San Francisco's New Custom-Crush Service Makes It Easy to Be a Vintner

Customers decide what type of wine to make; Crushpad provides the grapes, equipment, barrels and consultants.
Aug 19, 2004

With its proximity to California's top wine regions, its numerous specialty wine shops and an abundance of restaurants with extensive wine lists, San Francisco has been able to satisfy just about every desire a wine lover can have. Now it can satisfy them all, with the opening of a new crush company where would-be winemakers can try their hand at a barrel with professional guidance.

The new operation, called Crushpad, received its first grapes this week, as one of the earliest California harvests on record is kicking into high gear. Budding vintners can either source their own grapes or purchase them through Crushpad, which has contracts with 12 growers in six North Coast and Central Coast appellations.

So far about 20 customers have signed on. The mix includes excited amateurs, retailers and restaurateurs who want to make a house label, and professional and soon-to-be professional vintners who don't yet have a license or production facility. In addition to grapes, Crushpad provides space and equipment, such as a hydraulic basket press, a stemmer/crusher and barrels. (Visit crushpadwine.com for more about its services.) One barrel, the equivalent of 25 cases, is the minimum quantity that customers can make, though some people have committed to at least 10 barrels.

The prices customers pay depend on the grapes, services and barrel type they select. The most expensive grape option is Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, which costs $4,400 for one barrel, or the equivalent of $14.66 per bottle. New French oak adds $800 to the total. A barrel of Sonoma Chardonnay aged in 2-year-old oak would be $2,900, or $9.66 a bottle.

Crushpad president Michael Brill, 39, who continues to work as a San Francisco software marketer, decided to start the company about a year ago after struggling with the logistics of home winemaking. "Last year I bought grapes, made wine and had a blast, but it's a pain in the ass. During fermentation I had to wake up at 5:30, do punch-downs and take [lab] measurements. Then I'd put on a suit and go to work," he said. "It's also a big investment of money and time. I probably spent $500 on dry ice because I didn't have refrigeration and needed to keep the Pinot Noir fermentation cool."

Brill estimates that, by year-end, he and another investor will have sunk about $300,000 into Crushpad, a 5,000-square-foot space in San Francisco's industrial SOMA (south of Market) district. They have room for 400 barrels, and will have about 30 vats, ranging in size from 200 liters to 1,600 liters. A refrigerated area will be used for cold soaks and fermentation of white wines.

The in-house winemakers are Tom Leaf, owner of Grapeleaf Cellars in Berkeley, Calif., and Scott Shapley, a former assistant at Sonoma's Siduri Wines and Novy Cellars. Also consulting are winemakers Brian Loring, of Pinot Noir specialist Loring Wine Co., and Don Surh and Gary Luchtel, of Napa-based Surh Luchtel. An extra $500 purchases assistance from one of the consultants, who helps craft a winemaking plan and lends guidance to customers at key stages of the production process.

Most customers are local, but some have come from out-of-state for a shot at working with California grapes. David Smith, a Springfield, Mo., sales manager for a pharmaceutical company, made wine at home in 2002 and 2003 from St. Vincent, a local hybrid. "I enjoy the varietals in Missouri, but frankly the point is to work with the vinifera grapes that grow well in California," Smith said. He plans to make four barrels -- three Pinot Noirs and one Syrah -- at Crushpad this year. If all goes well, next year he and his partner hope to go pro.

Bay area resident Ed Haslan, 40, a San Francisco software marketing executive, will make a barrel of Syrah, probably from Carneros or Sonoma. "The idea is that here I can share risks," he said. "If I make bad wine, I can blend it, and if I make mistakes, someone can help me. Having a consulting winemaker is a big help, because that's better than me reading in some book and trying to guess."

Encouraged by Haslan, his company of 26 employees decided to make a barrel of wine together for a team-building exercise. Why then did they choose to make Pinot Noir, a notoriously difficult grape as likely to fracture relationships as strengthen them?

"My boss is a Pinot freak," offered Haslan with a shrug.

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