Wine communities Toronto

WineAlign trying to uncork the potential of online communities

I am admittedly not a wine connoisseur. I wouldn't even call myself an aspiring wine expert. My wine-buying decisions are generally based on the price tag or the bottle's appearance. But I know there's a vibrant community of wine lovers online who are passionate about finding, and drinking, good wine. There are even Toronto Twitter personalities who are well-known for their wine expertise, including @modernmod and @SpotlightCity.

And of course there are the wine celebrities of the world, namely the charismatic Gary Vaynerchuk, an entrepreneur who has left his mark everywhere from his online wine show WineLibrary TV to Conan O'Brien's stage. But increasingly wine experts and newbies alike are turning to online communities to converse, learn, review, and share opinions about the latest and greatest. And some of these communities are Toronto-based startups who are trying to build a presence one bottle at a time.

One such startup is WineAlign, founded by local entrepreneur Bryan McCaw. The site is a free community-based service for reviewing, sharing and discovering wine - it promises to help you find the right bottle of wine for the right price.

Bryan is one of those entrepreneurs who had an Oprah "Aha!" moment that led to building a business. He's a serial entrepreneur and after selling his second business he went to the LCBO to find a bottle of wine to celebrate. "I paid $100 for it, there was no interaction, I brought it home and it tasted bad," he says. "So that was the real inspiration for WineAlign." He says the site answers the question "What wine do I buy today?" whether someone is looking for the best Cabernet Sauvignon or something to pair with salmon.

WineAlign

The site is integrated with LCBO inventory, so users enter search parameters including how much they want to spend, the type of wine they're looking for and where they're located. The site returns a list of wines in-stock at the closest store that match that criteria. Users can also read reviews from top wine critics and submit their own reviews - something McCaw says sets his site apart. "We differentiate by allowing users to vary the influence of wine critics and other users on their wine results; this is the "Align" part of WineAlign. Users can review their own wines and those reviews form a part of the aggregate wine score."

Since launching in late 2008 the site has built up a community of over 11,000 people and is cash-flow positive (the company operates on a freemium revenue model). They're getting the word out through newsletters (they announce new Vintages releases, which happen every two weeks) and social media. McCaw's also hoping to tap into the Smartphone-savvy wine lover by releasing mobile applications in 2011 (right now users can access the mobile version of the site).

He promises that the site is friendly for wine newbies like me. "For the newbie, we give them the confidence to try new wines and not base their purchase decision on a fuzzy critter on the label or the review beside the wine," he says. One of the obvious challenges to the site is that it's limited to the stock carried at the LCBO. And even that stock can be overwhelming - with around 2,000 wines in stock at any given moment and 100 Vintages released every two weeks it's impossible for critics to rank them all.

Natalie McLean

Another wine community is Nat Decants, led by journalist and author Natalie MacLean. It's not exactly a startup - she started it 10 years ago with the goal of putting wine into a social context. "I think what people forget when it comes to wine online is that relationship and voice still matters and you can get lost in all the bells and whistles," she says.

Natalie's site bombards you with wine information - how to pair it with food, reviews, articles, and more. If I was into wine it would likely be a great resource - she has 115,000 subscribers to her wine newsletter who agree. She also has mobile apps available for pretty much every platform out there.

And if you want to skip the community aspect and move beyond what's in-stock at your nearest LCBO, WineOnline might be for you. We first wrote about the site in 2007 - it claims to be the only inter-provincial online wine retailer in Canada. You can use the Toronto-based company's site to order hard-to-find bottles and have them delivered to your door.

Whatever you're thirsty for, there's a way to find a great bottle online - and from a locally-run company. Me? I'll stick to my Yellow Tail or Two Oceans until someone teaches me otherwise.

Lead photo by photosapience.


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