'About 20 years ago," recalls Women & Wine founder Julie Brosterman, "I worked at Windows on the World in New York. Kevin Zraly" -- author of the famed Windows on the World Complete Wine Course -- "had the office next to mine. He said, 'If you want to learn about wine, come and pour for the wine school classes.' And I did." And that might have been the end of it -- a splendid introduction, providing an enhanced personal enjoyment of the grape.
But then, "about 16 months ago, I read an article in the New York Times' travel section about women traveling together for spa and adventure travel. This was a growing trend -- to celebrate newfound wealth, to celebrate their independence. I turned to my husband and said, 'Why isn't anybody doing this as a go-to source for women who want to learn about wine?' There's that great creation of a memory over sharing this or that glass. And, of course, traveling to wine country is an incredible experience, and there's the bonding that happens over that learning."
Brosterman fired herself from her job as a strategist, then hired herself as if she were a client of her old firm. "The more I peeled the onion back, the more I realized that women were dominant consumers, making mostly anonymous purchases in supermarkets. There weren't a lot of trusted sources to talk to them in a personal yet aspirational way."
Her first website, launched in February of '05, was just a toe in the water -- Girlfriends' Getaway. The water, as it turned out, was fine -- and more than fine. "With the zeitgeist moment of Sideways and Desperate Housewives, the media response was pretty overwhelming. People were really excited."
Initially, the site sought to offer custom travel packages for groups of women interested in wine-related travel. The itinerary for a May 2005 trip to Santa Barbara gives a sense of things: arrive at Simpson House Inn, taste Rabbit Ridge wines, and hear a lecture on Santa Barbara winemaking history. Early-evening excursion to the city's wonderful Wine Cask wine store for a session on how to buy wine in a retail shop. "We lock travelers in a wine shop with a glass of Champagne and watch them cringe over, 'Why do I feel like I have two heads?'"
But things change for the terrified tourists "after tasting and being able to say what they like and don't like, and having had someone explain to them the kinds of questions they should ask, and that the wine retailer can be your best ally in helping to facilitate dinner parties. They usually become comfortable and just start shopping. You know, women like to buy things, and when they get some experience under their belt, wine is one of those things. They get very excited about finding new things, expanding their horizons," and further, spending outside the supermarket range. "Women wear Manolo Blahnik shoes; they carry beautiful handbags. There's really that trend of treating themselves well. I don't think that they're put off by a beautiful wine that has a very high price."
After the session, dinner at the Wine Cask restaurant with the winemakers from Curran, Sea Smoke, Cold Heaven, and Sanford. "At the end of the two or three days, the winemakers are all personal friends with the guests, and the guests are calling them by their first names. It's a very different experience -- real accessibility." Next day, it's vineyard tours and more tasting. But the trip also allows time for other sorts of shopping, garden tours, spa treatments, hiking...
The group tours were phase one. Phase two sought to cater to solo women travelers who wanted "a kind of Women & Wine experience. We reached out to our hotel partners to create signature packages. If a woman was on a business trip in San Francisco and wanted to go to Napa for the weekend, either alone or with a colleague," she could sign on and let the package take care of the details. That led to phase three -- custom trips put together by the company, open to anybody. Well, maybe not just anybody: "We have one on our website right now, a very behind-the-scenes trip in Sonoma. Based on the price and the type of people that they're going to be meeting, we feel that it's going to be people who are pretty savvy about wine."
But such events are the exception; the general theme of Women & Wine is one of inclusion -- this wine thing is good for us all. That led to phase four (the company is nothing if not adaptable) -- bringing Women & Wine into the home. "As I peeled the onion back more and more, I realized that we could be a trusted source for women on the Web. We almost had an obligation to bring more to people, whether they could travel with us or just experience it at home."
The current form of the Women & Wine website launched in November of '05. Brosterman had a team by then and began posting regular updates of original content. "Our message is all about connecting and comfort, finding what you like, and 'Wine should be more fun!'"
Among other features, she says, "We have a radio show. We all walk around with digital tape recorders all the time. I just came back from the Food and Wine Classic in Aspen, and two weeks ago, I was at the Napa Valley Vintner's Auction. I got a great interview with Gael Greene" -- restaurant critic for New York magazine -- "which was a thrill for me."
Resident wine guru Lisa Kring does a segment entitled "Angel in the Aisle." "We ask a woman with glazed eyes in the aisle of either a grocery store or a wine shop if we can help make a suggestion. We find out why there's so much confusion -- mostly, it's because there are so many choices." Kring asks a few questions to determine an appropriate choice, makes a suggestion, and then buys the wine, as a thank-you "for being such a good sport. What we really want to do is create experiences and give people the confidence to make their own choices."
Which is not to say that Women & Wine is above recommending bottles. In the effort to "bring the experience home," Brosterman says she "analyzed the person who was probably our core constituent and realized that it was someone who was probably a member of a book club -- because rather than reading the book and talking about it, when they get together, it's mostly about connecting with friends and drinking wine."
But which wine? "People have said to us that it's hard enough to figure out what to read on a monthly basis, and then they stand in a wine store, eyes completely blurred, trying to figure out what wines to bring."
So, the site recently debuted "Reading Glasses," a book-club wine club. You let them know what you're reading, Women & Wine picks a relevant wine for your book (The Da Vinci Code gets paired with a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, natch), and sends an appropriate quantity for the size of your club, along with tasting notes and an explanation of their selection. "Also, we're going to list some of our favorite books," along with pairing suggestions. "The book club can become a little tasting group," says Brosterman, "learning about wine and connecting over that, as well as sharing in the love of reading."
And it will surely come as no surprise to hear that the company isn't stopping there. "We create events where the story of the wine is incorporated into the event, so that people really have that takeaway" about what it was they drank. "And we're going to be doing some consulting for one of the major luxury hotel chains -- they're launching a by-the-glass program. People write us every day and tell us they can't wait to see the next thing that's going to be coming down the pike."