Launched in 2013, Coravin was (and still is) the ultimate wine accessory. Promising to pour wine without needing to pull out a cork, it meant that wine could be served by the glass while the rest stayed preserved as long as you liked. It swept the cellars of wine aficionados and the restaurant and bar world, rapidly transforming drinking habits wherever it was available. It allowed you to order typically more expensive wines by the glass. Wine suppliers could ensure quality before sending wine to an event; and shops could allow sampling without worrying about wine going to waste. Friends could share multiple wines together without worrying about needing to finish the bottles.
As always, there’s more to refine. Earlier this summer, Coravin held the Asia debut for its Model Eleven in Hong Kong. As the first automatic and bluetooth-connected model, it proclaims to clear itself of wine residue like a reflex before each use. As one does when developing a gadget in our increasingly IoT-centred world, the new Coravin was also developed to be paired with an app, Coravin Moments, which integrates a fun, educational aspect to introduce new wines to veterans and novices alike.
The man behind it all is founder Greg Lambrecht, who’s spent decades on the tireless research and innovation behind Coravin. Throughout his career — encompassing a degree in nuclear engineering from MIT, and a successful career in developing medical technologies — he’s always had a profound interest in wine. With an affable sense of humour, Lambrecht shares with us how he was able to eventually let his passion lead his work. Below, he discusses how he discovered the perfect technique to create his initial prototypes, how Coravin has changed the landscape of wine drinking — and how to avoid being a wine snob.
Can you tell us the story of how Coravin went from model one up to the latest model?
Greg Lambrecht: This was all from my basement. I worked in medicine developing new medical therapies, but I’d loved wine since I was a kid — since it was illegal for me to love wine! My interest in wine comes from variety. I like that it changes every year in the bottle, that there’s always a new vintage, and that there are 1,600 grape varieties or more in Italy alone — I’m never gonna get bored. There’s 140,000 different wines bottled yearly right now. I love wines from everywhere, and there are more, better wines being made now than ever before.
I wanted to explore a variety and I was frustrated by the fact that I had to open a bottle in order to get a glass. I was drinking wine only on weekends or when my wife liked the same one or friends were over, but I didn’t drink a glass during the week. I didn’t do pairings at home. I didn’t ever do a vertical [tasting] at home unless a lot of friends were over. I wanted to be able to explore faster. And the only way that I could think of doing that was by removing the risk of oxidation. I wanted to drink from a bottle without opening it. It sounded like an easy idea at the time. It took me three years of prototypes and eight years of testing: 11 years before it launched.
In the early days, did you immediately think you needed to inject a needle into the bottle? Was it apparent to you how to go about it in the beginning?
I developed chemotherapy delivery systems in my first job out of grad school for Pfizer. We had made an implant under the skin that you would access over and over again with the needle to deliver chemotherapy over a long period of time. And so I’d gotten really good at needles that could go in and out of things without removing any material. They can reseal. It was like a cork underneath the skin.
I had a needle that was very similar to those chemotherapy needles. You can stick a needle in [a bottle] and then you try to suck it out, but it would suck it right back because it makes a vacuum. So I was like, ‘okay, I need to push it out.’ We essentially inflate the bottle, that way no air gets in while we’re pouring. I knew that there were noble gases that didn’t react with anything. So I got argon, a needle valve, a regulator to control pressure and made the first prototype in 1999.
How did you go about your testing and development phase?
I ran medical companies so this was a weekend or evening thing. I would try different gases, needles, pressures, and then different wines. I would buy a half case of wine, Coravin a bottle, sign and date it, write the gas, the needle or pressure. And then I come back at six months with another bottle and I Coravin that versus the first one and had my kids set up the blind taste for me — they’d pour four sips in four different glasses. If I could tell one was Coravin’ed and one was not, that was a fail. And then I did that at a year, two years, five years.
There have been people noticing that the wine doesn’t taste the same after a long period after being Coravin’ed — is it a matter of using the device correctly?
I’ve had wines that were good at 13 years after Coravin-ing multiple times. There are technique issues and the biggest one is cleaning. So I say three tips: Clean, clear, cellar. The Coravin is like a glass — wine flows through it. If you never wash it, wine builds up in there and it oxidises at night and then you inject it into the next one. The more times you do that more it’ll change. So we tell people, make sure you clean it. Just run hot water through the [pouring tip] at the end of the night. For the Model Eleven, it has a specially designed clearing tool that pushes out a little bit of argon to get rid of any wine and air.
Cellaring your wine is also important. It is much better to take a Coravin’ed bottle and put it back on its side in the fridge than it is to leave it standing upright in the heat. We don’t protect wine from heat with argon. It will still go bad.
Is there a difference if you use the Coravin on natural wines?
Natural wines, they’re totally unprotected. You have to be perfect with technique. So, clean, clear, cellar, for sure. And then the other thing is that bottle to bottle variability is extreme. There are very few consistent producers, so I couldn’t use it for a blind tasting, because every bottle you open is different.
You must have a massive wine collection at home.
Now, I do. Before I invented Coravin, I had only 24 different bottles of wine. Some of them were in a category of too-good-to-drink or they weren’t ready. But how did I know? I actually never tasted it, so it was just sitting there on the shelf. One of the reasons I invented Coravin was to be able to taste those.
Later on, friends would come over and see me drinking this way. Two, three different wines in an evening. They’d say, “Can I do that? Can you make me one?” They would pay in wine, so we would swap. During development friends would say “sure it works with that style of wine, but what about this style of wine?” So then I would go out and buy a half case of that wine. Then again and again.
So as a result, this answers your question in the long form: I have 800 different wines in my cellar and about 3,000 bottles — I have the largest wine bar by the glass programme in the world, just in my own house. Almost all of them are under some form of test. But one of the interesting things about that is when somebody comes over to my house, I tell them they can go downstairs and grab whatever you want, as many wines you want, by the glass.
“People get stuck in a rut for fear of change, because they don’t know what’s on the other side of the cork.”
— Greg Lambrecht
Are there any special wines that you’ve been saving?
I have the first bottle I tasted with Robert Parker — which he signed. So that’s sitting in my cellar. I have the first bottle I tasted with Jancis Robinson. I have the first bottle that was tasted with a rock musician I met through Coravin. So for me, a bottle is a series of experiences that you can choose to have all at once or you can choose to have them over the course of years with different people or friends. It’s always fun for me to now look at the bottle and see what I wrote. See who I was with at the time. Wine is a memory enhancer. You associate it with the people, the place, the food, the music, everything. And it accentuates it, that’s why it’s been with us for 8,000 years.
Do you save any full bottles?
I put away one bottle for each of my sons when they were born, so when they turned 21, I could go wherever they were on the road and we’d drink. So one of them turned 21 in Los Angeles and we were on top of a hill — I had a bottle of Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadows 1996, his birth year, that we drank together. And I have a bottle of 1999. Both my sons are in good years. ’99 was a great producer, so I have a wonderful Italian Barolo producer for him.
So, the Coravin Model Eleven. Can you tell us about what’s new?
We took every complaint we ever got about Model two and Model One and tried to design that in Model Eleven. You can take it in your hand, simply press it through over the bottle, the light turns green, tip it sideways and it pours itself. It knows how full the bottle is. It knows how much gas to use — it will pulse the gas to minimise your gas usage.
Also, restaurants said they wanted to be able to pour one-handed at a distance across the table. They wanted to be able to set their pours, and they didn’t want to have to train their staff. The Model Eleven has two different modes, glass mode and sip mode, and you can control the volume or the pour speed of a sip or glass as you like. It also tells me how much gas I have left in the capsule, how many times I’ve poured glasses and sips, and how many insertions I’ve done through corks. It tells you how much battery is left. The battery lasts for at least a hundred glasses so you don’t have to charge it that often. It’s done via mini USB, so you can take it everywhere.
You’re right about wine being always associated with people and memories. How does the app play into that side of appreciation?
Coravin Moments is based on an idea where wine is always part of an event. What if we proactively pair wine with music, wine with food, wine with books or television. We built a proprietary algorithm from some guys at MIT that pair the personality of wine with movies and music. We have a deal with Delectable, which is a photo recognition app. It allows you to photograph your wine and you can import it into your cellar. We wanted to be a little bit more creative than just listing it out, so we map out your wine by style — light to bold and from earthy to fruity.
The app will pair with your own cellar of wines eventually, but it will also suggest different styles of wine to try. We have winemakers who are describing moments for their own wines. We have musicians that we’ve invited in that are doing the wine pairs with music. And when we get a large enough database, then our AI system will start looking into your cellar and say, “hey, try this.”
What would you say is the main success factor for Coravin?
Variety without compromise. It’s a complete freedom to drink wine the way you want. I can drink anything by the glass, by taste. I can check to see if a wine’s ready before I bring it to a party. I can have a glass of white or a glass of red and a dessert wine. I can pair it at home. Don’t drink what’s open, drink what you want. It’s what I always say. Because nothing’s open!
It’s also that freedom to serve and sell. You don’t have to be willing to throw away a third of it at the end of the evening or after three days in a restaurant. Serve what you think is going to make your customer the happiest, whatever it is. It could be Chateau Y’quem, it can be Latour. Why not? If that’s what’s perfect, serve them a glass, I’ve seen people serve three vintages of Chateau Y’quem with cheese as a dessert. It was Felidia, in Manhattan, it was ’86, ’96, ‘2006 Chateau Y’quem and cheese. It was an expensive dessert, but it was three different decades, I’ll never forget that experience and I will never forget the restaurant I was in because they did it. What’s that worth, right? A restaurant has a new opportunity to create a memory using the wines that they have.
My other dream was to go to a wine store and to try before I buy it. Now, you can. It’s an amazing reality when you think they used to sell you wine and say, “Oh, it’s great. You’re gonna love it. It’s US$60, but don’t drink it for three years, it’s going to be fantastic.” What!
All the ways that Coravin is being used, I did not predict. For example, wineries sampling wines to make sure that they’re not ‘corked’ (spoiled) before sending them to an event. For the wine sales force, apparently Coravin has changed their lives. They used to schedule their day based on when they open the bottle. Now they’re like, “whatever.” It’s really cool when an invention that you’ve been a part of has these effects that go beyond what you predicted.
What about sparkling wines? What’s the challenge there?
It’s the right gas, gas combinations, right pressures. Everyone’s at a different pressure, bottles are slightly different. Any wine, any quantity you want, any time without having to think about it, in any closure still or sparkling, faster, easier, more fun. That’s literally what’s written on the sheet of paper when I founded the company — but sparkling is hard. But imagine being able to start every evening with a glass of champagne. Come home and have a glass, you could celebrate every day. Restaurants with 20 champagnes by the glass would be amazing. We don’t have it done yet, but the company won’t be finished until it is done. And I want it to be perfect. I want the winemakers to not to be able to tell.
What wine would you recommend for people to start off with if they’re new to wine and have access to a Coravin?
People tell me that everybody starts with Cabernet and big wines like Bordeaux and Nebbiolo, and they finish with White Burgundy. I’d pour two glasses of wine for somebody: a white, I would probably pour them Riesling or a white burgundy, or a Godello from Spain. And I would pour them an Oregon or Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir — they’re lovely, fruit-forward, not too tannic. Delicious. Or Grenache from South of Rhone — Languedoc Roussillon — I call it wine candy. How can you not smile with a Gigondas in your glass. Grenache is a really easy grape to drink, which is also around the world: It’s Cannonau in the south of Italy. Garnacha in Spain. So it’s also about introducing people to a grape that’s grown everywhere, that they can explore. Rieslings are in Australia, Austria, Germany, California, New York.
The more you taste, the more you learn. And you know what? People get stuck in a rut for fear of change, because they don’t know what’s on the other side of the cork. And it’s expensive. I don’t want to buy an expensive bottle of wine I ultimately don’t like. Wine stores are finally sampling people. You could very quickly hone in on somebody’s palate if you were actually letting them taste wine. And I’m hoping that the app actually helps people learn, to map out where it is [they like the most].
To sum up, how do you avoid becoming a wine snob?
Price doesn’t matter. I’ve found that in the US there are great bottles of wine for about US$11. Excellent bottle of wine for $11 (I’m thinking Oregon Underwood Pinot Noir), up to US$120. Anything in that range, you find the whole world of wine. So never think price and quality correlate above 20 bucks. It’s scarcity, and it’s the name. My advice? Drink what you like.