Boston entrepreneur sells top wines at discount prices with one catch: He can’t reveal who makes them.
Kevin Mehra is a New World négociant.
That means he scours the globe for top-notch wine that other producers can’t sell, negotiates a bargain price, slaps his 90+Cellars label on the bottles, and offers them to customers at a steep discount.
Mehra’s company, 90+Cellars, is one of a growing number of businesses taking advantage of the wine glut that resulted from the economic downturn. In less than two years, 90+Cellars, based in Boston, has generated nearly $5 million in revenue and helped change how many consumers buy wine.
While wineries kept bottling during the recession, sales of high-priced vintages — over $20 — plummeted. Many producers needed to unload older wines to make way for new ones approaching the bottling stage, or were forced to sell off inventory for cash after banks clamped down on credit lines. Some Australian vintners became so desperate that they ripped up vineyards rather than pay for maintenance. In France, they converted wine into ethanol because it was more profitable.
Other producers took to selling surplus wine at a discount to people like Mehra, in return for anonymity. Mehra and several others have capitalized by creating their own brands and selling small batches of wine, while doling out few details about its origins. For instance, someone who buys a bottle of 90+ Cabernet might actually be enjoying wine from a renowned Napa producer. Many high-end wineries are reluctant to put on sale bottles bearing their own labels, fearing it would damage their reputations and undercut their full-priced products.
90+Cellars tries to distinguish itself from the competition by only carrying finished wines that have received a gold medal or 90-plus rating in a past vintage. The company’s name is derived from the high scores that the trade publication Wine Spectator and other industry critics confer upon top-tier wines. 90+Cellars promises to keep the wineries’ names secret in exchange for hefty discounts — savings that are passed on to customers.
It’s a modern take on the traditional négociant — the French term for wine merchants who collect the grapes of smaller winemakers and growers, blend them into wines, and sell them under their own umbrella. Louis Jadot is one of the leading Burgundy négociants, and Georges Duboeuf is among the top Beaujolais merchants with a proprietary label. Négociants often must sign nondisclosure agreements.
“You’re paying for the wine. You’re not paying for the label,’’ said Mehra, who previously worked for a spirits company. “We are making unapproachable and unaffordable wines more accessible.’’
Upon release, each 90+Cellars wine is assigned a “lot’’ number. Each lot is defined as a particular wine from a winery. Instead of telling a story about the prestigious winemaker and precious soil, the labels offer only vague descriptions. For example, Lot 31, a 2009 Pinot Noir from California, is touted as coming from “the cool and breezy hills of Carneros, a place where Pinot grapes develop to near perfection . . . from a producer with three decades of Pinot Noir winegrowing experience.’’
The 2007 vintage received a rating of 90 points from Wine Spectator. In bottles that display the original label, the 2009 vintage typically costs $35, compared with $18 from 90+Cellars. The company also features a “collectors series’’ of wines that normally retail for over $50. In one week, 90+Cellars sold all 444 cases of its Lot 26 Italian Barolo. Each bottle cost about $25, compared with the original price of $75.
90+Cellars has seven employees who work out of a threadbare office on the top floor of the Harpoon Brewery, which recently made a modest investment in the private company. During a recent tasting, Mehra sat with his employees, merchants, and a local blogger around a wooden table crowded with bottles. For two hours, they sniffed, swirled, sipped, and spat out more than a dozen vintages, including an Italian Prosecco, a Spanish Cava, a North Coast California sparkling wine, and Rosé sparkling selection. After two previous tastings failed to produce a standout, Mehra and his crew deemed the North Coast vintage tasty enough to advance to the second round.
When Mehra started the company, he contacted every winery that had produced vintages rated at 90 or above by Wine Spectator. He now buys most of his wine from the bulk market — which acts as a link between growers, wineries, and brands such as 90+Cellars.
When 90+Cellars considers a new vintage, it conducts at least two tastings before committing. Then, the company gets six samples to use as standards to later test against the shipment to ensure they are the same.
Seasoned négociants like Cameron Hughes, who built a massive wine empire using the lot concept, have run into unscrupulous sellers. Hughes said he once rejected a container of Australian Shiraz because lab tests revealed it didn’t match what was promised.
“I can’t afford to screw up. I’m only as good as my last lot,’’ said Hughes, who counts Costco as a major client. “We have to continue to convince people to try other lots.’’
Hughes took aim at 90+Cellars for “mimicking’’ his concept. And he called it “a little disingenuous’’ because the vintages the company sells are not all rated at 90 points or above; they only come from a line of wines that have received that honor.
But Martin Blackman, wine buyer for the Whole Foods grocery store in Dedham, stands by 90+Cellars. With so much extra wine on the market, he said, the quality being offered by some négociants can be suspect, but that’s not the case with Mehra’s company.
“You are getting quality wines at a very fair price,’’ Blackman said.
Blackman also does his own homework and is sometimes able to deduce the name-brand behind a generic label. “I’ve figured a few of them out,’’ he said. “They never say if I am right or wrong.’’
It’s a trade-off that more wine drinkers are willing to make.
At a recent tasting at Whole Foods, 90+Cellars sold 15 cases in just three hours. Toinette ter Haar of Newton walked away with six bottles, despite some hesitation because she did not know the precise origins of what she bought.
“It’s sort of the off-price clothing model for wine — how T.J. Maxx goes in and buys all the designer stuff at great prices,’’ ter Haar said. “I’m always looking for good value on wine.’’
Despite the success of the marketing strategy, some vintners will go to great lengths to hide their ties to négociants. For instance, an Argentinian winery sold Mehra 600 cases of Torrontes at a sizeable discount, but after the producer shipped them to Boston — affixed with 90+Cellars labels — the winemaker discovered the corks revealed the winery’s name. Rather than risk exposure, the vintner bought back the cases at full price.
“That was Lot 5,’’ Mehra said. “It was the quickest profit we ever made.’’
Jenn Abelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.