February 12, 2010 3:29 pm

World wine web

 
Eric LeVine sniffs wine from a glass

Eric LeVine, founder of CellarTracker, at Vinopolis in London

At the beginning of this year Dr Vino, one of America’s best-known wine blogs, asked visitors to vote for the wine person “who most epitomises the Noughties”. The winner was Eric LeVine, a 40-year-old oenophile from Seattle barely known outside the specialist wine world. A self-confessed geek, LeVine is the creator and owner of CellarTracker, an online cellar management system revolutionising the world of wine appreciation.

As Tobias Treppenhauer, a 34-year-old German wine merchant and blogger, explains, “CellarTracker is community-driven, it amalgamates the knowledge and passion of thousands of wine aficionados. This just wouldn’t have been possible in pre-web times; younger people are attracted by these kinds of web tools. And since wine still has a rather old and stodgy image – at least in Germany – I think CT does a lot to change this image for the better.”

London lawyer François Feuillat, 39, is another fan: “First of all, it is like an old-fashioned cellar book, only more user-friendly. Second, you can enter drinking windows [when the wine becomes drinkable, and the date by which it goes off]. So you can get the system to tell you what wine you really need to drink before it’s over the hill.”

Launched in 2004, CellarTracker now has up to 500,000 visitors a month and 47,000 active users, a quarter of whom made voluntary annual donations averaging $40 last year. But the most extraordinary aspect of what its creator proudly describes as a “deep, powerful, sticky tool” is that the entire system is managed exclusively by the obsessive LeVine and the hefty laptop that accompanies him everywhere. When we last met, in the lobby of a hotel, he was busy writing code for a new version of the site. “I’m a database functionality guy,” he admits. “When I’m awake I’m largely working on it.”

LeVine has had a keyboard at his fingertips ever since 1984 when, aged 14, he bought one of the original Macintoshes with his bar mitzvah money. “It was the only thing I could ever do endlessly that felt like play, not work.” The youngest of three children, he grew up near Boston and read history at Harvard before moving to Seattle to join Microsoft in early 1992. At that time, says LeVine, his father was mortified that Eric should have preferred a career in technology to one in law, investment banking or business.

LeVine married Suzan Davidson, a fellow Microsoft employee, and says that for the next 10 years or so friends teased him for “having a three-track mind: Microsoft, mountain biking and Suzi. I was always very driven.” Then in 1999 the couple went on a biking trip to Tuscany and on their second night attended a tasting to illustrate the differences between Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Riserva, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and Brunello di Montalcino – same grape, different wines. LeVine, until then intimidated by the subject of wine, was “blown away”.

Back home he became besotted by wine and its many attributes, some sensory and sensual but many of them intellectual, quantifiable and, crucially, sortable. In 2003, during an eight-week sabbatical, LeVine created a rudimentary web-based cellar management system for his growing collection of fine wines. He showed it to two friends who had previously logged their wine collections on spreadsheets. “I got them on to my site in a couple of days. We found we were glued to what the others had taken out of their cellar the night before and what tasting notes they had written. It became apparent that if three people could get something out of this, so could three hundred, three thousand or three million.”

By April 2004 he decided to “throw it out on the web and see what happened. It soon got to the point that two nights a week I was staying up all night writing code. At Microsoft I was more on the management side so it was fun for me to roll up my sleeves and do it all myself.” Postings on erobertparker.com, America’s most visited wine bulletin board, also helped to alert wine lovers to this new plaything. Numbers of users continued to grow, aided by the fact that payment is voluntary (today a minimum of $10 a year is suggested and people tend to donate according to the size of their wine collections). And in 2005 LeVine left Microsoft to work full-time on CellarTracker.

 
Francois Feuillat

François Feuillat in his wine cellar

Eric LeVine was not alone in seeing the potential of online connoisseurship. In November 2004 Steve Bachmann, an ex-banker based in San Francisco, gathered backing for Vinfolio, an online fine wine retailer with a much flashier cellar management system, VinCellar , originally costing $20 a month. Though that fee has since been dropped, CellarTracker, its unadorned but super-functional rival, has enjoyed seven to 10 times the take-up of VinCellar.

In the past six years other online cellar management systems have been launched but what distinguishes LeVine’s site from the rest is his level of consumer service. He answers all queries himself, stressing that CellarTracker is not about him but about its users. He will admit that he has enjoyed a huge advantage in being the first into this field on the web.

In May last year CellarTracker and Vinfolio announced a surprising alliance, creating Marketplace, an online wine auction site allowing their members to trade wine between themselves, the transactions administered by Vinfolio and a commission taken by whichever of the cellar management systems is involved.

But last month, the contrast between LeVine’s one-man band and Bachmann’s much bigger operation at Vinfolio came to a head. On January 17, soon after a wine collector reported on the erobertparker bulletin board that a Marketplace cheque from Vinfolio had bounced, Bachmann announced that Vinfolio had entered into an Assignment for the Benefit of Creditors, a Californian alternative to bankruptcy. New funding is currently being sought for Vinfolio.

The latest version of CellarTracker, launching this month, no longer looks like a Microsoft employee’s tool kit but has soft user-friendly edges, a raft of new capabilities and even a new name: GrapeStories. LeVine intends to run the two sites in parallel for the months it will take to iron out the glitches. An observer of the tech scene, he has seen too many operators fall flat on their interfaces after triumphalist but over-optimistic product launches.

And he really does love the tech work. Suzi told me that they dine with their computers on the table. (Their four-year-old daughter already has a Barbie laptop.) And LeVine is confident he will never run out of fine-tuning opportunities, although even he admits that fitting something as fluid as wine and the pleasure it gives into such a rigid matrix as a cellar management system is not for everyone. “It appeals to a subset of collectors. [Other] people like surprising themselves with what they find in their cellars.”

It is to this unruly set of more, shall we say, impressionistic wine lovers and collectors, that I belong: I could never imagine devoting the time required to enter, record and monitor the bottles I own in a third-party database. But I realised some time ago that I was probably in a minority (the great majority of visitors to wine websites are male). Indeed, many of the members of my own website are enthralled by CellarTracker, and so, late last year, without any money changing hands, we integrated JancisRobinson.com’s database of more than 40,000 tasting notes with those of CellarTracker and VinCellar. This means subscribers to my Purple pages can access my tasting notes alongside those written by the community. I am not the first professional wine writer to make this leap. Others include Stephen Tanzer (of International Wine Cellar) and Allen Meadows (of specialist Burgundy site Burghound.com) but LeVine would really, really like to see the two most powerful sources of American wine punditry, Robert Parker and Wine Spectator, join us.

“The whole topic frustrates me,” LeVine sighs. “Integration would be a really simple thing that we could do in a couple of weeks that would benefit both our sets of customers.” Instead, Parker has excited the ire of some of his subscribers, having promised in 2006 to deliver his own cellar management system, My Wines, which has yet to launch.

Does all this sharing of notes and opinion make us professional wine commentators redundant? I do not believe so. We can offer context and probably more experience than the average CellarTracker user does; but we do complement each other. Christian Zeitler, a private wine collector from Geneva, told me: “When I joined JancisRobinson.com, I listed my wines in CellarTracker according to your ratings – this showed me immediately how you like wines against how I like them – incredibly valuable to calibrate my palate against yours and to understand better any future tasting notes you or your team will provide.”

London-based Thomas De Waen, 31, who works in private equity, says professionals tend to concentrate on young wines, whereas CellarTracker members are good for monitoring the progress of more mature wines. “I log in to the site every day, just to check whether there are any new community tasting notes of wines I own. This is wine-porn of the highest order. It allows me to congratulate myself every day on my impeccable taste (I only look at positive notes) and, also, to feel excited about drinking the wine in the future!”

Certainly the fact wine buyers now have access to many more opinions, will, with luck, iron out the more dramatic peaks in demand we have seen over the past 20 years. There is already a CellarTracker iPhone app, Cor.kz but the sheer number of opinions on it makes it seem unlikely it will cause the sort of fever we have seen in the wine guru era.

Meanwhile, does Eric LeVine really not want to hire staff or sell the business? “Most people start with a business plan but I’m more of a product guy. I seem to have backed my way into having built this company. People ask me about my exit strategy, and I’ve been approached a few times, but I always freaked out in the end. I find the more I focus on the users the happier I am.”

Jancis Robinson is the FT’s wine writer
www.jancisrobinson.com

www.cellartracker.com
www.vinfolio.com

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Eric’s stellar cellar

A wine cellar

One of the main attractions of CellarTracker for its users is the vast database of tasting notes – now more than 1.2m – posted by its members. Founder Eric LeVine has shared more than 4,000 tasting notes since 2004. There are 3,000 bottles from his cellar logged on CellarTracker waiting to be tasted, 64 per cent of them from France, with many Bordeaux and Rhône reds. LeVine’s wife Suzi favours German Rieslings from the Mosel.

Here are some of LeVine’s most recent wine reviews:

2001 Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Clos Häuserer (Alsace AOC): Indice 1, the driest on the Zind Humbrecht scale. What a gorgeous Riesling. Diesel and a hint of honey are the original descriptors but the more time this spends in the glass the more insanely flinty this gets with an almost Leflaive-like personality. Wow, what an ethereal palate, rich at first and getting leaner and cleaner the longer it sits in the glass. Salty and smoky with amazing minerality and gorgeous acidity on the finish. Drinking fantastically, but I am curious to see what another 4-5 years does for this beauty. (93 points)

2003 Domaine Charvin Châteauneuf-du-Pape: I know the 2003s are controversial and this Charvin is a poster-child, I think, of success in an extreme vintage. Huge wine, notes of liquorice and white pepper, lush, forward Grenache, pure fruit yet loaded with herbs and spice and pepper. Some might call it over the top, but for me this is just in your face, ripe, gorgeous CDP. No heat, no bitter tannin, just loaded with pleasure. (94 points)

1999 E Guigal Côte-Rôtie Château d’Ampuis: Oh yeah, textbook nose of bacon and blood, absolutely stellar. Tight and reticent at first but after 90 minutes this has settled down. Singing acidity, smoke, cherries and bacon. Still tannic but starting to show awesome secondary notes. (94 points)

2005 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Great nose, smoke, mineral, truffle, mint and black pepper. Crazily complex, earthy, pure and intense. Great palate, very tightly wound, a gorgeous core of fruit to this, embryonic Beaucastel flavours, bitter chocolate, cranberry. Smacks of young Mourvèdre. Gorgeous young wine. DAY 2: Kept about one-fifth of the bottle overnight. Still quite fresh, bright red fruit, not showing any oxidation. Really great young Beau. (94 points)

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