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Alyssa Rapp Helps You Choose the Best Bottle

by Sarah Trachtenberg

Alyssa Rapp
Universities: Yale Undergraduate, Stanford Graduate
Majors: Art History and Political Science Undergraduate; MBA Graduate
Grad Year: 2005 Stanford University MBA

Title: CEO
Year founded: 2005
Type of company: Food and Wine
Location: Palo Alto, CA
Number of employees: 9

What beverage inspires as much appreciation and allure as wine? A certain familiarity with wine, like classical music, is almost expected of the sophisticated and worldly. But many of us don't know quite where to start; we want to be able to appreciate a fine bottle, but we don't know how to find one.

For aspiring oenophiles, Alyssa Rapp has created BottleNotes. Her website not only sells wine, it recommends wines suited to personal tastes with exclusive My Cellar technology, and it provides a place for connoisseurs to exchange reviews and opinions. Users can swap tasting notes over the online network, and they can find wine events all over the country.

For young entrepreneurs like Alyssa, turning a hobby into a financial venture is the best of both worlds. She has long appreciated wine, an affinity cultivated in her travels through Europe, South America and New Zealand, where she visited many vineyards. Even though she led a four hundred-member wine club at Stanford, she did not expect to turn her hobby into a business enterprise.

But while earning her MBA at Stanford, Alyssa worked for an importer of New Zealand boutique wines, doing direct sales. While there, she researched the US wine market and formed a business plan with the goal of creating the most dramatic distribution panel online.

In the conception stage of her business, Alyssa raised funds from individual investors. She also outsourced her retail so that BottleNotes would not require a warehouse.

What makes BottleNotes special?

While BottleNotes appeals to a wide audience, it especially targets the young adult consumer, for whom an interest in wine has been mushrooming in recent years. Last year, wine consumption topped beer consumption for the first time in the United States. Ms. Rapp attributes the millennial young adult interest in wine to their parents, the Baby Boomers.

"The marketing for wine has gotten more sophisticated; it's advertised as a fun, social product."

"Twentysomethings grew up drinking great wine with their families," she says. "Also, the marketing for wine has gotten more sophisticated; it's advertised as a fun, social product." Previously, advertising for wine could be stodgy and intimidating, without the lighthearted, fun tone that now characterizes marketing for popular brands like Yellow Tail, with a kangaroo hopping across its label.

But the most important unique aspect of BottleNotes is its online survey, which tailors wine selections to the tastes of individual members. Questions address how the member takes her coffee or salts her food. Then, just like at Netflix or, members' ratings of different wines further personalize their tastes and can provide even more accurate recommendations for future bottles. In fact, BottleNotes owes some of its success to Netflix founder Jim Cook, who serves on BottleNotes' board and whom Alyssa met through her Stanford alumni network.

The site offers several different online wine clubs for diverse types of oenophiles: Limited Addictions, which provides highly allocated bottles, is by invitation only, while the Explorers' Club does wines from all over the world. There is even a Kosher wine club. Price for membership to these clubs varies by the number of bottles in the package. The site also provides access to rare, hard-to-get bottles, such as estate and boutique wines.

On the road to #1 Wine Site

BottleNotes, which launched in 2005, has made a big splash in a short time. Working with local public relations firms, Alyssa organized its New York launch at Suba, the posh, sexy and very Manhattan restaurant/lounge on the Lower East Side. She provided gift certificates for memberships (some valued at $1,200) to celebrities at the Oscars, the Emmys and the Sundance Film Festival, which she hopes will help in creating the upcoming Celeb Notes on the site.

Alyssa's plan for BottleNotes is to turn it into the premiere wine site. Towards this goal, she has launched listings of BottleNotes events in California, New York and Chicago. As of writing, the next affair is the Sex and the City-inspired Little Black Dress Club launching at Christie's, the auction house in New York known for its decorative and fine art pieces. Little Black Dress, with "sexy wines for the urban chic," will host celebrities at its women-only events.

In its short life, BottleNotes has received press attention not just from food and wine publications, such as Las Vegas Food and Wine and Chicago Dining, but from style and entertainment publications such as the Sundance Film Festival site, Daily Candy and TV guide. These reviews further establish wine as a part of lifestyle as much as dining.

BottleNotes' ability to help a newbie through the sometimes baffling world of wine, along with the site's virtual guarantees that you'll love every bottle you get make it widely appealing, as does the easy navigation and simple ordering process.

Tech Savvy

In its PR campaign, according to DM news, a site about internet marketing, "Bottlenotes bought 1,000 keywords on Google. The company also enlisted search consultant Terry Whalen to advise on keyword buying." Alyssa is quoted as saying, "Google Analytics is very powerful, as it allows you to track which words are being hit so that you can really target your search words...I have been changing keywords on a weekly basis based on the results of Google's analysis." No doubt, internet savvy has been a big part of getting the word out about her business.

"Google Analytics is very powerful, as it allows you to track which words are being hit so that you can really target your search words."

Optimal use of technology is no small factor for a small, internet-based business like BottleNotes. As one popular blogger writes on Vivi's Wine Journal, is "a full blown implementation of exactly what I thought a Web 2.0 wine site should be."
What beverage inspires as much appreciation and allure as wine?
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