In late April, San Francisco-based winery Crushpad, which custom-makes wines by the barrel for ordinary consumers, held a tasting in a large, open loft in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood for about 400 guests.
"I want to make more wine the way I like it," said David Rossi, a customer from Monmouth County, N.J., who has one vintage under his belt and is already looking forward to his second. That was just the sort of thing another attendee needed to hear—he bought four barrels of his own then and there.
It's now easier than ever to make your own wine—whether it's a one-day, $300 blending seminar at a big winery that you'll walk away from with six bottles, or a two-year process through which you'll make six barrels for $30,000.
"People are coming up with various creative ways to attract consumers at whatever level of involvement they want in the winemaking process," explained Gladys Horiuchi, communications manager at the Wine Institute, a group that represents California wineries. The Blending Cellar, which operates out of the Mayo winery in Sonoma, for example, sells blending kits online for $100. You make up a blend according to your own taste, then order as much of the blend you like for $40 per bottle.
Also, more than 20 well-known California wineries offer onsite blending seminars, including Cakebread, Franciscan, and Joseph Phelps. But some people, like the New Yorker who bought four barrels (about 100 cases), want to stretch the experience over months rather than a single day.
"There's this new American dream," said Michael Brill, founder of Crushpad, which after only three years in business has more than 2,500 clients in more than 30 states—and even a few other countries—making anywhere from 25 to 1,200 cases of their own wine. "People … want to have that wine-country life. But the reality is, they can't. They live in New York, and have a spouse and kids and a job."
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To bring customers as much of that experience as possible, companies like Crushpad and Sonoma Grapemasters, which is in the Russian River Valley, arrange contracts with dozens of vineyards that grow everything from Chardonnay to Viognier to Cabernet. Customers consult with an onsite winemaker and decide what variety they want, how much of it they want, and how they want it made. Crushpad's prices range from $5,000 per barrel up to $12,000 per barrel for Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon (which comes out to $40 per bottle for grapes from an area that produces wines that typically run north of $100 per bottle at retail).
More or less, customers can get as involved (or stay as uninvolved) in the process as they want, with limits on what untrained people can do. "You'll be involved in the decision-making process, and to some degree in the actual process, assuming we can do it in a way that's safe within the confines of the winery," said John Tracy, cofounder of Sonoma Grapemasters, which is lining up its first clients for this fall's harvest. Among the customers they hope to attract are small businesses or departments that would make a barrel of wine (about $6,500 to $7,000) as a team-building exercise.
The customers are always accompanied by an on-staff winemaker who helps explain what they're doing, why and what effect it has on the end product.
David Levine, a San Francisco real-estate developer who makes Pinot Noir at Crushpad, got as hands-on as he could at first. "I was there the whole way. I was in the vineyard [and] I did a couple punch-downs." He's less involved now that he understands the process and can make more informed decisions, such as whether to use native yeast or an inoculation, or maybe a different kind of oak. "It's like taking a very intensive wine class," he said.
Though Levine is still making wine as a hobby, some clients turn their passion into a profession. Crushpad has a system that handles the business side of things: licensing, storage, an e-commerce engine, label design and shipping. About 10 percent of Crushpad's customers use this service, including Springfield, Mo., resident David Dain Smith, who makes the Dain label. His 2005 Pinot Noir Anderson Valley Savage Juliet Hein Vineyard ($42) scored 92 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.
Of course, not everyone is as successful. While the customer is always right, a person with no winemaking experience could be very, very wrong. One Crushpad customer, for example, wanted a "very heavy toast, charry, chocolate, cocoa, coffee barrel," said Brill, not knowing that those types of barrels are usually used as a small component of the overall blend. The customer was ultimately unhappy with his wine, and Brill refunded his money.
Potential problems aside, however, the custom-winemaking trend shows no sign of slowing. By May of this year, Crushpad had already signed up more new clients than in all of 2006. And Sonoma Grapemasters already has its first dozen on board for this fall—any one of whom might develop a taste for professional winemaking. "People can get into launching a commercial wine brand for $20,000," said Brill.
A much more reasonable sum than $20 million.
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