by Elizabeth Hans McCrone
You wouldn’t necessarily identify Atlanta, GA as the hub of wine industry technology activities, but that’s exactly where Justin Charbonneau launched his brainchild, GrapeConnect; a relatively new website that provides grape and bulk wine buyers and sellers the opportunity do business together online, for free.
Charbonneau came upon the idea after his parents relocated to northern Georgia and befriended owners of a local winery who were looking to source grapes from out-of-state while their young vineyard became established.
Their frustration with locating available grapes, as well as growers willing to ship them, spurred Charbonneau to do research on how grape and bulk wine transactions happened online.
“The more I looked, the less I seemed to find,” Charbonneau reports.
The discovery intrigued Charbonneau and prompted him to, as he says, “get a landing page up and see if it resonates for people,” which is just what he did last June.
Since then, GrapeConnect has grown by leaps and bounds, changing and developing week-to-week as users provide regular feedback to the site developers.
“It’s in a constant state of flux as we keep on learning,” Charbonneau confirms. “We’re very responsive to feedback; I think that’s one of the most important things.”
In its current state, GrapeConnect works like this:
Sellers register (for free) on the site by providing basic information about themselves and their business. They are then directed to a Dashboard where they are able to post a listing of any and all grapes, juices, bulk wines and shiners available. Sellers are encouraged to share the metrics buyers care most about, including minimum order quantities, deposit requirements and states they are willing to ship to.
Buyers are then able to navigate through those listings to find the products they are interested in and submit a confidential bid to the seller through GrapeConnect’s Private Bid Tool. The seller may accept, reject or counter their offer through the same online function. Alternatively, if the terms of the listing are agreeable, buyers can launch right into a deal by initiating a ‘Deal Proposal.’ Buyers can register (also at no cost) any time prior to or during the deal-proposal process.
“We have the ability to facilitate negotiations,” Charbonneau says. “If they’re actually ready to push forward on a deal, they can go forward with that process.”
Charbonneau notes that his software is programmed to create a solo Deal Manager that “spits out” the actual terms of the agreement as the details of the terms are being worked out between the buyer and seller. He emphasizes that whenever anything happens in the Deal Manager, both parties are notified.
“The idea is to deliver transparency and convenience,” Charbonneau explains. “In line with being a one-stop-shop to search for what’s available, we want to be the one-stop shop to do the deal.”
Charbonneau notes that GrapeConnect does not currently facilitate actual financial transactions; those happen directly between the site users. He does clarify that sellers may indicate how they would like to be paid when invoicing and buyers are able to put in federal tracking numbers or other relevant information necessary to complete the transactions. All financial and other information is protected by a secure website, backed up daily and encrypted with “the highest level of SSL (Secured Socket Layer).”
To date, Charbonneau reports that there have been about $20 million of listing value posted to GrapeConnect, a sure sign that he’s onto something that may have been lacking in traditional wine industry business practices for some time.
“People do a lot of handshake, local agreements with sources they’ve used for a long time,” Charbonneau points out. “Relationships are important; we get that and want to build the technology around them. But if you have grapes or bulk wine that you want to buy or sell, you should be able to go to one place for that, even if you have a handful of sources you usually work with.”
For his part, Charbonneau believes the time it takes to create a listing for potential buyers, is time well invested.
“We’ve helped to connect lots of buyers and sellers, kind of like an ad hoc free broker,” Charbonneau describes. “We want to add value to the industry by creating a place where people can find all the information they need … enough data, enough economic factors to help them make their decisions about grape pricing … in one spot.
“Our goal is to make people lives a little bit easier with what they’re already doing.”