Cool Japan Fund invests $10M in LA-based wine club startup to promote sake in US

L to R: Brian Smith (Co-founder & President, Winc), Geoffrey McFarlane (CEO, Winc), Yuji Kato (Managing Director / COO & CIO, Cool Japan Fund
Image credit: Masaru Ikeda

See the original story in Japanese.

Previously known as Club W, Los Angeles-based Winc has been offering wine subscription service for American individuals. Cool Japan Fund, Japan’s state-backed fund for the promotion of the export of Japanese cultural products and services to the global market, and the LA startup held a press conference in Tokyo today where the former has invested $10 million US in the latter.

For Winc, this follows their series B round (raising $17.5 million) closed back in November of 2017 and brought their total amount of funding to about $42.6 million. As an investment from outside the US for the company, this follows a previous funding from Shining Capital in China, but is the first one aiming at cross-border strategic partnership.

Along with the funding, Cool Japan Fund will closely work with Winc through the following particular efforts: 1) Helps Winc collaborate with Japanese breweries to create new Japanese sake products for the US market, 2) Better reach to target US consumers through recommending Japanese sake to Winc members, 3) Educating people with the new experience of Japanese sake using a tasting room to launch soon in Los Angeles, 4) Shares Japanese sake-related topics through social network channels.

Since its launch back in 2012, Winc has acquired 80,000 individual users, primarily in millennials, and is also serving 2,500 retail stores including Whole Foods Market as well as 1,800 restaurants across the US. By eliminating middleman in the supply chain, they made it possible to sell a bottle of wine for a retail price of $13 to $20 US.

Winc’s three best-selling products were showcased to the press. Summer Water, pictured in the extreme right, was developed based on feedback from buyers through direct selling and has now become the best seller at the Whole Foods Market stores in their rosé wine category.
Image credit: Masaru Ikeda

Generally speaking, when you buy a Japanese sake product outside Japan, it tends to be more expensive than wine or other alcoholic beverages because of import tax and shipping cost. But Winc intends to tackle this challenge by making several efforts such as procuring from local breweries and bottling after importing from Japan so that they can keep the same price range with wines even for their sake products. “Winc members — they are typically millennials and always seeking new types of drinks — are relevant to adopting the new experience that Japanese sake may give”, said Winc CEO Geoffrey McFarlane.

Brian Smith, co-founder and President of Winc, told us that they will start with offering a trial kit, or an assortment of small bottles of several different type of Japanese sake, to encourage their members to get interested in the new experience. With regard to the effort to co-develop Japanese sake products, it seems that Winc is already in discussions with Japanese sake makers and breweries by assistance of Cool Japan Fund. Yuji Kato, COO & CIO of the fund, declined to disclose their specific names.

Aiming to cultivate the sales channels of Japanese sake products in China (Mainland, Hong Kong and Macau) , Cool Japan Fund recently invested about 2.2 billion yen ($20.3 million) in Trio, the stock holding company of high-end wine wholesaler EMW (East Meets West). In this particular sector, our readers may recall that Japanese sake brewing startup Wakaze secured a series A round to expand into the European market.