Crowd-sourced wine: Virtual vintners have a say on grape varieties, barrels and bottling

Columnist August 29

Crowd-sourcing has become the Internet’s new favorite method of financing start-ups, authors and researchers. Now two wineries have adopted the idea to get their consumers involved in making wine.

Columbia Crest in Washington state and La Crema in California launched interactive winemaking programs online in early August. Each gives consumers a chance to contribute to decisions about which grape variety to use, how long to age it in barrel, how the label should look and even when to release the wine for sale. It’s a fun way to experience winemaking in the comfort of your computer without having to do any of the backbreaking work.

Dave McIntyre is the wine columnist for The Washington Post. He also blogs at dmwineline.com. View Archive

Harvest is already underway in California, and La Crema’s “virtual vintners” at www.lacrema.com have chosen to make a pinot noir from the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. Each week they vote on a different question that will influence the flavor of the final wine. In coming weeks they will decide the proportion of new barrels to old and whether to use light- or dark-toast barrels. (Toast reflects the length of time the barrel staves are exposed to flame as they are bent during the barrel-making process. Longer exposure gives a darker toast and deeper flavors that are often described as — you guessed it — toasty.) Those participating by Sept. 21 will be entered in a drawing for a trip to visit the vineyard and spend two days learning with winemaking director Elizabeth Grant-Douglas.

Grant-Douglas hasn’t surrendered her winemaking duties entirely for this project, of course. The options presented for voting are fairly basic and don’t leave room for messing up the wine. There are no wrong answers. The questions involve choices that will affect the ultimate style and flavor of the wine, so the exercise opens the door on the winemaking process and engenders a sense of participation. Over the winter, La Crema’s virtual vintners will choose a name and label design, and they will have first dibs on buying the wine when it is released next fall.

Columbia Crest’s program is similar. The winery has set aside five acres of cabernet sauvignon vines in its estate vineyard in the Columbia Valley and expects to produce 1,000 cases of “Crowdsourced Cabernet” made by head winemaker Juan Muñoz Oca and a few thousand of his favorite online friends. Harvest will begin in October, but Muñoz Oca is already schooling his virtual assistants on CrowdsourcedCabernet.com on important pre-harvest work in the vineyard, such as fruit-thinning and canopy management. Crowdsourced Cabernet 2014 will be released in the spring of 2016.

The Web site provides more information about the vineyard, including weather conditions and a daily time-lapse video that is catnip for cube-bound wine fiends. You can almost see the grapes ripening. And you don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to tend the vineyards.

If vicarious winemaking on the Internet isn’t your style, a California company called Naked Wines gives you a chance to get in at the ground floor by supporting fledgling wineries. Members, dubbed “angels,” pay $40 a month, with the funds invested in start-up wineries in California and elsewhere. They earn credits toward wine, which they can buy at wholesale prices.

It’s a means of crowd-sourcing independent winemakers who otherwise lack the capital to buy or grow the grapes they need to make wine. The model incorporates social media, as “angels” rate the wines and recommend them to others.

Naked Wines was founded in the United Kingdom, where it has more than 120,000 subscribers, and there are more than 50,000 in the United States. There’s a waiting list to participate. The company operates a winery in Sonoma County, with 25 winemakers producing 67 wines funded by subscriber contributions.

“The whole thing runs a lot like a small online wine shop, with a constantly changing selection of small-production wines,” says Ryan O’Connell, a winemaker and marketing manager based at the company’s Sonoma operation. “But we are investing money in winemakers, running a winery where they get free custom crush, and working all facets of production with them.”

And who knows? One of those unheralded winemakers might soon produce the “wine of the year.”

McIntyre blogs at dmwineline.com. On Twitter: @dmwine.

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