Personalized wine? This Milwaukee company just raised $8.5 million to prove it’s the future

Wine buying is daunting for most people, whether it’s online or off a menu or in an aisle filled with so many brands that it’s hard not to buy the same products time after time, just to stay sane.

Therein lies the opportunity for Bright Cellars, a nearly four-year-old, 40-person Milwaukee, Wis.-based startup that sells wines directly to consumers on a subscription basis. Other monthly wine clubs have been at things longer, sending out award-winning wines, or hand-selected wines, or small-batch wines paired with craft meats and artisanal cheeses. But Bright Cellars is trying to educate members about which wine they might like so they can figure out these decisions for themselves.

More interesting, to us: Bright Cellars is also quietly building a portfolio of its own wines based on member feedback, even while Bright Cellars doesn’t use its own label. In short, it’s going the way of wine giants like Gallo and Constellation and creating a number of different brands with the help of different suppliers. (Gallo, for example, owns Alamos and Barefoot Cellars, among roughly two dozen other brands. Constellation owns Cooper & Thief and Clos du Bois, among others.)

Taking a step back, the company starts to appear more ambitious than might seem based on its website, which immediately invites users to take a quiz aimed at discerning their particular taste profile. Think questions like: Do you like milk chocolate or dark or are you a Reese’s type of person? Do you like your tea with lemonade and ice, or hot served with a lemon slice?

Despite the whimsical approach, Bright Cellars founders Richard Yau and Joe Laurendi insist the data they’re collecting is valuable, and not just potentially for winemakers. (Yau says Bright Cellars doesn’t sell its findings, but suggests the company might consider offering its aggregated insights at a later date.) It’s helping them figure out how tastes are changing, and, ostensibly, putting them in a better position to cater to those changes than companies that are dictating to their customers, instead of listening to them.

It’s a good enough story that Revolution Ventures just led an $8.5 million Series A round for the company. Bright Cellars’s seed investor, the Milwaukee-based venture firm CSA Partners, which has a range of consumer-facing companies in its portfolio, also joined the round.

It also helps that the company is based in the Midwest, where Revolution is largely focused on helping startups compete with their East and West Coast peers. Yau, a native of San Francisco, says he never expected to live in Milwaukee, but after Bright Cellars was admitted in its earliest days to a local, three-month accelerator program called gener8tor, he and Laurendi decided to stay put.

“I really like it, I really like the people,” says Yau. “It’s definitely a smaller entrepreneurial community, but the founders here are very passionate and very supportive and in a larger ecosystem, we might not be connected to all the pieces here that make it work.”

That Yau and Laurendi were roommates at MIT is a nice twist, too. Though most MIT grads might be expected to work on AI-driven companies in cybersecurity, mental health, urbanization, or improving edtech, Yau isn’t shy about the fact that both he and Laurendi were aways more interested in starting a consumer company. Indeed, though they once worked on a parking app at a school hackathon, it was during a wine studies course that Yau attended at neighboring Boston University that the idea for Bright Cellars was born. Says Yau, “We just realized that not a lot of people have time to take two semesters to learn enough about wine to feel like they understand it. We wanted to find an easier and more accessible way for people to get comfortable” with what they’re ordering.

Certainly, the market they’re looking to disrupt is a sizable one. According to data compiled by ShipCompliant/Sovos, which gathers data for the wine community each year, consumers spent roughly $3 billion on wine delivered to their doorsteps last year. Meanwhile, direct-to-consumer wine shipments jumped 9 percent between 2017 and 2018, to 6.3 million cases.

The outfit says that new, urban tasting rooms presents one minor challenge to that growth. It says a bigger change to which the industry is still adjusting is the growing number of customers who demand a more personalized experience.

Right now, it seems unlikely that the broader industry has the same degree of personalization in mind as Bright Cellars. If it takes off, though, that might change.