News flash: looks count. According to Michael Brill — whose Crushpad venture helps winemaking dreams come true by sourcing, vinifying, aging, and bottling wine according to precise customer specifications — "people who go in on a barrel of wine tend to agree on wine style and winemaking decisions pretty quickly." It's the labels that wind up being the source of contention. "They have a very difficult time. Second in importance to what's in the bottle — and in many cases, equal to what's in the bottle — is the label. It's part of the creative expression. If the designer comes up with a shitty label, it destroys the whole two-year experience."
Crushpad has four members on its design team, and while they're pros, they're still stretched across hundreds of clients. "We want to constrain our exposure," says Brill, "so that people don't come in and eat up a hundred hours of design time. On the other hand, the label is what it is" — the face of the wine. An initial solution is "an online, Flash-based, interactive label designer. But maybe more important than that is this: we're opening our Crushnet community to third-party designers."
"Crushnet," explains Brill, "is basically a social networking site for people interested in winemaking. So if you want to find somebody to do some photography or artwork, or even design an entire label, here's this whole community." A great big online pool of customer demand, just waiting for some smart designer to show up and start padding his résumé. "There are thousands of people in this country who would kill to design a wine label, in exchange for just a case of wine."
The label is the last step in the whole Crushpad production process. Brill expects Crushnet to prove useful from the get-go. "In the past, if you came to us and said, 'I want to do this, but I don't want to spend $7000-$8000 for a barrel of wine; can you hook me up with a few people?' we basically had to say, 'No.' But Crushnet enables you to find people who are interested in making a similar style of wine — or existing groups that are making that wine — and connect with them. We do all the allocations and financial transactions online. And we allow you to share the experience by uploading photos and videos. There are blogs, and forums, and something we're calling enowiki, which is an online winemaking knowledge base. That's going to be more and more important as we grow. We're adding online reviews, so that you can taste other people's wines and review them."
In sum, "We're trying to take everything that's available to a winemaker up in Napa and make that available to people wherever they live." That includes the idyll that is the winemaker lunch — everybody brings a few bottles and spends an afternoon tasting one another's handiwork and offering comment. Crushpad's online counterpart: the mosh pit. "Basically, you take some portion of your wine -- say, 3 of your 25 cases, and you throw them in the mosh pit. In exchange, you get 3 cases of mixed, random wines. You get more variety, and you get to taste other wines that people in the community are making. You can give feedback to the community. We're doing it to mix it up, build a somewhat different wine economy -- one that's a combination of online and physical."
Speaking of wine economies: "Part of Crushnet is a section where growers can build and define their own brands. We're working with them, telling them to capture things on video: pruning, green-harvesting, and so on. They can have e-mail on Crushnet, plus blogs and forums. Some of these growers have fruit that goes into $100 bottles of wine, but nobody knows it, so they've got no real leverage. This way, they can deliver messages directly to the consumer. We think it will give a push to high-end growers to work with us."
That's from the production end; Crushnet can also serve retail aims. "Our second or third customer was a guy who lived in Springfield, Missouri, who made 200 cases of Pinot Noir for commercial resale. Very quickly, we realized that the people who had a passion for high-end wine, and for making high-end wine, generally also had the business acumen and the money to turn it into a business. We had to do a lot of scrambling to construct a service that would allow people to launch their own commercial wine brands without having to go through the agony of licensing, storage, e-commerce, federal and state compliance. It was very tricky behind the scenes, but from a client's perspective, it's dirt simple. We store the wine; we pick, pack, and ship; we do all the compliance reporting; we give them an e-commerce engine, and every month, they get a check. We've now got 70 commercial wine brands that have either launched or are in the process of launching, and we're starting to get reviews. We got some 92s on some of our first wines, and we've had huge jumps in quality."
Brill has had huge jumps in interest as well. But he doesn't want to lose the personal-interaction feel of the San Francisco winery, which has gotten just about as big as he wants it at 25,000-30,000 cases per year. So he's looking at expanding — first to Seattle, then to L.A., then to wherever demand and logistics dictate. "I think we're doing really well, but ultimately, this is a much bigger thing than one winery in San Francisco. Most of our customers don't live here, and I've had about 200 or 300 inquiries about opening a Crushpad facility. My expectation is that in the next four or five years, there should be a Crushpad licensed facility or a competitor in many major cities." He envisions wine-sharing between the regions, and even competitions: "the New York Cab-heads vs. the Wichita To-Kalon freaks."
If all this talk of social networking around wine and local chapters linked via online interface sounds a touch familiar, it should: it's not too far from the VinVillage social networking site recently started by local entrepreneur Rob Barnett. Crushnet caters to the makers and sellers, VinVillage to the consumers — those pursuing the wine lifestyle. So it's no great surprise to learn that the two have joined forces — signing up for one automatically signs you up for the other. Brill envisions Crushpad providing wines for VinVillage gatherings, and his company has been developing "more educational products for smaller-scale things." Things like wine-blending kits for small-group gatherings.
But Crushpad is first and foremost about making wine, and ultimately, that's what Brill wants to offer VinVillage. "VinVillages could make their own wines. My feeling is that the reason you have a successful community is because people do something. So how many things do you do? If you're part of a tasting group, you taste wine. That's cool — it's a great social environment, and you learn something. But the thought is, what if you could be involved in something more substantial? What if you could get a larger group together, and that group is actually making their own wine? When you've got people creating something, it's a pretty powerful thing. And if they're driving not just one, but multiple wines, then they can be an economic force in themselves. And since they have the advantage of all living within the same region, they can share in the experience."
To top it all off, the online platform that serves to connect VinVillages would provide a natural forum for the sort of cross-group sharing and competition that Brill sees as beneficial for building the larger wine community. And for Crushpad and VinVillage, community is pretty much the whole point.