In 1986, Christy Serrato was a founding fellow for the nonprofit Sacramento Entrepreneurship Academy. More than 30 years later, after decades working in Silicon Valley, she moved back to the Capital Region and became the academy’s newest program director. With her experience in solution marketing and business development in IT security, Serrato believed she could give back and help guide aspiring business owners.
But she did more than that during one of her first sessions.
While teaching a group how to engage the audience during a business presentation, Serrato used an off-the-cuff example about how wine and food, when paired well, can create a memorable dining experience.
“The audience reacted to it,” Serrato recalls. “I had no intention of making this a business at the time. Sometimes it’s a spontaneous moment and you’re just trying to be of service to someone.”
Despite eclipsing $70 billion in value in 2018, the U.S. wine industry is made up mostly of small- to mid-sized, family-owned wineries that haven’t yet tapped into the marketing power of digital tools, she says. But Serrato believes her Davis-based startup, PairAnything, is a bridge between the organic, age-old world of wine culture and the technology of today. The platform in the works helps wineries connect with customers beyond the tasting room by guiding customers on wine and food pairings.
“Discovering that magical combination of two different tastes when combined together … create a balance between components of a dish and characteristics of a wine is truly magical,” she says.
Serrato says food and wine pairings enhance the dining experience, and the classic ones (e.g. blue cheese with port, lobster with chardonnay) represent the wisdom of history. Serrato used her expertise as a former banker (specializing in credit and investment underwriting) to create algorithms that provide consumers with recommendations on wine and food pairings based on their preferences. For instance, if you enter lasagna into the platform, you’ll get three personalized wine recommendations that pair well with this dish (if you’re not a white wine fan, you won’t receive white wine options). The platform will then also refer you to the sponsoring winery for potential purchases.
PairAnything, run by an eight-person team, won the $10,000 Food + Agriculture Sector Award at the 2019 Big Bang Business Competition at UC Davis. Bill Davies, director at Schramsberg Vineyards in Calistoga, was a judge at the 2018 Big Bang competition and has seen Serrato’s pitch evolve. He admires Serrato’s diligence and the business model for PairAnything, which taps into a global trend of collecting data and analytics to improve customer service and satisfaction.
“I think we have to recognize how much things are changing in respect to the future of wine business,” says Davies, who also lectures about wine at Cal Poly and studies industry trends. “Most wineries don’t really have any kind of mobile strategy.”
Small wineries rely on direct-to-consumer sales, where 60 percent of sales come from tasting rooms and wine clubs, Serrato says. But as technology continues to affect all kinds of industries, Serrato says the wine industry will have to adapt if it wants to grow.
“Success comes from loyal customers, but retiring baby boomers are being replaced by millennials, and younger people don’t want to commit to a wine club,” Serrato says. “PairAnything helps extend the experience beyond the tasting room.”
The wine industry relies heavily on physical visits to a specific site, but Davies sees the PairAnything platform as a necessary generational shift. Not only will it help consumers better understand the product, but also give wineries wider access to more consumers.
“For me, I think there are a lot of consumers for whom wine pairings are mysterious territory they don’t understand, and they’re looking for help,” he says. “As (PairAnything) evolves and as you get more adoption and data points with consumers interacting, you have the power of being a resource of information. To me that’s the key to where this could lead in the future.”
Serrato understands the complicated challenges that come with raising funds as a woman in business. (“Instead of bootstrapping, I call it ‘heel-strapping’ because that’s what women do,” she says.) In July, she launched a campaign for equity crowdfunding to raise $50,000, which will go toward developing the platform and accelerating customer acquisition. By September, she expects to have completed the campaign with a goal to launch the platform by the end of the year with about 10 pilot wineries.
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