Visitors from all over the world come to Napa Valley for the authentic viticulture and culinary experience.
They taste a great wine, eat a delicious meal, and if they are lucky, meet the person behind the scenes.
ToutSuite Social Club, a new St. Helena-based technology company, is attempting to bring this authentic experience to the Internet.
Touting itself as an online “social club” or “social commerce platform,” ToutSuite is a web-based firm that allows consumers to engage face-to-face with winemakers, chefs, cheese producers and others.
ToutSuite produces shows that allow consumers to connect with the makers of these products via webcam and social media tools, like Twitter.
Members log in and are transported to the table of “the makers” where they can ask questions, do remote tastings, learn new culinary skills and build personal relationships.
Local residents Susan Quinn and Didier Loustau founded ToutSuite
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18 months ago. Quinn said she was inspired to start the business after moving to Napa.
“My mind was blown by how cool it was to hang out with the insiders,” Quinn said. “I was really moved personally with that experience.”
Recently, a local winery, Paloma Vineyard, participated in a ToutSuite event.
Barbara Richards of Paloma Vineyard participated in a web-based video chat with potential customers, and she invited her online visitors to come up to the valley for a one-on-one experience. One couple took her up on the offer and had brunch with Richards the following weekend.
“That couple shared an experience on ToutSuite that created a bond with them that nobody else has,” Quinn said.
Quinn has a technology background in streaming media.
In the late 1990s she founded the Internet company Wordcasters and was co-founder of the online community San Francisco Webgrrls.
In Napa, Quinn met Loustau, a longtime Napa resident whose resume includes former senior wine buyer at Dean & Deluca and owner of DDC Shipping, an international wine shipping company.
According to Loustau, the ToutSuite video platform “creates the experience of being around a dinner table. It gives a sense of intimacy that you are very much invited to the table from your living room sofa, and the maker is invited to your living room.”
Most shows are filmed around a large dining room table in the ToutSuite studio.
They can also produce mobile shows at wineries and businesses.
Consumers are required to create an online membership, which is free. Members can participate in live events or they can view past ToutSuite events archived on the site.
Participants are able to buy the featured product in advance of the show via links to the producers’ web sites.
Upcoming ToutSuite shows include wineries, a beef cattle rancher, a tequila producer, cheese makers, sommeliers, chefs and a barbecue sauce maker.
Recently, the company went from “private beta” where just insiders were invited to try the service to “live beta,” while they continue to add features to the site. They plan to move into providing full services in 2012.
While in live beta, the company is not charging wineries to participate but they do plan on introducing prices in 2012.
The founders say that the pricing will be a moderate production cost and they plan on selling advertising and charging membership fees for VIP members, although details are yet to be announced.
ToutSuite will also incorporate more social media into the site, allowing members to do Yelp-style reviews, follow other members, and communicate as a community.
“What we are bringing is a greater community and a turn-key solution,” Quinn said. “We promote the event, help promote the product and we produce the entire experience. The real value aside from the technology is bringing members that you
wouldn’t have gotten on your own, and that allows you to reach beyond your current customers.”
They produce shows that feature a group of three to four producers that they call “Meet the Makers.”
During these events, the makers discuss a variety of topics that are either associated with the brands or more personal, with the members chiming in to ask questions.
ToutSuite also plans on offering educational shows, like how to butcher a raw chicken.
Participants will purchase a chicken beforehand and via webcam the chef will provide step-by-step instructions.
“He can say ‘you are holding the knife the wrong way,’” Loustau said. “Everyone can do it at the same time, in different locations.”
“It’s bound to be a lot of fun,” Quinn said.
Loustau likens ToutSuite and the member experience to his days at Dean & DeLuca where he said, “The stories behind the brands were very much a part of selling. You have to have a story to go along with any brand and any real maker has a story that people can relate to.”
“People are clamoring for that realness,” Quinn said.