James Martin Copa Di Vino founder

Even before his 2009 founding of Copa Di Vino, James Martin had a winery, and he enjoyed sitting down with a glass of quality wine. And sometimes, that’s all he wanted—a single glass of wine. But, he said, “Even when you have your own wine, there’s always a feeling of waste if you leave the last two glasses in the bottle.” So when he and his wife, Molli, were traveling on a train in France and were served a glass of wine—in single-glass packaging, he was determined to bring the idea to America.

That was the beginning of what is now a $13 million-and-growing operation, based in The Dalles, Ore. But getting from that train to a patented premium wine by the glass wasn’t without its challenges—in food safety, quality, or funding. In fact, you may have heard of James Martin—the one who rejected the offers of ABC’s “Shark Tank” ... twice. So what was the secret to his self-made success? According to Martin: “creative passion.”

THE BEGINNING. After his eye-opening train ride, Martin met, then partnered with, the French creators of the single-glassed wine. Although they had begun a new process, it was far from perfected. The company was able to produce only small runs and shelf life was still an issue.

Before they can be filled with premium wine, the incoming Copa cups must be robotically purged with nitrogen.

One of the greatest challenges of packaging wine by the glass instead of the bottle is countering—and optimizing—the effects of oxygen on the wine. When packaging wine by the glass, this means considering variations in everything from ullage (head space) to plastic (vs. glass) to shelf life. “Packaging it differently means creating differences for the wine,” Martin said.

For example, there is a reason that wine bottles have long necks. The lesser the head space, the lesser the exposure to air and its oxygen, therefore the lower the impact of oxidation and the vinegariness that can result. (See “Oxygen: A Friend and Foe,” page 16.) In traditional winemaking, sulfur dioxide is added to the wine to effectually absorb the oxygen and reduce its negative effects. The sulfur dioxide also acts as an antimicrobial, which is important for shelf life. This is effective for bottled wine which typically doesn’t go to market for 90 days, giving the resulting sulfites time to settle out, and is often kept for longer periods needing longer shelf life. But Copa is produced to closely meet demand, and with the assumption that it will be drunk within 12 months. So the sulfites are not as needed, and they would be more likely to negatively impact quality.

To counter this, Copa decided to implement technology that was being used in other segments of the industry: modified atmosphere packaging. “We used gasses of an appropriate blend and vacuum-sealed the glasses, so we didn’t have to use a large amount of sulfur,” Martin said. The vacuum was necessary to keep the oxidation of the wine from blowing the seal—as Copa found out the hard way when a number of cups of a lot of wine shipped to a customer did, in fact, blow their lids. “It’s still a challenge with high altitudes,” he said.

Another challenge in winemaking is that the process cannot be accelerated, which means that determining shelf-life for both quality and food safety aspects can be done only in real time. “Wine is very complicated, and you have to watch it for a year or 18 months,” Martin said. “It has taken years to build the science because we have to allow that time evolution in the test itself. So we made some major errors in the beginning.” The company also had its share of recalls in the beginning.

“We always tell ourselves not to drink our own Kool-Aid,” Martin said, explaining, “You want to follow your beliefs because it’s easy to motivate yourself to move forward. We definitely followed some myths without realizing it—we should have identified what had been scientifically proven.

“When you’re doing something innovative and new for which the science hasn’t been developed, be very specific and honest with yourself about what you know is true and what you believe is true,” he said.

A PREMIUM WINE. Not only is wine complicated, its sensory value is subjective, but with variations in vintages and the natural changes that occur over time, it can be difficult to create a consistent product year after year. Because of this, the primary test of quality is taste. “Your QA is tasting it and trying to remember what it tasted like last time,” Martin said.

Those who do the tastings also have to keep tabs on their own senses, such as not smoking, so that their senses are “in the same place” as they were during the tasting conducted two months ago or two years ago. The quality analysis focuses on smell and mouth feel as well as taste, and it can be particularly difficult to do a tasting at 8 a.m. for what is more normally an 8 p.m. drink, said Director of Operations Tom Wood.

Copa retains a “library” of samples of all lots of wine since it began production, and it continues to test samples of each at least quarterly. (“It’s a tough job, but someone has to drink it,” Martin said.)

With three filling lines, the winery generally processes three different varietals or blends at a time, with two runs per day, Wood said. But the winery operates on a supply/demand philosophy to keep all its Copa cups as fresh as possible to ensure they have as long a shelf life as possible after leaving the warehouse.

Wood came from a microelectronics background, so his hiring in 2013 brought a quality systems and consistency focus to Copa. “In consumer products, consistency is a very, very big deal,” he said. With wine being a perishable product and having a vintage that changes year to year, quality controls become even more important for enabling a consistency of taste for the consumer.

Other food safety and quality controls are the filtration system set immediately prior to bottling, filtering out any remaining yeast, and a final filtration step in the filling head to ensure a perfectly sterile product. The cup is robotically purged with nitrogen; filled with the wine to a calibrated level and the headspace filled with modified atmosphere; then capped with a foil seal.

At this point, it becomes manual: the worker inspects the seal and fill level, taps the glass on carrier to create a vacuum that helps keep it from blowing the seal at different altitudes, and adds a plastic cap. Any rejected cups of wine are emptied into a stainless-steel vessel by another worker and run back through the filtration process to be filled into a new Copa cup. “We have an extremely low level of waste,” Wood said.

Additionally, even though a single glass bottle of wine equals four plastic Copa cups, the company also leaves a small carbon footprint both in its processing and with its PET #1 recyclable plastic.

With all its focus on providing only quality, premium wines, Copa still faces challenges in consumer perception, primarily in the thinking that single-serve wines are cheap wines. But Martin selects only premium wines for Copa. Although it currently partners with other vintners for its wine, the company now has three plats of land, totaling five square miles, and conducted its first planting on one of the plats earlier this year. With its design by renowned consultant Phil Freese, development by viticulturist Mark Greenspan and Mark Roser, and application of innovative technologies, it is, Martin said, “the most advanced planting of pinot noir in the state of Oregon.

“I wanted to have something I want to drink myself,” he said. Which brings us to the reason Martin is so disliked by the sharks.

DEFYING THE SHARK TANK. Martin appeared on ABC’s “Shark Tank” twice—turning down investor offers both times. Martin said he was the first entrepreneur to turn down a truly egregious offer from the “Shark Tank” investors. Why did he say no? “I’m not going to split the patent from the company,” he said. “It’d be like selling my soul.”

The Copa process is both automated and manual, with each filled cup inspected by a worker then tapped on its carrier to create a vacuum to prevent it from blowing its top.

Martin said he also understands why the investors low-balled their offer on his second showing. “But I didn’t need the money. I would have loved to be partners with Mark Cuban in theory, but I would have had to change the culture to be about his interest—the money.” Martin cited Apple Founder Steve Jobs as a role model. His achievements were that he didn’t sell out on what he thought were the coolest, Martin said. “It’s about creative expression first. Money will follow if we stay oriented to that.”

And money, and opportunity, has indeed followed. With two appearances on the show, and re-airings of the episodes, Martin’s 13 minutes of prime time have not only provided the product with significant exposure, it has led to numerous distribution opportunities. Copa has gained investors who “share in the dream and the passion, are a good fit culturally for us, and have shared insights on how to build a great company,” Martin said. And it is continuing to bring in others. “The market is in its infancy, and we want to have a very large share,” he said.

AN UNAIDED SUCCESS. Having turned down backing and support from some of the world’s top investors, what has enabled Copa’s success? According to Martin, the secret to success is passion.

Big companies often have the resources to try different things: if something fails, they simply move on. But having literally sold the family farm (a cherry orchard) to fund Copa, a company failure for Martin also meant failure for his personal life, he said. “I was in for a penny—but a penny was all I had.”

“Most companies, somewhere along the way, make an error in putting money ahead of what they want the quality to be,” Martin said. “The consumer will pick up on that. We’ve taken the higher road to create a quality product with a lower price.

“Don’t discount passion,” Martin said. “Passion creates insight into how the end user is using your product—and drives you to keep improving.” Too often, companies replace those who are passionate with operatives and settle for good enough, he said, adding, “At Copa, we have the creative passion to make a wine we want ourselves.”

The author is Editor of QA magazine. She can be reached at llupo@gie.net.