It’s the secret dream of every oenophile: give up the desk job, move to a vineyard and spend the days crafting wines. Then reality sinks in–bills, obligations, bills–and the dream becomes a passing fancy.
But it’s actually never been easier to make your own wine, often from the comfort of your nonvineyard home. Today’s garagistes (French for the enthusiasts who create vintages in, well, garages) have upscale equipment and packaged kits to help them make their wines. Wineshops and vineyards are offering blending seminars, tutored tastings of grape varietals where you can create your own blend and take home a bottle of the mix. But for those who want the full winemaking experience, Crushpad, a San Francisco urban winery, allows clients to create a custom wine, from vine to uncorking, without having to move to wine country.
Crushpad is the creation of Michael Brill, a former home winemaker who once ripped up his San Francisco backyard to plant Pinot Noir and Syrah vines. He found that lots of people shared his desire for a wine-country lifestyle but lacked the millions of dollars needed to make their dream come true. Tired of his career in software marketing, he quit his job and created Crushpad in 2004 to connect amateur winemakers with West Coast vineyards. It’s the best of both worlds. Customers get access to far finer grapes than they could grow themselves, at a fraction of the cost, along with on-site expertise to guide them through the process.
At Crushpad’s new 30,000-sq.-ft. (2,800 sq m) warehouse headquarters, customer involvement varies. Purple-fingered zealots sort through the grapes, while others sit at home in foreign countries fine-tuning their wine plans on the Web. Using Crushpad’s online services and consultations with the staff winemaker, home enologists select grapes from specific vineyards (or provide their own) and are then led through the Crushpad 30, a list of options and decisions about the winemaking process: Duration of skin contact? Natural or cultured yeasts? What type of bottle closure? Customers must commit to at least one barrel of wine, which ranges in price from $5,000 to more than $10,000, depending on the wine they make. One barrel produces about 25 cases, or roughly $17 to $40 per bottle.
Once the process has begun, home winemakers can remain in daily contact with their products via CrushpadWine.com where the Crushpad staff posts regular and contagiously enthusiastic fermentation updates and harvest reports (“From Southern California to Eastern Washington we’re seeing grapes turn from green to red–the sign of veraison and a warning that the picking dates are only 40-60 days away”).
The process continues remotely with online chats with Crushpad employees and a webcam that allows customers to keep a watchful eye on their wine. They are also encouraged to visit Crushpad’s processing center whenever a major step in the winemaking–such as grape crushing, bottling or labeling–takes place.
After a slow start, Crushpad is blooming. In 2004 it produced 200 barrels. This year there will be more than 1,000. And Brill hopes to create more Crushpads to take the winemaking process closer to urban enologists. First up is Tokyo, where Crushpad Japan recently opened, bringing West Coast winemaking to the Far East.