Michael Brill had a wine problem. It started out innocently enough. "I fell into it just like most people. I was working for a management-consulting firm, and clients started buying dinner and paying for great wine. I recognized that there was a lot of cool stuff out there." The early '90s saw him delve into collecting, and that's when things got ugly. "At some point, you sort of hit this plateau. You're trying lots of wines from different regions, but when the Spectator or the Wine Advocate comes, you open it up and you just jump to the scores. It becomes as much about acquisition and finding scarce wines as it is about enjoyment. I think I hit an all-time low when I went to a wine store, and I was so happy to find three or four difficult-to-find wines. I was putting them in the car, and I realized, 'That was the fun part of it for me. It's over. What am I going to do with more wine?'"
Other fortunate souls who had just sold software companies might have taken up yachting, or maybe looked into starting up a wine venture in Paso Robles. But Brill looked into the backyard of his San Francisco home and imagined it without the avocado, pine, and fig trees, without the roses, fountains, and walkways. He imagined it as a vineyard. "I razed it -- went in and pulled everything out. I built half a dozen trellises and put in 24 Pinot Noir vines. I'm totally not into gardening, but I looked at that and thought, 'This is the coolest thing I've ever done.'"
That was in 2002. The following year, he got the itch to actually make wine -- a logical next step -- but his own vineyard was still years away from production. Happily, wine country was only an hour away, and the industry was dealing with a bit of a surplus. "I read everything there was about winemaking. Then I went online and found some friends. We sourced fruit from a couple of vineyards well before harvest -- there was a fair amount available at the time, and we got really nice Syrah and Pinot Noir. We ended up making an illegal amount of wine in my garage -- something like ten barrels."
Of course, a guy who trellises out his backyard for the sake of 24 Pinot vines doesn't just pick up some glass carboys and a fiberglass tank. "I basically turned my 1000-square-foot garage into a nice little functioning winery -- gleaming stainless-steel tanks, pumps, all this high-end equipment. Overkill." But very attractive overkill, as he soon discovered. "There we were on a Saturday morning, destemming and crushing and cleaning. People who were wandering by my house started sticking their heads in, asking what we were doing. It just sucked them in; they spent all day there, cleaning and crushing. I gave them pizza and beer, and they left super, super happy, saying, 'When can we do this again?' By the end of harvest, I had 140 people on my volunteer list who wanted to come and crush grapes. I realized there were a whole lot of people who shared my desire to take my hobby to the next level, move beyond collecting and actually start creating wine."
By 2004, he had "raised some money, found a winemaker and a space," and transitioned out of his day job into his position as founder/president of Crushpad. The idea behind it: you want to make a barrel (or more) of wine -- really good wine. But you don't have the time/winery/access to good grapes, etc. Crushpad -- now in its fourth year and based out of a 34,000-square-foot facility in San Francisco -- has all of those. So, you get Brill & Co. to make it for you. You tell them what you want in terms of varietal and style. You dictate your preferences for harvesting, for winemaking, for aging, and for bottling. You determine length of skin contact, type of yeast, barrel aging, fining/filtering -- even closures. "The one thing you don't have control over is pick date. But based on the style of wine you want to make, we try to get you into the right vineyard. And if we do multiple picks, and you wanted to go with a leaner, less-ripe style, then you would go for the earlier pick."
The list is just about exhaustive -- not to say exhausting -- and not without reason. Crushpad is aiming more for interactive partnerships than for oenophiles indulging a whim. "Our clients need to understand the causes and effects in winemaking. It's complicated, but people kind of absorb stuff at their own pace." And why do they need to understand? Because, says Brill, "We're really trying to make winemaking part of somebody's life experience -- that's what they do. Otherwise, they'll do it once and say, 'That was fun; next, I'll go skydiving.'" So far, the company is succeeding. "We see a common characteristic in our customer base. They all want to make great wine, but what they want is the experience. It's a means of self-expression. Some people paint, some people play guitars, some people make wine. I mean, we do have customers that call us up and say, 'Make me a barrel of your best cult Cabernet. Here's a check; you fill in the amount.' But that's not our core market."
Once Crushpad knows what you want, they set about making it happen and keep you updated every step of the way. "Every day during fermentation, you've got a chart in your inbox when you show up at work in the morning, with sugars and temperatures and any specific events and measurements. Clients need to be notified if we need to make midcourse corrections and be given the opportunity to approve those changes. This year, we're going to make 600--650 different wines, with each wine driven by the style dictated by individual clients. To deal with that, we basically have 9 people working in the winery and 11 people developing software."
They've also made some technological innovations that are fairly specific to a company managing 650 separate fermentations. "Say you have 300 going on simultaneously," says Brill. Traditional small-lot fermentation would require punch downs -- forcible submerging of the must into the juice to aid the fermenting wine in extracting color and flavor from the grape skins. "Imagine five punch downs a day, with four or five minutes a punch down." It's impossible. "So we've created these hybrid pump-over/submerged-cap mechanisms that fit into small fermenters." The caps hold the must under the surface while the pumps circulate the juice around the suspended must... "so that we can really dial in extraction. Also, let's say you're making a barrel of Pinot Noir and you want some new oak in your aging process -- but not 100 percent new oak. We've trialed these things we call 'zebra barrels,' where we'll take an old barrel and a new barrel, break them down, and rebuild them with, say, 50 percent new oak and 50 percent used oak. Just a bunch of stuff like that. We're trying to keep the soul and the intent of the winemaking but aid in the customer's control and involvement."
"Aid in the customer's control and involvement" is as good a mantra for Crushpad as any -- in Brill's view, it's what sets him apart from much of the industry. "I was at this conference in Napa last week, along with a couple hundred movers and shakers in the wine industry, and I mean, there's just not a whole lot of exciting stuff happening. I don't even know where to start -- there was such a lack of focus on consumers and experiences. It's such a producer-centric industry: 'The customer is responsible for their own experience.' Even the whole direct-to-consumer model...I think the only difference is that, instead of a distributor or retailer getting 50 percent of the value, it all goes to the winery. The winery isn't giving a better experience; it isn't giving the consumer a price break. They're not really doing anything more than they used to." That leaves the playing field wide open for companies like Crushpad, companies that will, as he puts it, "shift the industry power from the producer to the consumer."