Have you ever thought to yourself, “Do we really need the whole bottle of wine? Couldn’t we just have a couple of glasses?”
Local business owner Armando Luis struggled with these questions nine years ago and went searching for the answers.
In 2006, he sold his first wine preservation system, Vinfinity, to a local bar. Since then the invention has been changing the way wine is served. Just ask Bobby Flay and Wolfgang Puck.
“I feel that sooner of later this concept will revolutionize wine.” – Armando Luis
“They know they’re going to lose the wines,” he said. “Losses are going to mount [because] 99.9 percent of all wines [exposed to air] are significantly diminished within 24 hours.”
Wines sold by the glass are usually exposed to air, unless the bartender hand-pumps the air out after every pour.
He said the wineries take precautions to protect the wine from oxygen, heat, and sunlight. During warehousing, the same measures are taken, but once the wine gets to the bar, anything goes. A glass is poured, a cork traps the air in the bottle, and it might be days before the bottle is touched again.
“Maybe it’s a little bit bad. Maybe it’s completely spoiled,” he said. “We feel that if you overcome the preservation issue, the natural way to sell wine is by the glass. If you’re going to order three courses, why not have more than one wine?”
Letting the air out
The co-owner of Sparrow Wine and Liquors in Hoboken, Luis’ family also bought the Brass Rail in 2000.
“I’m out there looking for a [wine preservation] system [for the Brass Rail], and pretty much everything out there didn’t work at all, or it was too expensive, or it was too hard to use, or, or, or,” Luis said.
One system that seemed good, La Verre de Vin, included a stationary wall vacuum system that bartenders had to use one at a time and only in the place it was mounted, he said.
After observing its use and talking to some bartenders, he found out that they rarely used it, mostly at closing time.
“Right then and there it occurred to me,” he said of his eureka moment. “Why not set up a big pump in the basement with a vacuum and run hoses to several outlets? It kind of becomes part of the soda system.”
He ordered the necessary materials from an industrial supply catalog: pump, control unit, tank, hoses.
He built the prototype for $1,200 to $1,500, installed it in the Brass Rail, and Vinfinity was born.
“It had a dramatic effect on the life and quality of every wine bottle,” he said. “Being a wine guy, I would track my wine bottles every day. They could keep fresh for up to three weeks. It was night and day.”
One day at Sparrow, he started chatting with a good customer who happened to be a lawyer. Luis offered to take him over to the Brass Rail for a glass of wine, and the lawyer wanted to know what the contraption was that vacuum-sealed the bottle.
Luis explained the system and the lawyer told him it was time to get a patent for what they found had never been built before: “a standing vacuum for wine preservation.”
They submitted applications in 2001 and were awarded the three U.S. patents in 2003. A series of patents from other nations followed.
In 2005, his family sold the Brass Rail and he was able to devote himself to the development of Vinfinity.
He took the prototype out of the tavern upon the sale of the bar, but promised the new owners a unit once production started.
“These guys were crying when we took that thing out,” he said.
He contracted with a Minnesota company that had the capabilities to manufacture commercial units, and he set up distribution points in Chicago, Phoenix, Miami, and Boston.
His first installation was promised to Eugene Flynn, friend and owner of the Elysian Café, 1001 Washington St., who saw the machine in action at the Brass Rail.
“You’ll be my first customer,” Luis told him at the time.
The machine went into Elysian in October of 2006, and since then?
“He told me it changed his entire business,” Luis said.
Bobby Flay says it’s okay
More than 150 restaurants in the United States and around the world have bought Vinfinity systems, including 10 spots in Hoboken.
His wine preservation machine is in Wolfgang Puck’s Los Angeles and Las Vegas restaurants; Bobby Flay’s Steak House in the Borgata Casino, Atlantic City; and the California Grille, Walt Disney World.
In Hoboken, Luis’ machines serve Amanda’s, Bin 14, Frankie & Johnnie’s, Onieal’s, and Lola’s.
“I feel that sooner of later this concept will revolutionize wine,” he said.
Luis’ system even impressed loyal Sparrow customer and Stevens Institute Professor Bernard Gallois, an expert on the effects of vacuum systems. Gallois was so interested that he is supervising a study on the chemical effects of the atmosphere on wine, Luis said.
Luis and Mike Garcia own both Sparrow Wine and Liquor stores in Hoboken – downtown at 126 Washington St. and uptown at 1224 Shipyard Lane – but it was Luis’ parents who first owned the original store on Washington Street. They bought La Isla Restaurant, 104 Washington St., in 1995 and added the uptown Sparrow location in 1999.
Luis graduated from Rutgers in 1982 where he studied mechanical engineering. He wasn’t interested in the family business in Hoboken at first. It wasn’t until his driver’s license was suspended and at the same time his parents were retiring that he took over the business on April Fool’s Day, 1986.
“Engineering was always my first love,” he said, “[but] I figured I’d give it a shot.”
Now, with the development of the Vinfinity system, he has found his way back to his engineering roots without leaving the family business behind.
“It’s been a really interesting experience,” he said, “to have left engineering, get into wines, then somehow finding my way back and tying the two together.”
His next endeavor is developing vacuum-sealable stoppers that work with the system. The pre-made stoppers he was using slowed the machine down, sealing the bottle in two to three seconds. The new version will be roughly twice as fast with a visual indicator to tell when the bottle is sealed and a bottle dating system.
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at email@example.com.