Tasting for Two Types of Wine Drinkers

One business plan caters to the wine drinker who seeks an expert’s guidance, the other to those who veer from intimidation and toward independent exploration. On one hand is the unqualified success of Vino Volo, the chain of U.S. wine bars principally located in airport terminals, and on the other, the relative newcomer to the block, Paris’ WINE by ONE, a bar, store and club mash-up.

Douglass Tomlinson, WG’99, got the inspiration for Vino Volo as a management consultant for Deloitte. The story goes like this: He had just completed a project with his team members and sought somewhere to celebrate at the airport before they all flew back to their respective cities. A fine bottle of wine was in order—except Tomlinson could not even find a low-end supermarket wine. He realized U.S. airports were wine wastelands devoid of venues catering to a highend demographic. In eight short years, Tomlinson has succeeded in filling the void with 18 airport locations and two new stores opening soon in the D.C. area outside of flight paths.

“We are the leading brand in wine tasting with food and retail,” he says. The secret is the wine flight (which is the translation of the brand name).

It is fun for customers to receive three wines at once, Tomlinson says, but the system also usually ensures that guests will find one they love. Guests learn from the “Vino Chart” they receive with their flight, the patented marketing piece containing each wine’s profile, bouquet and flavors, and they can listen to the wine associate, trained to give guests the full back story about each winery and winemaker.

“That’s impossible to do in a store with just bottles on a shelf,” Tomlinson says.

In Stephane Girard’s, WG’06, two Parisian WINE by ONE stores, customers can choose to taste from 100 available bottles residing in sci-fi-style, Italian tasting machines. Guests browse from machine to machine, accessing an attached tablet device that shares details on every wine inside. When patrons choose a wine, they swipe their WINE by ONE card and place their glass on the machine, which dispenses their white, red or rosé without so much a store associate looking over their shoulder.

The idea stung Girard on campus, when, as president of the Wharton Wine Club, he penned its business plan in an entrepreneurship class. His suspicions were confirmed at his post-MBA employer, Bain. A partner asked him to organize firm wine tastings, which then led him to organize tastings at other employers in Paris. He realized two things: he had more fun picking vintages than making slides for Bain clients, and “people were very enthusiastic” for wine, he tells us. Girard opened his first store in 2010, and his second this year.

His business idea is simple: Make wine accessible to everyone. “It is simple. It is playful. It is educative,” he says. “You are the sommelier.”

Perhaps it is unfair to compare Girard’s model with Tomlinson’s; they are at different points in the venture life cycle and in two different markets. Perhaps the best thing would be to visit as many of both alumni’s stores as possible and decide for yourself over a glass or three.

—By Matthew Brodsky

Editor’s note: This article was a complementary article to the Fall 2012 feature story “Uncorking a Dream Business.”
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