BENNINGTON — “I have to be honest: I have no business experience. I’m doing it all by the seat of my pants,” says Nancy Koziol of Bennington.
But the self-deprecating Koziol does have a caveat: “I do know wine, however. Wine tells a story, from the weather that year to the soil and the family running the vineyard. There’s so much you can tell just from a simple glass of wine. Being able to dive in and decode that for others is just incredible.”
Koziol is the owner of couch + cork, an educational wine tasting company that specializes in virtual and in-person tastings and experiences for corporate and private clients here and abroad. Her latest and great business maneuver: She’s recently purchased Corporate Virtual Wine Tastings, a wine education company in France with connections throughout Europe.
Now global, Koziol’s couch + cork is a business that started simply from her dining room table in the old Drysdale Building downtown, doing small-scale tastings with four to six people in Southern Vermont.
“When it started, it was all in-home wine tasting. Some friends came over, you’d tell me what wines you want to learn about, I’d tell you where to get those wines, what snacks to make, then I’d come into your home and teach you and your guests about wine,” she says. “It was decoding what people needed to know so that they can enjoy wine better. I thought about what people need to know so they can have an excellent experience with wine, how to read a wine list, how to pick out a bottle, how to know how much to spend.”
No formal tasting clubs in the mountains
Back in 2019, Koziol was studying for a tasting exam in New York City, tasting up to 32 different wines in a session. She recalls her instructor saying, “You have to do this every couple of weekends, a month, weekends, where you’re tasting from Friday to Sunday.”
“I asked her, ‘How do you do that?’ She said, ‘With your tasting club, of course,’” Koziol said.
But at home in rural Vermont, she knew of no wine tasting club. So instead, Koziol got home and posted online about scheduling a meetup in the Bennington area to get together and taste wine.
“A lot of people responded. I started doing these tastings, and I realized that I was learning more by teaching people about wine than I was by just taking classes and reading books. I realized that I liked teaching people, and I like wine. That became the business,” Koziol says.
Koziol says it’s empowering to give people, once timid with wine, the know-how and confidence to expand their view of the substance known for its subtleties and expense.
“It feels so good to hand someone a tool that they can use, teaching people to be confident when they order a bottle of wine, knowing if they should be spending $65 on a bottle of Boudreaux, or [if it] should it be $45.”
The business started small, just weekends here and there. It quickly grew by word-of-mouth. “People heard about it, and I started to get more and more calls,” she says. “People were asking about other types of parties and eventually about company events. The growth was so fast.”
The pandemic pivot
Then the pandemic hit.
“I was like, you have to be kidding me. I had ended all of my freelance contracts and wasn’t pitching any publications. What do I do? I came up with the idea of doing it over Zoom. I was one of the first people to do virtual wine tastings via Zoom. It soon became a full-time gig.”
From her beginnings with a half-dozen attendees, it soon became 40, 80, 100 people on a single Zoom event.
“That’s when I started hiring people, because I couldn’t manage everything on my own without losing the quality of the presentations,” she said.
At this point, she says she is “about 75 percent corporate.” She has returned to holding live events, including a few at the museum in Bennington, two at Park-McCullough Historic Governor’s Mansion, and one scheduled at Green Mountain Academy for Lifelong Learning.
And the recent acquisition by her company has elevated couch + cork to global stature. In December, she’ll be attending an event in Switzerland that features eight other countries.
“All from this dining room table here in Bennington,” she says with a giggle. “I never saw it coming. I’m just so excited.”
Room for expansion
Down the road, Koziol is looking forward to expanding, possibly into the Midwest or Atlanta.
“I would love to see this all over. Right now, we are just three people, so we can’t schedule more than three tastings at one time,” she says. “I just inherited three others with the purchase of the French company, people based in South America, Canada, and France, so my goal is many more events worldwide.”
The now-international entrepreneur still views herself at the helm of a cottage business — “even though I know that’s not true anymore.”
She advises others who have been thinking about going into business to do so, jumping in feet-first.
“That we’re doing it, and that you can do it, too,” Koziol says. “Business doesn’t have to look like what it always looked like. If you have an idea, and it’s an idea that not many people have had, if you can solve a problem, you can do anything.”