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Personal winemaking's not just a fantasy

Michael Brill realized there might be something to personal winemaking when he couldn’t get people to leave his garage.

Three years ago, as a software exec who grew some Pinot Noir in the backyard, “People would walk by my house at 9 a.m. and leave at nine at night,” says Brill, now president and CEO of San Francisco-based Crushpad. “Most of it was sorting fruit, pulling out leaves, and these were complete strangers who gave up an entire day.”

Anyone can be a wine geek, but outlets like Crushpad, Napa Valley Custom MicroCrush and Bennett Lane Winery allow Walter Mittys to indulge daydreams of living the wine country life while keeping their day jobs.

The make-your-own fantasy has gained such a foothold that franchises like Wine Not Intl. and Let’s Make Wine (the latter founded by the widow of Dunkin’ Donuts founder Bill Rosenberg) now offers customers in nine states the chance to make wine from “high-quality grape juice concentrates.”

Oenophiles will prefer opportunities that more resemble private-label winemaking, in which vineyard owners (and sometimes, restaurants) contract a winemaker to create an exclusive bottling while avoiding legal paperwork, taxes and other niceties of winery operation.

When Judd Finkelstein launched MicroCrush in 1992, most clients were vineyard owners. Today, 50% are individuals whose only grape-picking experience is in the grocery store.

“The enthusiasts are overtaking (MicroCrush),” he says. “We have groups from North Carolina and Louisiana coming in to see their barrels.”

Brill says of the 280 groups that have used Crushpad so far, only two didn’t like their wines. Both got their money back and one has gone on to make more Crushpad wine; Brill sold the other’s Chardonnay to a restaurant for a $1,000 profit.

Crushpad offers wannabe winemakers the greatest degree of control, but Brill says he also wants to give wine lovers the chance to find each other. He’s even launching technology that he hopes will turn Crushpad into “a MySpace for wine.”

“People want the socialization and community as much as the wine,” says Brill. “I mean, I can buy good wine.”

Ready to play oenologist? Here’s three opportunities, ranked in order of just how hands-on you’d like to be. However, Brill offers a word of caution: “Winemaking is addictive.”

What you do Plenty. Crushpad uses more than a dozen varietals from about 25 wineries and walks you through 30 decisions that cover everything from whether grapes should be stemmed to malolactic fermentation. You can also visit the vineyard, stomp the grapes and taste the wine from the barrel on site. Or you can do nothing and wait until they ship you the bottles.
What they do Crushpad acts as overseer, handling harvest, press, barrel transfers and bottling. They’ll also help you choose labels, corks and capsules.
Where you do it San Francisco’s Mission District. However, Brill estimates that 60% of his customers come from outside the Bay Area.
Bells and whistles MyCrushpad software lets you monitor and manage your wine and communicate with other winemakers; Crushpad Commerce, which lets you sell your wine (otherwise, it’s illegal).
How much A barrel (300 bottles) runs from $4,500 (many whites) to more than $10,000 (cult-level Cabernet Sauvignon).

What you do As much or as little as you like, but Finkelstein says most customers select grapes (from several dozen vineyards) and barrels and let them take care of the rest.
What they do All the wine work, including many style decisions. While they’re happy to adjust, “a great deal of customers want us to do it according to our style,” says Finkelstein. “They know we’re pretty good at it.”
Where you do it Judd’s Hill Napa winery
Bells and whistles MicroCrushers can treat Judd’s Hill as their private winery, inviting guests for barrel tastings and private events.
How much $2,800 for winemaking; $1,000-$2,000 per barrel for grapes.

What you do Blend a bottle of wine to your specifications, from the same Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon that go into Bennett Lane’s Maximus.
What they do Provide winemaker guidance as you play mad scientist with wine, beakers and pipettes – the same tools they use.
Where you do it Calistoga, Calif.
Bells and whistles A limo picks you up from your local hotel; private wine and cheese tasting.
How much $175 per person, by appointment; requires six to 10 people per session.

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