Perhaps you’re not familiar with Greg Lambrecht. But if you’ve enjoyed wine by the glass at any remotely respectable restaurant over the past decade, there’s a good chance that he’s helped shape your tasting experience. In 2011 he introduced the world to the Coravin, a state-of-the-art opener, which enabled enthusiasts to enjoy samples of their beloved juice in single servings from the bottle, without having to actually uncork it. You could simply save the rest for later, without the threat of oxidation.
Lambrecht’s day job wasn’t even related to wine. It still isn’t. He’s a biomedical engineer and innovator—first and foremost. He merely borrowed from that primary skillset in order to develop something that he personally wanted, something that didn’t already exist. Oenophiles have been thankful ever since. With models ranging between $100-$500 in price, it is estimated that a total of over one million units have been sold worldwide.
A decade after his initial innovation, Lambrecht returned to the scene with his latest game-changing device: the Coravin Sparkling System. As you might have guessed, the product is designed to preserve carbonation in your favorite sparkling wines. It comes in a package that contains a charger, two stoppers and four sparkling CO2 capsules, all for around $400 at retail.
Almost two years since launch, sales continue to be robust, and the Coravin fanbase continues to grow. We sat down with Lambrecht during a demonstration of of the Sparkling System in order to better understand what inspires the inventor. He shares his journey with Forbes in an exclusive interview below. It has been edited for length and clarity.
What originally started you on your career path?
Greg Lambrecht: “My grandfather actually told me, ‘Work on energy or medicine we’ll never have enough of either.’ So I tried energy first and then I went into medicine and I fell in love. I was in grad school and a business professor came up to me and said, ‘You know, I’ve got this Johnson & Johnson project—they’re trying to develop this new thing to stop AIDS transmission from stray needle sticks. Can you work on this?’ I wound up consulting for J&J and helped them to develop one of their products. It was three pieces of plastic and a piece of metal. And I was like, ‘That’s it—and it can make that much of an impact?’ I’m sold.”
Tell us more about your day job.
GL: “I work in spine surgery now. I work as a biomedical engineer and innovator. And so I identify an unmet need and I invent a new therapy to treat that unmet need. My company is a spinal implant company. It’s called Intrinsic therapeutics. I love it—it’s half of my life.”
How did your expertise in medical devices carry over into Coravin?
GL: “I developed a needle-based chemotherapy system. So I got really good at needles in 1993. It was the second product I developed. Separately, I had fallen in love with wine, back when I was 16. I remember being frustrated with the way I had to consume it. Unlike with scotch—where you can pour yourself a glass and come back to the bottle a couple of months later and it’s still good—wine goes bad. So you’re forced to consume the volume of sale. Why is a 750ml the perfect volume of consumption at any given moment? It’s not. So, the whole way in which I consume wine is designed around the volume of sale. At the time I was stuck—I wanted to learn. The great thing about wine is its variety; there are 140,000 different wines bottled every year, and it all changes in the bottle over time. I wanted to learn faster than a 750ml bottle would allow me to. I found that there were whole categories of wine that I wasn’t opening: they were too good to drink. I didn’t understand them at all as a concept. So I was sitting in my kitchen and I had a bottle in my hand and a needle from my chemotherapy system and I was thinking there’s gotta be a way to bring these two worlds together. And it didn’t exist. That was the beginning of it. Then I tested the concept for 11 years.”
Describe for us how you developed the design.
GL: “The needle goes through the cork. You don’t want oxygen to contact the wine—that’s the key thing. And the most basic element of the design. When you press the trigger to release the wine, argon goes in. Argon ended up being the best for a number of reasons. It’s nonreactive. It’s odorless. Argon plasma is a very common thing in medical devices. It’s the first noble gas, it’s heavier than oxygen. I tried everything. I tried nitrogen, which they use in the bottle lines at wineries. I was doing all of this while I maintained my day job. I was running my companies. I was doing this on the weekends: I would make a device; I would test different gasses, different needles designs, different wines. I’d have friends that would come over and say, ‘Sure it works with California cabernet but it’ll never work with red burgundy!’ So it involved a lot of blind testing across all types of wines. The question was: Can I tell? Can I come back to a bottle five years later and see whether or not it was Coravined?”
Did this development process change the way you collected wine yourself?
GL: “I went from having 24 bottles of wine when I was 29—and came up with the idea, to 11 years later having 3000 bottles of wine; 800 different wines in some form of test. I had the largest wine by the glass program in the world, in my house. And when friends came over it would change the way that I drank. I was tasting 3-4 different types of wines in an evening, it no longer mattered to me what I opened. I was drinking whatever—with complete freedom.”
When did you decide to apply the technique to sparkling wines?
GL: “There was one big gap from the beginning, and that was sparkling wine. I remember when we launched Coravin, everyone immediately asked me, ‘Does it work with sparkling?’ But when we’re working with noble gas, that doesn’t go into the liquid. Noble gasses don’t dissolve in liquid. Nitrogen does—think Guinness beer. And carbon dioxide does.
Was it a challenge to make that shift?
GL: “Without a doubt. We worked for eight years blind tasting different wines, different bottlings of sparkling: low dosage, high dosage. There’s an unbelievable palate of creativity. The lowest we found was a Prosecco and the highest was Chandon from California—107 pounds per square inch. That’s a range from 3 bar to 7 bar. It was a challenge, to say the least. And then, how do you close a bottle? There are hundreds of different bottles out there. It had to have a simple, kind of one-size-fits-all handle, so it could work with the full spectrum of bottles.”
And does it work for different formats of bottles as well as different styles?
GL: “It fits everything from a half bottle to a magnum—and it can be operated with one hand. I love my team; they are the best designers I’ve met in any industry. We had to pick a pressure that we would charge to. It turns out you can tell a sparkling wine that is low pressure that has been overcharged versus a high pressure sparkling that has been undercharged. So we went with a predetermined pressure. We sent it to sommeliers around the world. They loved it. And they started telling us that now they can restore the perlage of very old champagne. You can rejuvenate, say, a Ruinart from the 1970s and it’s like it never left the cave.”
How many times can you reuse the CO2 capsules?
GL: “Every capsule will preserve 7 bottles of wine. So it’s about $1 per bottle of wine. And now you can drink it again weeks and months later. ”
Can you share any favorite food and wine pairings?
GL: “Rosé champagne and pizza. You wouldn’t think of it. But it is the best pairing ever.”
Where are you based these days?
GL: “Just outside of Boston. We need to work on our food—outside of fish. But it’s a pretty damn good wine city.”
Trillium Brewing is crafting some great beer up there, too.
GL: “I agree with you, they’re awesome. By the way, the Coravin Sparkling works well with beer, too!”