Quality wine by the glass
James Martin is fighting the jug wine image of single-serve containers.
James Martin spent two years converting the ground flour of the old flour mill into a tasting room and production facility for Copa Di Vino wines. The milling machinery was left in place.
James Martin hopes to enhance the reputation of single-serving wine containers with his upscale product called Copa Di Vino.
It’s a sealed plastic drinking cup that looks like glass and contains good-quality Washington State wine—not the jug wine normally found in single-serving containers. Each Copa Di Vino cup contains 6.3 ounces (the equivalent of a quarter of a bottle of wine) and is designed for younger wine drinkers who want “grab-and-go” convenience and don’t want to drink a whole bottle at a time, Martin says.
The idea came to Martin when he was on a train with his wife, Molli, during a vacation in France in 2008. They each ordered wine from the beverage cart. Hers came in the usual single-serve bottle, but his came in a tiny barrel-shaped glass, with a foil seal over the top, ready to open and drink.
The couple, from The Dalles, Oregon, had already started a wine business called Quenett Winery with a tasting room in nearby Hood River. When he got back from vacation, Martin pursued the single-serving idea and found that other U.S. companies had tried it but failed because of difficulties in sealing the containers.
“I realized the French company must be onto something, and I contacted them,” Martin said. The company, ¼ Vin, was owned by a single entrepreneur, Pascal Carvin. Martin went to visit Carvin in Toulon, France. They became partners in a new company called One Glass Wine and patented the bottling and sealing technology in the United States. Initially, they used glass containers for the Copa de Vina wines but were able to develop a new way of molding plastic to create the illusion of glass.
Martin, 47, grew up on a cherry orchard in The Dalles in eastern Oregon. He studied engineering and math at college and worked in “high-tech” sales and marketing in Portland before returning to The Dalles to work at his father-in-law Dennis Haener’s cherry orchard. While driving the tractor around the orchard, he dreamed of developing a vineyard there and took short courses in wine making at the University of California, Davis, to pursue that goal.
He never planted the vineyard, but in 2003 started making wines from purchased grapes, using the facilities of a friend, Richard Batchelor, who is winemaker at Maryhill Winery, across the Columbia River in Goldendale, Washington. From a cash-flow standpoint, it made more sense to buy grapes from high-quality vineyards rather than to plant his own vineyard, wait several years for production, and hope to have the same level of quality, he reasoned. And, by making the wine at Maryhill, he avoided a major investment in equipment. Consultant John Haw and other friends in the wine business help him make the Quenett wines.
For Copa Di Vino, which is a separate business from Quenett, he purchases ready-made wines from other wineries. He finds the quality of Washington wines is generally high. “As far as the price for quality, I think it’s unparalleled in the world,” he said.
He uses six varietals: Merlot, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, and Pinot Grigio from Washington, and White Zinfandel from California to complete the range. They all sell at the same retail price of $2.99 per container.
At about the time Martin was pursuing the Copa Di Vino idea, a 100-year-old grain elevator and flour mill at The Dalles came on the market. It had been owned by Cereal Food Processors, Inc., in Kansas City, but had been closed for 30 years and was acquired by the City of The Dalles. Because of the high cost of demolishing the building, Martin was able to buy it cheaply and preserve a piece of the area’s farming history. He sold an orchard that he had bought from his in-laws to finance it.
According to an Oregon Wine Press report, he paid $300,000 and received a $600,000 loan from the City of The Dalles for improvements.
He spent two years remodeling the ground floor and opened the building last year as Sunshine Mill, a reference to the Sunshine Biscuit Company that owned it many years ago. It serves as headquarters of Copa Di Vino and as an additional tasting room for Quenett wines.
The nine-story building has great potential for development, but Martin said he’s staying focused for the time being on establishing Copa Di Vino.
The ground floor has areas for bottling and storing the Copa Di Vino wines. As the containers are filled on the bottling line, the air inside is displaced with an atmosphere of nitrogen, argon, and other inert gases, so that no oxygen remains. It’s a kind of modified-atmosphere container for wine that gives the wine a shelf life of a year without the sulfur and ascorbic acid often added to wines in standard bottles. The wine can be drunk immediately.
Copa Di Vino is sold at 300 retail outlets, including Fred Meyer and Whole Foods, and the largest markets so far have been Michigan and New Orleans.
Martin and Carvin are interested in either bottling wines for other major wine companies or licensing the bottling technology to them, in order to grow the individual-serving category.
“We’re looking to be a conduit for the industry to this type of packaging,” Martin said. “We want other wine companies to be partners in the development of the single-serve market, and we want them to embrace the concept of doing more quality product, rather than cheap jug wine. We don’t want cheap wine in our packaging.”
This spring, Martin appeared on the ABC television reality show Shark Tank with the hope of securing capital to scale up the Copa Di Vino business. The series features a panel of multimillionaire business people who hear proposals from entrepreneurs and consider whether to invest in them or not.
Martin asked for $600,000 for a 20 percent share of the Copa Di Vino business. Most panel members weren’t interested, but venture capitalist Kevin O’Leary offered $600,000 for a 51 percent share of just the bottling technology, which he wanted separated from the Copa Di Vino wine business with the idea that the technology would be licensed to major wine producers.
“He knew I wouldn’t sell it,” said Martin, who wanted to keep the businesses together as proof that the concept worked. “It’s TV. He was baiting me because he knew it created good drama.”
So, Martin countered with a $3 million offer, which O’Leary declined. Though he came away empty-handed, Martin said he benefited from the tremendous publicity and received many other investment offers afterwards from “really nice people—people who should be in the wine business, not vulture capitalists.”
Martin and his partner are working on new types of packaging, such as glass instead of plastic for upscale markets and different sizes and shapes. He’d like to push the quality of the wine up further and perhaps offer premium wines for $4.99 (the equivalent of a $20 bottle of wine).
To watch Martin’s pitch on Shark Tank, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0njDpwcgCw for part one and www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpb99yyfmGc for part two.