Back in April Seattle-based CellarTracker celebrated its five year anniversary. Over that time what started as a personal project has blossomed into the premier tool for tracking cellar information and posting user-written tasting notes.
The story goes that in March of 2003 while on sabbatical from his job at Microsoft, Eric LeVine wrote a small software application to manage his wine cellar. His goal was simple – get out of Excel and get on to a web-based tool for personal use. After showing the application to a couple of friends, they convinced him to let them upload information about their cellars. Over the next several months the group perused each others’ on-line collections and tasting notes. Eric quickly realized that doing so was not just useful, it was a whole lot of fun. LeVine spent the next series of months creating an application for wider use. On April 24th 2004, CellarTracker was born. The rest, as they say, is history.
As of this writing, CellarTracker boasts over 80,000 members, thirteen million bottles catalogued or consumed, and, perhaps most strikingly, almost 950,000 user written tasting notes. CellarTracker is rich with functionality. As you would expect, the application allows users to track their cellar on-line as well as slice and dice their collection by producer, vintage, varietal, and a large number of other fields. It allows users to enter personal tasting notes as well as rate wines. The application even supports barcode functionality where users can label their wines and accurately track what is in the cellar. LeVine has set up a system for himself whereby when he removes a wine from his cellar, the barcode gets scanned and the information gets sent to Twitter. His friends know what wine he is going to drink before he has the first sip.
Of its many features, it is the user tasting notes and its extensive database that distinguishes CellarTracker from its peers. The tasting notes provide a cornucopia of information. CellarTracker members (Note: CellarTracker use is free of charge, relying on voluntary payments from its members) may post notes on wines they have sampled. On any given day, more than 1,100 wine notes are posted. A search for a randomly selected wine – Long Shadows 2005 Pirouette – reveals 15 tasting notes with an average user rating of 91.9 points. The notes were written between February, 2008 and May, 2009. CellarTracker members have 531 bottles of this wine in their cellars.
What does this information mean to you? First it means that you can join a community of wine lovers, see what they are drinking and how they are enjoying the wine. Secondly you can use this information to inform purchasing and drinking decisions. Is it a wine good? What is the style? Is it at its peak? Is it past its peak? All this and more can be found within the CellarTracker notes.
The user tasting notes on CellarTracker are not intended to be a substitute for professional reviews. Indeed the site provides the ability to link to reviews from Stephen Tanzer’s International Wine Cellar as a premium feature. However, there are advantages that CellarTracker tasting notes offer that professional reviews cannot. The main one is that CellarTracker reviews are much more dynamic. Whereas most of the major publications can only take a look at a wine once, give it a score, and move on, CellarTracker users can see reviews from when a wine is first released to years down the road, sometimes by the same person. Additionally, the user reviews can cover much more ground than most publications can ever hope to given that there is a world full of consumers instead of a single person dedicated to an area. While the reviews are not generally from professionals, the abundance of reviews and the ability to key in on particular users whose tastes are similar to your own helps to compensate for this.
Given that LeVine is a Seattle resident and that Washington is wine country, CellarTracker’s users include a significant number of Washingtonians and people who consume Washington wine. More than 285,000 bottles of Washington wine have been catalogued or consumed in the CellarTracker database, representing more than 17,000 individual wines. There are over 31,000 Washington wine tasting notes that have been written in the last five years. To emphasize how dynamic these tasting notes are compared to professional reviews, in the thirty plus years Wine Spectator has been reviewing Washington wine, they have a total of 5,907 wine reviews. While CellarTracker has an abundance of Washington wine in the database, LeVine’s personal collection is more focused on the wines of Bordeaux and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He states that Betz Family Winery and Cadence are among his favorites from Washington.
In the next several months, CellarTracker will be undergoing two major changes. The first is a user interface overhaul. Since its inception, CellarTracker has been focused mainly on functionality – LeVine envisioned the software as a “productivity tool” – rather than looks and usability. By LeVine’s own admission, the application looks dated by today’s standards and can be somewhat intimidating to use.
For the UI design, LeVine has partnered with Seattle-based Fellswoop. The redesign has been a major undertaking, done at considerable expense, and has included user experience testing. The redesigned UI will allow users to more easily access current functionality as well as provide a wealth of new functionality, such as expanded social networking capabilities.
The second major change coming this summer is CellarTracker’s partnership with Vinfolio Marketplace, an on-line marketplace for buying and selling privately owned wines. Collectively CellarTracker and Vinfolio have 12 million bottles in user’s cellars worth over $2 billion, including many rare and hard to find wines. This partnership will allow CellarTracker members to anonymously list bottles they wish to sell and look at community member’s available bottles. Once a deal is struck, the seller ships the bottle to Vinfolio who verifies it and sends it along to the purchaser. This capability will mark a radical expansion of CellarTracker’s functionality.
Last month I sat down for coffee with LeVine and talked about CellarTracker’s history and the upcoming changes. This included a look at the new design which currently includes both working software and screenshot mockups (LeVine is coding the application as you read this).
The redesigned application is nothing short of breathtaking. Tasks that have previously been somewhat onerous will become easy, such as adding multiple new items to a cellar. Search capabilities are expanded. Users will be able to more easily see and interact with other users, such as the ability to comment on other user’s comments. The redesigned application also includes a sexy feature where users can select from a list of descriptors to compose tasting notes on the fly. For those intimidated by providing numerical scores to a wine, there is a simple thumbs up/thumbs down type of functionality. In short, the redesigned CellarTracker will be much easier to use and even more feature rich for their two main types of users – those who use it to track their cellars and those who use it to review tasting notes.
LeVine is understandably excited about the upcoming changes, and he has ambitious plans for growing the CellarTracker community in the coming years. Indeed, the changes are cause for excitement. I came away from the demonstration of the redesigned UI nothing short of exhilarated. As with any major software change, some long time users of CellarTracker may find the adjustment difficult. LeVine plans to have both the new and existing applications pointed toward the CellarTracker database for the first few months to help ease the transition
As CellarTracker rolls out its new user interface and marketplace functionality over the coming months, the community of users will no doubt continue to expand and morph. While it is always difficult to say what direction any internet application will take, one thing is clear. CellarTracker will continue to have an enormous impact on the wine industry for many years to come.
Note: Levine will be speaking in Georgetown, WA today on entrepreneurship. Read more about this event here.