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Do-It-Yourself Wine

At Crushpad's Mashup, hedge fund managers and bankers taste their creations.

By Elin McCoy Bloomberg Markets May 2008

At a 34,000-square-foot warehouse in San Francisco's Dogpatch district, hedge fund manager and first-time winemaker Chris Allick is tasting a barrel sample of the syrah he crushed here last fall.

"It's smooth and spicy," the managing member of Hunting Dog Capital LLC says with a pleased smile. My assessment? Pretty good for a novice.

I'm at the annual Mashup at Crushpad, a custom winery that helps would-be vintners such as Allick, 53, fulfill their dreams without changing careers. The four-year-old company makes it easy by providing access to grapes from well-known vineyards, state-of-the-art equipment, temperature-controlled storage, packaging and all-important help from resident professional oenologists. "My friends thought I was nuts, but I don't have the time or the money to buy a vineyard or winery," says Allick, who heard about Crushpad at a favorite wine shop.

When a truck delivered his syrah grapes from Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino last fall, Allick showed up to sort and crush them. "Wow. The bunches were perfect," he says, recalling that he did throw out a few bluebelly lizards. "The grapes tasted fantastic: big fruit with that tingle of tannin. It was a stroke of luck that 2007 was a terrific vintage."

On this windy, rainy day in February, Allick is checking on how his wine is developing and swapping ideas and tastes with some of the 677 other Crushpad customers who turn up. This amateur winemaking community is pretty diverse: men and women in their 20s to 70s, including lawyers, doctors, Silicon Valley techies and plenty of financial types. All grab glasses and tickets for the taco lunch and then hunt for their own bottled samples lined up on long tables and organized by grape variety. The cavernous space gets noisy fast.

I spot a dozen different varietals, but reds are the most popular, especially cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. Allick, a collector who loves syrah-based Rhône reds, thought a wine in the same style would be easier to make than temperamental pinot.

His barrel is stacked with those of other clients in the adjoining temperature-controlled storage room, where we run into Kian Tavakoli, one of Crushpad's staff winemakers, who's busy fielding questions. Formerly at Napa Valley's Opus One and Clos du Val wineries, he's shepherding Allick through the winemaking process, which Crushpad breaks down into 30 key decisions: which grape, what style, what type of barrel and so on. After tasting the wine with Tavakoli recently, Allick decided to leave it in barrel for 14 months. Tavakoli, 39, supervises day-to-day cellar-rat tasks and sends out regular e-mail updates and wine samples. Customers can be as involved as they wish at each step.

Like most first-timers, Allick made the minimum, one barrel, and persuaded several friends to share the $7,500 ($25 per bottle) cost in exchange for cases of the eventual 24. (Prices range from $5,700 for a white blend to $15,000 for a cult cab.) They're now circulating ideas for a name.

Winemaking groups are highly popular; 24 cases of the same wine is a lot to drink by yourself. Roger Levine, 51, of La Jolla, California-based Viewpoint Securities LLC, and four members of his eight-person team are here comparing various styles of syrah (theirs isn't showing very well) and sampling to decide what they want to make this fall.

Some repeat customers get so enthusiastic they wind up going pro. "I always dreamed of starting a boutique winery, but I'm not interested in grape growing," says Leonard Stecklow, a senior vice president for a Boston-based financial comÔpany. He's mixing up a trial blend of two barrel samples in a glass. The 60-year-old and his partner recently sold 15 cases of their 2005 Nola Syrah to Commander's Palace and NOLA restaurants in New Orleans. "It cost us $14.50 a bottle to make, and we sold to the distributor for $29.50," Stecklow says. Crushpad handles the regulatory paperwork and shipping.

Allick, Levine and Stecklow all live in the Bay Area, but Crushpad clients come from several foreign countries and 35 states. Bill Costello, 48, co-manager of the Dreyfus Premier Natural Resources Fund, and his wife, Rosemary, 53, flew in from the East Coast. This year, the California cabernet collectors used grapes from one of Crushpad's most expensive vineyards, Napa Valley's famous To Kalon. They sniff and assess like pros. "It's our third vintage-- and the best yet," Bill Costello says. The couple have caught the bug; they'd spent the day before in Napa looking at property where they could plant a vineyard.

The message printed on the back of Crushpad founder Michael Brill's black T-shirt, "Warning: Winemaking Is Addictive," comes too late for the Costellos. A former software marketer with his own winemaking dream, Brill, 43, got the idea for the company in 2003 when he made wine from purchased grapes in his garage. Complete strangers stopped to help, convincing him people might pay for the experience. "Last year, 5,000 clients made 1,400 barrels--35,000 cases--of 650 wines here," he says.

Those at a distance can track their wines online and participate virtually via Web cams and video podcasts. Clients in Japan can turn to a Japanese-language version of the Web site. And later this year, a facility is expected to open in Seattle. Los Angeles, Manhattan and Bordeaux or Burgundy are in the works for 2009. By 5, the crowd is beginning to thin, 673 bottles are empty, the white table coverings are stained with purple circles and more than 1,000 tacos have been eaten. People leave looking happy. As Allick says: "Making wine is fun. This is my idea of how to spend a rainy afternoon."

Columnist Elin McCoy is based in New York.


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