From its San Francisco garagista roots to its new spot on the big stage in Sonoma, Crushpad is on the way to becoming a Hewlett Packard success story for the wine industry. The custom crush operation, which was founded seven years ago in a Bay Area garage, just moved into its latest digs: The historic Sebastiani Winery near downtown Sonoma. The story behind how Crushpad got there may be just as interesting as the community winery’s plans for its new production space and experiential wine tasting bar.
The Crushpad story
In 2002 Michael Brill, then a Silicon Valley software engineer, tore up his backyard in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco and planted Pinot Noir grapes. By the 2003 harvest, Brill was making wine out of his tiny garage with the help of several volunteer neighbors. The urbanite enthusiasm to make wine and Brill’s difficulty holding down what had become a second job led him to launch Crushpad. One of the first custom crush facilities for hobbyists and small scale labels, it took off. Crushpad is now in Bordeaux and exploring Asia. Brill made a decision early on to source fruit from some of the best vineyards in California. This meant his model would be small lot, high-end wines. The minimum order is a barrel, which ranges in price from six thousand dollars to ten thousand dollars, depending on the type of fruit.
While Japanese pop stars and Hollywood film directors are among the clientele, public media producers, like myself, can get in on a Share A Barrel program which matches up ten folks for one barrel. When we bottle next month, I’ll get six cases of low oak Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands for which I had a Crushpad artist help me design my wine label. I also get to attend crush, blending and tasting sessions and other events. I harbor no fantasies of making money from wine making, it’s an expensive business. Still, about half of Crushpad’s clientele are commerce clients who pay for support in seeking licensing, promoting and selling their wines.
Since it’s urban beginnings, Crushpad has offered Crushnet, an online winemaking support service.
“You can be sitting on your sofa in Shanghai drinking a glass of Bordeaux and see all the stats on your wine in Sonoma and when the time comes to do a final blend on your wine you can request barrel samples be shipped to you. The client can literally sit at their dining room table and meet with the winemaker over the phone, or Skype, and come up with the final blend,” says Mark Marinozzi, Vice President of Marketing for Crushpad.
The idea of buying grapes from a vineyard and paying a custom crush winery to make them into wine is nothing new. In fact, the high cost of land in places like Napa is what helped give custom crush facilities their start. During the recession larger companies like Bin to Bottle, Owl Ridge Services and Napa Wine Company benefited from growers with unsold grapes. But smaller custom crush places that serve hobbyists and small commercial labels, like Crushpad, saw their non-commerce clients dip. But now they are seeing an uptick and just this week an indy custom crush facility called DogPatch WineWorks launched in Crushpad’s home haunt. While this might be good news for DIY vinophiles, who miss making wine in the city, there is some controversy fermenting. The folks behind WineWorks include a former Crushpad staff member and investor unhappy with the company’s move to the wine country.
Surviving the downturn
It can be hard to turn a profit when you are a custom crush facility sourcing expensive fruit and every member has a vote in how their wine is made. But the company’s high end, small lot production model may have helped them survive the recent recession. Marinozzi explains,
"A lot of the luxury brands that were in the 50,000 case range were very reliant on restaurants, bars and national chain accounts -- then the recession hit and they had to start discounting. You see brands go from $35.00 to $18.99. They were built up as a luxury player and now they are in Safeway."
Online flash sales and discount sites have become commonplace as wineries try to reduce idle inventory. Marinozzi says cutting deals and degrading brand image has had a downward effect on the marketplace.
"Your Fleur de Lys and French Laundrys were not going to keep wine on their list that you could find in a grocery store. So the opportunity for the ultra small lot winemaker is right there to fill the void that was created by this downturn so a lot of Crushpad’s clients took advantage of that."
Just like any other Bay Area renter, Crushpad has had to move a lot. The company, which started in Brill’s garage, moved to a warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood then, again, to a larger space in the city and then to Napa to rent space from the Silverado Trail Wine Studios. The latest move to Sonoma is the one that Marinozzi says makes all the difference.
"Sebastiani is a world class operation. It's a campus with flexibility between doing small lot production and large production and we can build up and really make it our own."
Crushpad will exist side by side with the Sebastiani winery which is owned by Foley Family Wines. Bill Foley, now a principal investor in Crushpad, has created more space at Sebastiani after decreasing its production to focus on high-end wines. The financing deal gives Crushpad more than five thousand feet of production space plus office space, a VIP area for commerce clients and a tasting bar that will feature Crushpad client wines. You can get an idea of the new visitors center from this rough, artist rendering:
The Exploratorium of the Wine Industry
Crushpad will continue to offer wine blending and sensory analysis classes. But the new addition for consumers will be interactive multimedia stations in the wine tasting room. Visitors will be able to use prepaid cards to operate self-pouring dispensers that allow then to taste along to a number of videos showing all the elements of winemaking.
"For example, you might watch one on the vineyards of the Sonoma coast and cool climate winemaking while trying four different wines under different weather conditions. There will be this opportunity to experience the Exploratorium of the wine industry through the experience stations or take it a step higher and get involved in a class." says Marinozzi.