Start-up Corner: Bringing Back Wine Tasting, Virtually

James Williams, Contributor

James Williams (MBA ’21) introduces us to MasterGlass, a new platform to connect customers with wineries and tasting experts.

Tell us more about your background and what inspired you to be an entrepreneur. 

I have always loved the idea of building a business from the ground up. Our first-year TEM course inspired me and gave me some confidence to give it a go and start a business in the wine space – my passion.

What is the problem that you are trying to solve?

I have loved learning about wine since I was a teenager sitting in front of my step-father’s wine fridge. As I got older, I put myself through a number of wine education experiences but I was always struck by how inconvenient, formal, and expensive learning about wine could be.

What is your solution?

The business I have founded is called MasterGlass. It is a marketplace that connects wineries and sommeliers with customers for small-format, in-home tastings. It is a super social format and a great way to connect with friends, family and colleagues, or learn about wine as an individual or a couple. The experience also allows customers to taste four different wines in quarter bottles, rather than having to invest in full bottles and, in the interests of cost-effectiveness, includes the online tasting and delivery in the price.

What was the inspiration behind your company/idea?

Covid-19 has proven tough for the restaurant and wine industry and they are looking for new and innovative ways to connect with consumers. The timing felt right. But I have also always loved the idea of trying to make wine more accessible–one of our most common tasting session questions is, “How do I best handle a wine list?” I relish the fact that our tasting experiences help empower our customers to better articulate what they enjoy while spiking their curiosity and building their confidence when it comes to trying something new. A number of our customers have shared that they now feel empowered to tackle the restaurant wine list, which makes me very happy.

Who is the team behind your startup?

I am currently being supported by a number of advisors from both the wine industry and beyond–the Harvard network has proved invaluable in helping me connect with individuals willing to invest their time. I am also working with a wonderful lead wine educator and WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Diploma holder and building my roster of vineyards.

How did you get started?

I engaged a number of generous guinea-pig customers from my section and study group, who attended early tasting sessions and gave me lots of feedback. After making some edits to the packaging and session format, and securing our first vineyard, we were ready to launch. However, the early weeks were not without their hiccups–transporting wine in glass bottles across the U.S. has its challenges.

What’s next?

We have had a lot of success with corporate team-building sessions over the summer, which has been fantastic. We are keen to build a customer segment beyond this, to generate a set of consumers who will return for additional experiences, because they are committed to furthering their wine understanding. We are also working on a website redesign, building a marketing plan and focusing on securing additional vineyards, to broaden our product range. I would also love to find a partner or two, who are also passionate about wine, and can bring complementary skill sets to the table; I am an operations and sales man, so a digital marketing guru would be an immensely helpful addition to the team.

James Williams (MBA ’21) was responsible for driving operations of over 15,000 KFC Restaurants based out of Dallas, TX, prior to coming to HBS. Before that, he was in the Operations Transformation team for Marks & Spencer, a retailer in the U.K. These roles were very different to the many hats he is wearing for MasterGlass, but luckily, he has an HBS foundation year to help guide him on the right path.