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Make Your Own Wine, Minus the Vine

One of Judd Finkelstein's favorite things about being a winemaker at his family's Napa Valley winery is getting his hands dirty, whether that means picking the grapes, punching down the cap or working with the barrels. But being a winemaker these days doesn't always mean attentively tending to a vineyard -- or even being in the same state where your wine is produced.

One of Judd Finkelstein's favorite things about being a winemaker athis family's Napa Valley winery is getting his hands dirty, whetherthat means picking the grapes, punching down the cap or working withthe barrels. But being a winemaker these days doesn't always meanattentively tending to a vineyard -- or even being in the same statewhere your wine is produced.

In addition to Judd's Hill Winery, which produces fewer than 3,000 cases of wine per year, the Finkelstein family also owns Judd's Hill MicroCrush,a custom crush facility that helps about 100 clients make their ownwine. They'll do everything, including sourcing the grapes from NapaValley vineyards, designing the label and bottling the vintage.

In fact, Finkelstein says some longtime clients have nevervisited the winery. But he also has a client from North Carolina who'llfly to California with 48 hours' notice during harvest season, arrivingin the "pre-dawn darkness with picking shears in hand."

"People have a passion for the art of winemaking and want tobe involved in the process," Finkelstein says. Virtual winemaking --making wine without owning a crushing facility -- has become a popularalternative. As of November 2006, there were 5,970 wineries in theU.S., with 1,587 of those being virtual wineries, according to Wine Business Monthly.And Provina's $3,499 egg-shaped WinePod, which allows enthusiasts tomake wine in their homes, is a bestseller. The 2006 model sold out, andthere's a waiting list for the 2007 version.

Alternatives like these are turning winemaking into a moreaccessible process for Americans, who are embracing wine. "People arerealizing it's pretty easy to do," says Paul Beveridge, a lawyer whoalso has been making wine for the past 19 years and teaches a course onwinemaking for busy professionals. "It's like any other art form; youcan make it as complicated as you want."

Many ardent wine lovers would never be able to see their nameon a label or barrel without options such as custom crushingfacilities, co-ops that allow grape growers to share facilities, andpopular winemaking sites, such as Crushpadwine.com.That's because the cost of purchasing a vineyard and buildingfacilities continues to increase. In addition, persevering through thelengthy and complicated permitting process can cause more frustrationthan a glass of wine can cure. In fact, Beveridge jokes -- sort of --that you need to be a lawyer to produce and sell wine.

For Trey Busch, owner of Sleight of Hand Cellars-- yes, he named it after the Pearl Jam song -- virtual winemakingoptions allowed him to start his own label by keeping capital costs toa minimum. Busch was working as a winemaker at Basel Cellars inWashington state when he created a business plan for his own winery, which he started a few months ago. "I thought,'If I'm going to work this hard, I want it to be for myself,'" he says.Friends and fellow enthusiasts Sandy and Jerry Solomon agreed toprovide the financing and now serve as his business partners.

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Busch produces two types of wines under the Sleight of Hand label:"negociant" project wines, which are blends of purchased juice thatsell for less than $20, and wines made at a custom crush facility fromsourced grapes. The negociant wines have allowed him to generate incomeimmediately, since he doesn't have to wait for the wine to age. Hisfirst harvest for the custom crush line will be in 2007, and he'llrelease those wines in 2009. Customers can imbibe at the company'stasting room in Walla Walla, Wash., which also serves as Busch'soffice. "You don't have to put up a ton of capital this way," he says.

To differentiate his wines, Busch has put a lot of time andeffort into marketing. "It's the second most important thing next toquality," he says. "Most consumers are guilty of buying wine based onhow the label looks." To coincide with the Sleight of Hand theme, Buschhired a graphic poster designer to create images for the labels basedon 1920s and '30s posters for magic shows. His business cards look like a deck of cards on the back, and he hired a magician for the grand opening.

While Busch quit his day job as a corporate buyer at Nordstromto get into the winemaking business in 2000, Beveridge says giving upyour main stream of income isn't necessary. Rather than following themodel of "retiring as a wealthy lawyer and purchasing a vineyard," he began making wine when he was a young law associate, and he has owned Wilridge Winery in Seattle since 1988.

He says that throughout the years, there have been very fewoccasions when he's had to take an emergency day to harvest grapes ortend to other pressing matters at his winery, which produces 1,500cases of wine per year. And aside from grape growers, Judd's HillMicroCrush counts many business executives among its clientele.

As wine's popularity continues to grow in the U.S., the market forvirtual winemaking will likely increase as well. Beveridge attributes a1991 60 Minutes episode proclaiming wine's health benefits tothe beverage's initial U.S. market boost. It was only one year laterthat Judd's Hill began crushing grapes as a favor to two growers as away to market their produce to grape-purchasing wineries. Both sides ofthe U.S. wine business have since continued a simultaneous upward climb.

"Wine has always held this mystique as one of life's finerpleasures, and people have maybe been a little intimidated by it,"Finkelstein says. "Now that we've made it accessible, and more and morepeople have more disposable income, too, winemaking has become very appealing."

But for some, there's still no substitute for the completepackage. "I'm the only person who owns this piece of land," Beveridgesays of the vineyard he recently purchased after buying grapes for 19years. "I'm going to be the only person growing grapes there. And tohave total artistic control of the process -- that's the ultimate."