Q&A: Greg Lambrecht, Founder of Coravin
Greg Lambrecht has a degree in nuclear engineering from MIT, a career in medical technologies and a passion for wine—three things that don’t seem to overlap much. But the mix led Lambrecht to create a product that’s having a major impact on the wine industry. Lambrecht has spent most of his career patenting medical technologies, including needles designed for chemotherapy. But he is also a wine aficionado who grew frustrated with the fact that there was no way to drink a single glass of wine without degrading the rest of the bottle. In the late 1990s, Lambrecht began to think about a way to pass a needle through the cork, pour a glass and remove the needle—without introducing oxygen into the wine.
A decade and multiple iterations of his concept later, Lambrecht founded Coravin in 2013. His wine pouring system, which looks like a microscope with a proboscis, works by passing a surgery-grade hollow needle through the cork of a bottle of wine and pressurizing the bottle with argon gas, which allows wine drinkers to pour a glass through the needle. When they’re done, they remove the needle and the bottle reseals itself. The system enables people to drink wine by the glass in a way that doesn’t force them to drink more than they want—or expose the wine to the oxygen that inevitably degrades it.
Since its launch, Coravin has grown to a team of 50 employees based in the United States, Europe and Asia. Wineries, sommeliers and home wine drinkers around the world are Coravin converts. Worth spoke with Lambrecht about how his love of wine led him to change an industry.
Q: When did your interest in wine develop?
I was born in New York, but when I was 11 I moved to the exact opposite of Manhattan: Newport Beach, Calif. When I was on a break from college at MIT, my friends took me on a tour of Napa Valley. The very first winery I walked into was Peju, and they were launching their first vineyard out of a barn. I remember tasting their wine and going, “That is just absolutely amazing.”
When did you begin to collect?
I was working with different surgeons developing products, and they would celebrate first surgeries and first uses of new devices by giving me a bottle of wine. I’d collected probably 40 to 50 different bottles.
When did the idea for the Coravin come to you?
I remember sitting in my cellar one day when my wife was pregnant with our second child. She had stopped drinking, so I had all these bottles in front of me that were all in that category of “too good to drink.” What I really wanted to do was taste five or six of them. I was frustrated with the fact that I had to consume wine in the volume that it was sold to me.
So you started developing the first iteration of the Coravin?
Yes. I had gotten really good at designing needles that went through things but didn’t do damage. I thought, well I definitely need to get a needle through the cork. Cork is this amazing wine preservation system—it’s been in bottles since the 1660s. It’s a really well tested, very effective way of preserving wine. And I thought if I could just leave it in place and drink past it, then I could drink whatever quantity I wanted without disrupting the package and its purpose, which was to preserve the wine. My dream was to be able to put it back on the shelf and drink it again in a couple of years and have it not be different from a bottle that hadn’t been touched.
How long did product development take?
I came up with the idea in 1999 and developed the first really good prototype in 2003. I would sample a bottle out of a half case, then I’d come back and sample it a month later along with a new bottle of the same wine and see if I could tell the difference. I’d repeat that test at six months, one year, two years, five years. When I couldn’t tell the difference at five years, I thought I had the system right.
How did you come up with the name?
My 3-year-old son originally called it the Wine Mosquito, which, if you’re a 3-year-old kid, makes a lot of sense. But mosquitos are bad for your health and people generally don’t like them, so we weren’t going to launch under that name. I knew cor is the Latin root for heart, and vin is wine, so I thought okay, well we’re trying to get at the heart of wine.
How did you launch Coravin?
When you launch a technology that’s as disruptive as Coravin into a market that is both very old and traditional and very passionate, you’re going to engender passionate response. We knew that there were some key influencers in the world of wine that it would be wise to get on our side. We focused on top wine producers because we knew we were going to be using our product on theirs. The last thing in the world we wanted to have happen was for them to find out about our product from somebody else and form a quick, passionate and uninformed opinion.
So we started the blind tasting series that I had done at home with them and their wines. Before we launched, we generally had done the six-month wine tasting, so at least they knew that it worked. Whether they liked what it did or not was a separate thing, but at least they knew that it worked.
We did the same with sommeliers.
So what have restaurants, sommeliers and home users said about how the Coravin has changed the way they drink or sell wine?
Restaurants and sommeliers embraced Coravin from the beginning because it allowed them to expand their wine-by-the-glass programs without fear of wasted wine. Restaurant patrons can then enjoy a broader selection of premium wines and can pair multiple wines with their meal instead of committing to just one bottle. Home users have said that Coravin offers them independence in their wine drinking. They can now enjoy one glass without having to finish the bottle and the age-old dispute of picking red vs. white with dinner is now obsolete —you can have both. Coravin has also changed the thinking of wine as only a social activity; anyone with a Coravin can now relax and enjoy any glass of wine, whenever they want, with whoever they want—friends, significant others or alone.
Coravin recently released the Model Two Wine System. What’s different from the original?
Once we launched [the original], we had the opportunity to interact with wineries, restaurants and people at home, and our marketing group made it part of their effort to hear every complaint they had. I think with the Model 1000 [now called the Model 8], we launched almost the industrial-ready Coravin. I consider the Coravin Two really the ultimate home version.
The clamp is a whole lot easier to use, particularly for women, because we had a lot of complaints about the force necessary to use the thing. The way you thread the [argon] capsule on is much more intuitive. And most important, the flow rate is faster. It’s interesting—you could have a bottle of wine from the 1960s that has waited 50 years to get to the present and use a Coravin on it and people would say, “25 seconds to pour a glass?”.
Let’s say you have three wines to drink using a Coravin. What do you pick?
I’m an enormous white Burgundy fan. I once had a 1985 Chevalier Montrachet from Domain Leflaive with the producer—that was such a great wine. There’s a diminishing number, and I’d like to try that one again. I’ve had the great fortune of drinking a lot of 1961 Chateaux La Mission Haut Brion. My grandfather-in-law collected it, and it’s one of the first bottles I Coravin-ed with him back in 2006, when it was still in the development phases. Every time I taste that wine, I think of him. The wine that really taught me what could happen with wine, and how it was such a human collaboration with nature, was a 1990 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage. I tasted it four or five times over the bottle’s lifespan. It’s like this creature that goes through phases and changes completely. It’s an amazing achievement that whoever makes it knows that that is going to happen.