San Francisco, USA
A Certified Specialist of Wine, Philip James holds an educational background in chemistry and business. Having graduated with an MBA from the University of Oxford, Philip worked as an Investment Banker Analyst for a brief period of time before discovering his passion for wine. Since then, he has worked closely with the wine industry. He founded several companies including Snooth Media and Lot18 before changing the beverage industry landscape in Napa with his brand, Firstleaf. It is a data-driven personalized wine subscription company. Philip has immensely grown the company over the 7 years and it has also won many awards and accolades including the “Wine Company of the Year” in April 2021 along with being listed as the highest new entry to Wine Business Monthly's 50 Largest Wineries in the USA in February 2022.
I’m obsessed with adventure and the outdoors. I travel a lot, and everywhere I go I try to learn about the people and the history. I found that wine captures so much about a place in each bottle. The flavor of the wine is a result of things like the land composition going back millions of years, what the weather was like in a particular month, and the personality of the winemaker who cared for it. As I started to learn more about the craft, I found a lot of inefficiencies in the industry. I couldn’t stop thinking about different ways I could improve the consumer experience.
I had several ventures in wine before founding Firstleaf. From those I was able to gain hands-on experience in winemaking, understanding the consumer, and navigating the US regulatory system. Those experiences were instrumental in the ideation of Firstleaf and our success so far.
The wine industry is failing the consumer. The average wine drinker walks into a store featuring thousands of wines, they don’t know where to start and so pick a bottle based on the label and price. Wine is one of the most complex and fragmented consumer products in the world, yet on the retail shelf, there’s often no information to help you know if you would like that bottle.
Retailers sell wine, but they don’t make it. Wineries make wine - but with critics and trade buyers in mind, not the end consumer.
Firstleaf was built to shrink the gap between producing the wine and the consumer. We use data and chemistry to learn each member’s individual preferences and curate a wine shipment that they are guaranteed to like. Those customers then rate the wine, strengthening our patented recommendation engine and ensuring each member’s subsequent shipments will be increasingly well-matched for them. We source wine from around the world only selecting the best for our members. By being exclusively direct-to-consumer, we are able to offer our customers better wine at a lower cost.
I spend most of my time listening to the customer and thinking about what’s next. I try to read as many customer reviews as possible, both good and bad, to understand what we are doing well and where we need to improve. I also spend a lot of time strategizing on our next big innovations because that is where I think I can have the biggest impact. I leave all the day-to-day decision-making to the talented executive team that surrounds me.
Wine Subscription Box by Firstleaf; Image Source - firstleaf.club
We were just recognized on Fast Company’s prestigious annual list of the World’s Most Innovative Companies for pioneering personalization in the wine industry. Once customers take the quiz and rate their first 3 bottles, we can predict what wines they’ll love with 96% accuracy. We have multiple patents on our recommendation engine and offer a money-back guarantee on every bottle. As a result, we have grown a large, loyal member base that continues to trust us in helping them explore new wines.
We work with winemakers and vineyards of all different sizes across the globe, and we source the wine that makes the most sense for our members. When consumers come to us they often have a limited number of wines they are comfortable drinking. As we gain their trust, they become open to exploring grape varieties and regions they never considered. For example, someone might know they enjoy Malbecs from Argentina.
We can help them explore Malbecs from other regions, like Washington State, or wines with a similar profile to Malbec, like a Syrah from Australia.
The wine industry is intimidating to a lot of consumers. Many people end up ordering a beer or cocktail at restaurants because they are uncomfortable with the wine list. The entire industry benefits from more educated and confident consumers.
All of our innovation is the result of listening closely to our customers. The fact that we are a platform means we are not tied to any particular grape or region. If members tell us that they enjoy a particular wine we will try to continue offering it if possible, but if they don’t then we will discontinue it. Most wineries don’t have this feedback loop with their consumers because they are separated from them by distributors and retailers.
Beyond the wine, we use customer feedback to improve the overall club experience too. For example, many members wanted to talk to a real person about their preferences. This led us to build a wine concierge service that provides free wine consultations to our members. Members can contact our wine concierge team, all of whom are professionally trained and certified by the Wine and Spirits Education Trust to help assist members with their wine discovery.
Firtleaf wine recommendations; Image Source - firstleaf.club
Firstleaf is continuing to revolutionize the way people explore and shop for wine today. The wine industry is a bit archaic and slow to change. We plan on continuing to set a new standard by getting data directly from the customer and recommending wines they will love.
We intend to stay focused on direct-to-consumer wine and believe that there is a huge opportunity for us by expanding on what we do best. We are always looking to broaden our selection to include a larger variety of high-quality wines at different price points. We are also always looking at becoming better at recommending wines to match each member's palette and drinking occasion. If we continue to do those things, we can ensure buying wine from us is a risk-free experience for all types of consumers.
In terms of e-commerce transaction data, we take that very seriously by taking all precautions to protect the privacy of every customer and their data.
One thing a lot of members ask for is the ability to see their taste profile data. We are working on helping members visualize their own data so they can better understand their wine preferences and how they have evolved over time.
There are some innovations that have begun to have a big impact on alcohol retail, like on-demand delivery. However, other than a couple of exceptions, the wine industry has been slow to adopt technology and innovations.
Most consumers still walk into a liquor or grocery store and are immediately overwhelmed, feeling like they need to carry around an encyclopedia to pick a bottle. While confidence was historically linked to an individual’s breadth of knowledge, we are democratizing the industry, enabling wine to become more accessible to all wine enthusiasts regardless of where they are in their wine journey.
As of right now, we exclusively interact with our members online. More consumers are beginning to shop for wine on a screen. We are beneficiaries of this trend that has been accelerating since the pandemic as customers have become more comfortable buying groceries online.
At the same time, I recognize that there is a romanticism that would be lost in the complete digitization of wine. It’s why members like talking to our team of wine concierges and rave about the tasting cards we include in each shipment. The future of wine can’t be purely digital but instead should combine the best of the physical and online experiences.
Everything we do stems from consumer insights. We know that the desire for exploration is a fundamental motivator for wine lovers. Yet, despite wanting to explore, our customers want to be sure they'll enjoy what they get, making the guidance of Firstleaf highly meaningful to them. We focus all of our efforts, from product innovation to marketing strategies, with the customer in mind at every step.
We have a very generous introductory offer because we believe, and our customers agree, once someone tries the service they are likely to stay.
The purpose of Firstleaf is to enhance the joy of wine exploration. It gives me great joy to see us helping others find theirs.
Interviewed by Shreya Kohli, Beverage Trade Network