Posted on | December 3, 2014
Written by | Kirsten Amann
The 90+ Cellars brand continues to impress and expand
You can hardly blame a wine novice for feeling shy in a wine shop, where difficult-to-pronounce labels and a confusing range of price tags abound. Even the seasoned consumers are sure to have their moments, wistfully murmuring “If only picking out Grand Cru Bordeaux were easier… and cheaper” while scanning the shelves.
Enter 90+ Cellars, a Massachusetts-based label launched in 2009 by the intrepid Kevin Mehra, who has figured out how to turn a $55 bottle of pedigreed Cabernet into a $29.99 bottle of surprisingly affordable, high-quality wine.
Mehra describes himself more or less as a “virtual négociant.” The French term classically describes a dealer who purchases wine or grapes from smaller growers at various stages of completion, then assembles a finished product and sells the wine under a private label. Mehra’s modern iteration is a bit different, and came to fruition due to a confluence of timely factors: an economic crash, a growing stateside thirst for affordable wine, and literally too much good wine to go around.
The year was 2008; the economy had recently suffered a staggering crash. His Latitude Beverage Company was just a year old and had launched two successful brands: a pre-bottled mojito mix and Ku De Ta wines, which sold six varietal wines all from their indigenous regions (“much like the Cupcake brand now,” Mehra notes).
He began to notice an unprecedented trend while leafing through trade journals: “Yields around the world were up,” he recalls, “and for the first time ever there was a diminishing market for wines in the $50 and up range.” Prestigious wines were being produced around the world without enough consumers willing to pony up the cash, no matter how good the product, given the frigid economic climate. Surely that wine shouldn’t go to waste, but selling it at a discount was out of the question: it would damage the prestige of the brand, the quality of the vintage and the integrity of the maker.
“Where the cost per bottle of wine may be $40,” Kevin explains, “the real cost of the actual wine in that bottle may be just $15.” That larger number includes related costs—a grand tasting room, for example, marketing and advertising campaigns, maybe a Mercedes for the CEO. Mehra’s business model strips away the padding, “only selling the wine and its quality.”
To find prospective wines to re-market, “I did what customers do,” says Mehra. “I read wine magazines and websites and began to compile information. Then I contacted wineries that had received accolades. I sent about 40 emails a day! I told people, ‘If you’ve produced more than you can sell, you can sell to me and I will resell it anonymously.’”
Partnering & Sourcing
Many visits to the shop Vinodivino in suburban Boston acquainted Kevin Mehra with Brett Vankoski, an ex-pat of the financial world whose passion for wine had prompted him to make the leap to retail in 2007. When the economy went in the tank, though, and the store was not expanding as anticipated when he’d started, Vankoski decided to reach out to Mehra in 2009 about working together. The timing was perfect.
Vankoski’s wine savvy was just what Mehra needed as he began getting samples from potential partners. “I received 40 samples and immediately began tasting people on them,” remarks Kevin. He selected seven wines from different regions around the world to launch the brand. That’s when the label’s name came to be.
“I noticed that every wine we were offering had a rating pedigree,” says Mehra. “I looked into it and 90+ wasn’t trademarked.” Vankoski, like any self-respecting wine geek, acknowledges the controversy around the concept of ratings: “Lots of great wines don’t get rated, for example. But, from a business standpoint it helps convey the goal we are seeking to achieve, which is to make great wine affordable for anyone. i love it for its simplicity and straightforwardness. Vankoski came on board as a business partner in July 2009.
Overcoming The Retail Hurdle
The next challenge for the duo would be to sell in the unusual concept—an anonymously sourced brand offering no guarantee of continuity from vintage to vintage—to retailers. “Our consistency comes not from having the same wines available season after season,” explains Mehra, “but from always offering unique, quality wines. We’re very serious about picking great wines.”
Each of the wines released is designated with a lot number which can be found on the label adjacent to a description of the grapes and the area where it was made. “We’re always looking to create a relationship with the wineries we buy from.” Lot 33, for example, is their rosé from the Languedoc which reappears each spring with a new vintage retailing for approximately $11.99, four dollars cheaper than the original-source price.
The company’s relationships vary from winery to winery, year to year. “sometimes we are able to purchase enough to keep the wine in stock all year; sometimes it results in one-offs you’ll never get again,” says Vankoski. Lot 47, for example, was a 2009 Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley, California, which they sold for $17.99, a full ten dollars cheaper than the source price. “We bought 3,000 cases, and we may never have it again,” says Mehra. Lot 56, a Russian River Pinot Noir, was also a hot commodity, sold by the original source for $39.99 and by 90+ Cellars for $20. the wine was purchased “clean skin”—already in the bottle; they just had to label it. While this style of consistency might be a tricky concept for retailers, it can be brilliant for marketing purposes.
Growing But Staying Lean
Since launching in 2009, 90+ Cellars has expanded to include 36 employees. “Since day one, everyone in the company has done everything: we’re all CFOs, the Hr department, wine directors, and sales and marketing,” says Mehra. “We keep the overhead low to be competitive in the marketplace, and put everything we have back into the company.”
90+ is now in markets throughout New England, New York, New Jersey and Illinois. The brand is also sold in 14 stores in Texas, as well as a few partner stores in southern California. “Most of our business is done in eight states,” he says. “In New England, where we do 70% of our business, we are right up there with the top 20 wine brands.” the company experienced 43% growth in 2013, shipping 180,000 cases, up from 126,000 cases in 2012.
“We’re always asking ourselves: How do we grow?” notes Mehra. In summer of 2013, that meant creative new products, such as the Weekender, a three-wine pack that included recipes to go with the wines, plus packaging that turned into a beanbag-toss game. “Like Corn Hole,” Vankoski smiles. Or, more precisely, Cork Hole.\
This year the partners have spun-off two new wine labels: Ironside Cellars and Magic Door Vineyards. “Ironside Cellars is a blend of some of the best California Cabernets we taste through-out the course of searching for Cabernet Sauvignon for 90+ Cellars that sells for around $15 a bottle,” says Vankoski. “We sold over 6,000 cases in four months of the inaugural vintage, 2012.” an Ironside Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon also launched last month. and Magic Door Vineyards is a very limited portfolio of artisan wines—what Vankoski calls “our most exceptional wine discoveries.” The inaugural release is an Oakville Cabernet.
While the team is committed to making the new labels work, the core of their mission remains the rotating 90+ Cellars portfolio. “We wanted to build a brand that people could trust, that could both please the purist and delight the neophyte,” says Vankoski. “many people tell us ‘I’ve never had a Barolo because it’s always $50 or more,’ Mehra says. Indeed 90+ Cellars’ Barolo, Lot 26, was sold by the source label for $75—but their customers pay just $29.99 a bottle. Mission accomplished.