Is Underground Cellar the Best Way to Get Napa’s Top Wine on a Budget?
Their “cloud cellar” doesn’t actually involve a cloud. It’s better.
It’s early on a Wednesday morning at the Meritage hotel in Napa Valley, but Jean-Charles Boisset already has a sword out. The French winemaker, whose name has become synonymous with elegant wine and luxurious tasting rooms, doesn’t show up at breakfast for just anyone. But his presence at brunch — and the saber he’s using to open a bottle of JCB sparkling wine for an impromptu toast — are both in service of a new player in the storied region: Underground Cellar.
This wine tech company, the brainchild of founder Jeff Shaw, is a rarity in the Silicon Valley startup world: the industry they’re seeking to disrupt loves them right back. Nothing could make this more clear than Boisset’s presence at the sendoff breakfast for a recent media trip, and his effusive praise for the support Shaw and the UC team have shown for his own ventures.
So what exactly does Underground Cellar do? It’s simple: They get buyers better wine with each purchase. Unlike a standard wine store, where consumers might purchase a single bottle, Shaw offers his users a package deal. After joining the company’s membership service (which is free), members can select from a host of bundles, packages, and special collections, all with a per-bottle buy-in price. When a buyer purchases one of these deals, a portion of the bottles in their bundle are automatically upgraded to better (and pricier) picks. What’s not to love?
Since many wine lovers already have their favorite (region, varietal, or style), Underground Cellar’s collections let buyers tap into certain archetypes. In turn, the groupings allow winemakers to sell rare and unusual wines to consumers who might never have tried their offerings otherwise, sometimes turning a casual fan into a collector on the spot. “We don’t sell bottles,” says Shaw. “Instead, we have our wine experts curate the wine into collections. When you buy the collection, you’re not buying a specific bottle, but buying into a group, and every group of wines has a very clear theme to it. We’re democratizing access to the best wines: You can buy in for a price that you’re comfortable with, like $40, and get to try new bottles that will expand your horizons.”
Not formally a cellar, a winemaker, or a vineyard, Underground Cellar is instead an online retailer and digital community. In the often medieval — and determinedly unchanging — world of wine, this model reads as almost futuristic (also: terrifying). For forward-looking winemakers, though, it’s a boon, and a worthy way to tap into a new consumer base. And similar to the way NFTs are empowering artists to get full value for their work, Underground Cellar’s upgrade model works to keep winemakers’ brands intact, through some mathematical-cum-marketing gymnastics. “No one can come to Underground Cellar and say ‘I want to buy a $75 bottle for $40,’” Shaw says. “They can buy in at $40 and get upgraded to that bottle, but the price point on expensive bottles is never slashed. Our upgrade model protects the winemaker’s brand, and that’s the reason why the best winemakers in the world are leaning in and want to be on our platform.”
Another digital-IRL twist is Underground Cellar’s “cloud cellar.” Once a buyer has made their purchase, their bottles head straight to a premium cellar space in Napa, where temperature control and bottle safety are carefully calibrated. Members can store up to 500 bottles for free through this feature, and whenever they want to access bottles from their collection (read: to drink them), customers can have bottles sent straight to their door — shipping is free if it’s done as a “case,” so 12 bottles at a time. Since plenty of wine fans don’t have access to wine cellars of their own when they’re just starting out (or ever), this feature offers a safe way to collect and store expensive wine.
During visits to iconic Napa Valley wineries like Antica, Raymond Vineyards, The Jean-Charles Boissett Salon, Materra Winery, and Stags’ Leap Winery — all of which are partnering with Shaw and Underground Cellar — the outpouring of support for the company’s model was palpable. Between wildfire-damaged harvests and ongoing, pandemic-related losses, many vintners have sought new ways to shore up their business — for some, Underground Cellar has offered a crucial new marketplace. More than that, Shaw believes his platform has found success because it aligns with winemakers’ values, while helping bring the industry into the 21st century.
“I got into this business because I saw that the wine industry is largely archaic,” Shaw says. “They don’t use technology, and my ability to come in and help them was motivated by wanting to help the wineries. We partner with wineries, and we’ve aligned with their values, and because of that, we have the best wines. For consumers, the number one reason why someone will buy a bottle of wine? They just want to drink a great bottle of wine. People want great wine — and Underground Cellar has the best bottles.”
Learn more about Underground Cellar or become a member here.
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