American entrepreneur and philanthropist Steve Case, 51, made headlines during the dot-com gold rush of the late 1990s as the cofounder and chairman of AOL. Since leaving the company in 2003, the Hawaii-born executive has kept busy, dedicating time to his eponymous foundation and investing in a spate of companies ranging from agricultural holdings to resorts to health care. A longtime wine lover, Case has recently turned the tables, going from wine collector to industry professional.
When Vinfolio, an online wine store and platform for person-to-person sales, stumbled financially earlier this year, Case became a significant investor under the umbrella of Revolution, a company he founded in 2005 to invest in tech-friendly businesses. He spoke with Wine Spectator to discuss why he jumped at that opportunity, what type of wines he has been collecting, and how his tastes have changed.
Wine Spectator: How does Vinfolio fit in with the rest of Revolution’s holdings?
Steve Case: The overall, arching theme is to find consumer businesses in industries that are ripe for disruption and figure out ways, often with technology, to empower consumers and give them more choice, control and convenience. That runs the gamut from things we are doing in the health and wellness space to financial services to the resort or transportation sector. But they’re all unified by the notion that new, entrepreneurial companies can be change agents.
WS: What in the wine industry is ready for disruption?
SC: The wine industry is fairly fragmented and confusing for consumers. The process of buying and selling wines is complicated and, in my view, inefficient. I think there has been progress in the past 10 years or so, but there’s an opportunity to do a better job.
WS: It sounds like you’ve been into wine for awhile?
SC: I think my experience is not too dissimilar to others. My early experience with wine tended to be drinking very inexpensive and not particularly high-quality wines. But as I got a little older, I realized there really is a difference between quality and styles. About 10 or 12 years ago, I started to collect wine with my wife, Jean, and became more of an enthusiast. As a part of that, I became interested in the traditional legacy auction market, looking at catalogs, circling the wines I was interested in, placing orders, that sort of thing. It worked OK, but it struck me as harder than it needed to be. More recently, in the past two or three years, when I learned about Vinfolio I stopped buying wines through the traditional auction approach.
WS: Can you tell us a little bit about your collection?
SC: It’s several thousand bottles of wine, with a lean more toward Bordeaux, though we still have a lot of Cabernet and Pinot Noir. We’re definitely red wine drinkers. That’s 95 percent of our collection.
I think it’s probably not uncommon that when you start learning about wine you focus on one particular area, but over time you learn about other wines, other regions, and that makes the process of being a wine enthusiast more interesting because there’s always new things to discover. Over time, the variety you have in a collection increases your willingness to try new things.
WS: Have you traveled to many wine regions?
SC: Obviously I’ve been to the Napa region many times. I know some folks there because a lot of people in the technology community have interests there. Last summer my wife and I traveled to France and toured the Bordeaux country for a few days. We did a similar trip four or five years ago in South Africa and really enjoyed that. As we're traveling around the world for various reasons, when there’s a good wine region we try to make sure we include that in the itinerary. It's fun to meet new people and try new regions.
I live in Virginia and we’ve done the wine tours around Charlottesville and other parts of northern Virginia. It certainly hasn't emerged to the same degree as California or France but I’m hoping that will be the case. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first American wine connoisseurs and he spent his whole life in Virginia.