An app beloved by wine geeks grew during the pandemic The founder

Before there was Facebook, there was CellarTracker. Eric LeVine, a former Microsoft employee who fell in love with wine on a bicycling trip in Italy, created the website for his own use in 2003 and released it to the public a year later. In 2005, he left his day job. CellarTracker's growth popped during the Covid-19 pandemic as wine retailers went digital and consumers sought out places to learn more about wine. CNBC caught up with LeVine for the inside story on the app's beginnings — and how CellarTracker's founder sees his prospects for the future. CellarTracker made a name for itself as a place to look up wine varietals and buy bottles through other sites, such as Vivino. E-commerce itself was never LeVine's top priority. Instead, the wine app helped enthusiasts manage what they have on hand, decide when to open wine bottles and figure out what they might want next. That seemed to be precisely what users wanted. CellarTracker counts 11 million annual unique visitors, and tens of thousands pay for the service, which offers 9 million reviews of almost 4 million different kinds of wine. Now, it's expanding, along with other wine-oriented companies as consumers increase their online spending. CellarTracker got on a whole new track in November 2020 when it took on an unspecified amount of money from angel investors."What I'm trying to do now is a start-up," LeVine told CNBC in an interview. The company's headcount sprouted from four people to 13 in 2021, with new hires in data science, engineering, design and marketing. LeVine said he wants to experiment more and explore new revenue sources. It's good timing. The wine world has become increasingly digital during the pandemic. Even with lockdowns, U. S. consumption was flat in 2020 compared to the year-earlier period, according to an estimate from the International Organization of Vine and Wine. But online channels represented over 9% of U. S. wineries' total sales in November, up from 2% in April 2020, said Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank's wine division. He said he could see it reaching 20% of all sales in five years. In March 2020, wineries closed tasting rooms and people stopped visiting restaurants. Those two factors stripped out meaningful revenue sources that many wineries took for granted."Almost overnight we went from having the best start to a year we've ever had to effectively losing all of our restaurant, hotel and wine shop business overnight," said Michael Kennedy, founder of Component, which makes wine in Napa Valley and the French region of Bordeaux. Larger wineries had traditional distribution channels that carried their wine to grocery stores in place. Foot traffic declined in smaller locations, although people continued to buy in supermarkets through delivery services such as Instacart. Some wineries already had their own wine clubs, through which they shipped bottles to members. Then there were wineries that had not diversified to take advantage of digital sales.

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