Three CU grads launch Winestyr, a way to discover small wineries

Bob Wilson graduated from the University of Colorado with a degree in finance but wanted, he says, "to do something I was interested in -- something I thought would be fun." That's why he went into wine: "I ended up working with a distributor with a goal to work at a winery."

While he was there, he saw major changes at his company -- which was acquired and reorganized three times over two and a half years -- that gave him insight into the inefficiencies of wholesaling. "At national retailers and national liquor chains, shelf space is dominated by a few big wineries and their conglomerate brands," he explains. "At big chains, you're getting about ten different wineries' products, and with 8,000 wineries in the U.S., you're missing the passion and smaller producers because those guys get blocked out by distribution because they don't constitute enough dollars."

During the same time period, he also took note of an important shift in the regulations around the industry. "Until 2005, you had a three-tiered distribution system that had been in place since right after Prohibition was appealed," he says. "Basically, a winery could only sell to a wholesaler, who could only sell to retailers, like bars, restaurants, liquor stores and wine shops. Consumers can purchase alcohol there." In 2005, though, a Supreme Court decision determined that the system violated the commerce clause of the Constitution, thus opening up direct-to-consumer shipping for wineries.

And that gave Wilson idea. "I spent a lot of time in wine country, and most people are infatuated with wine from Washington, Oregon, California," he explains. "But there's great wine coming out of other places, like New York and Virginia." The new laws created room for a marketing platform for those smaller wineries, which could then sell their wines directly to interested consumers.

"We looked around the internet and saw a cluttered mess," Wilson says. "There were these wine sites with lists and lists. What we wanted to do was to bring a tasting room type experience to the internet."

A year and a half ago, Winestyr was born with Wilson, his brother, John, and their friend, Scott Washburn -- all CU grads -- at the helm.

The idea, says Wilson, is to present the story of a winery since "that's what ultimately gets you interested." To do that, Winestyr presents views of the property and bottles, the story of the spot as you might hear it in a tasting room -- with the quirky details you might not get from a regular bottle description -- and tasting notes. There's also incentive to pull the trigger and buy a case -- Winestyr offers introductory discounts on the cases of featured wineries if the website's members purchase on the spot.

This is not, Wilson emphasizes, a discount or deal site, although the site is frequently compared to Groupon. "We call it a discovery platform," he says. "We really want to highlight the winery. We're helping wineries and consumers come together via the internet." The model eliminates the distribution middle man, too, because the winery ships directly to the customer -- Winestyr never holds inventory.

The company is Chicago-based, but anyone can join, though laws in some states still prohibit easy shipment. Colorado, though, says Wilson "is wide open," and people can buy from any of the wineries the site showcases.

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