.
Riki Kane, Metrokane
Riki Kane realized her knack for spotting distinctive housewares when she brought back a manual citrus juicer from Mexico in the 1980s and was immediately greeted by envious reactions from her friends and family.
"Everyone asked, 'Where did you get that?" Kane recalls. "I love that. The juicer didn't vibrate, it wasn't messy, and it made sweeter juice. When I brought it home, everybody wanted one, so I thought maybe I should go to Mexico, find the factory and start importing them. And that's exactly what I did."
For the next 15 years, the company found moderate success selling the juicer and other specialty kitchen items in stores like Crate & Barrel, Neiman Marcus, and Bloomingdale's, but it wasn't until Kane discovered an expiring lever-pull corkscrew patent that Metrokane hit its niche.
Ironically, Kane says, the discovery came when the owner of Screwpull sued Metrokane for making its own version of the so-called faucet corkscrew. The suit was eventually settled, but it gave Kane's company access to Screwpull's complete patent information -- including a lever-style corkscrew that retailed for an average of $250. When Screwpull's utility patent ran out, Metrokane used the mechanism to launch a new design, the Rabbit, in 2000.
Today, the Rabbit is available for about $50 at most major U.S. retailers and 46 worldwide distributors, many of whom carry their own, customized versions. A cheaper version to the Rabbit, named Houdini, helps ward off potential knockoffs.
"People are becoming very savvy and educated with wine. As a category, it's grown dramatically, and with the increase in consumption of wine naturally comes the increase in wine accessories," says Kane, who sold 826,000 Metrokane corkscrews in 2007 alone.
"Never in a million years did I ever dream that we'd be anywhere near this level," Kane says. "I just wish I were 10 years younger. I'm having a ball with it."
Chuck House and Jeffrey Caldewey, ICON Design Group
When it comes to designing an eye-catching wine label, brothers-in-law Chuck House and Jeffrey Caldewey are the go-to team.
The name ICON was inspired by House's and Caldewey's 2004 book, Icon: Art of the Wine Label, but their working relationship began more than 20 years ago. Frog's Leap, one of the most recognizable American labels, was House's first design, which he completed for a case of wine and a $200 check in the early 1980s.
Today, a second book is in the works, and the company's roster of clients spans from France and Italy to Napa Valley and Argentina. But ICON keeps its operations small. House and Caldewey both take on separate clients and juggle about a dozen projects each at any given time, charging between $36,000 and $100,000 per client.
"I like to have a balance where I'm not doing too many things in one region or too many things that have a really similar story," House says. "I just find that that's easier for me. I'm not a good multitasker. I have a number of projects going on at once, but they are all different enough so that when I put one aside I can find that other source of energy."
House and Caldewey's reputation has spread by word of mouth, and little additional marketing has been necessary over the years. House says he still doesn't carry a business card.
"It's all about your personal relationships," he says. "It's how you share wine, it's how you buy wine, and it's how you design wine."
"There are only about two dozen people in the world that specialize in this kind of liquid luxury branding," Caldewey adds. "Given a little bit of talent and a lot of years, it's not hard to become a predominant voice in the industry."
Sergio Esposito, Italian Wine Merchants
In the late 1990s, when Italian-born Sergio Esposito was shaping his concept for a shop of exclusively Italian wines, he drew the interest -- and financing -- of star restaurateurs Mario Batali and Joseph Bastianich. His Manhattan-based shop and wine portfolio management service has since become a trusted name in what Esposito initially saw as an unprepared market.
"I don't think anyone in their right mind would have thought I would have been successful when I opened, because there just wasn't a market for what I was doing," Esposito says. "The American consumer has become savvier, and wine has obviously entered pop culture, and the culture of the collector in the U.S."
To get his customers to search beyond the traditional French and Californian labels, Esposito says he had no choice but to acquire only the best of the best in Italian wines -- offering sub-premium products would have stalled the business.
"I wanted to clean up those negative stereotypes against Italian wines, and also attract and challenge the collectors' market in the United States," Esposito says. "They were almost a secret club, this society of wine collectors that were very hard to penetrate. I had to have the best wines available."
More than 15,000 wine investors nationwide currently use the company's portfolio management service. Much of Esposito's reputation is build upon his stamp of approval -- he travels to Italy frequently and personally tastes each wine that he buys for the store's collection.
Esposito also recently wrote a memoir, Passion on the Vine, which illustrates the connection between Italian wine merchants to his flavor-filled childhood in Naples.
"I understand business somewhat, but what comes to me really naturally is a real love for the product and the people and the land," he says.
Christa Donohue, The Green Glass Company
The Green Glass Company, founded in 1992, takes the term "reuse" to a new level. The company sells goblets and tumblers made from used wine, beer, and water bottles. Their patented conversion process makes goblets from the neck of bottles and tumblers from the base of the same bottle, leaving no waste behind.
"Recycling and crushing glass is an energy intensive process," says Christa Donohue, the company's owner. "Reusing it isn't. People always tell me, 'My grandfather used to drink out of pickle jars.' Reusing is old, we are just making it beautiful."
The Weston, Wis.-based company sells its glassware in more than 1,000 retail stores and on its website. A set of four goblets sells for about $60, while tumblers retail for $40.
Riding the green wave has doubled the company's revenue over the past year. But there was once a time when Donohue was all about educating people on the value of reusing.
"When people think 'reuse,' they think kindergarten craft project," Donohue says. But these glasses are not child's play. They can be found in retail stores, museums, galleries, and even at the table of King Juan Carlos of Spain.