November 9, 2006 2:38 PM PST

Web 2.0 apps sweetening wine's bouquet

SAN FRANCISCO--Down the street from all those entrepreneurs and investors buzzing about Web 2.0 applications at a much-hyped tech conference, a mellower crowd was getting a buzz at Wine 2.0.

It may seem like the wine talking, because technology is probably the last thing that comes to mind while sipping cabernet or syrah--unless that is, your Treo lights up. But the implication of Wine 2.0, a Wednesday night mixer held at the local art bar Varnish, is that a new generation of winemakers, sellers and buyers are relying on technology to customize and distribute a very old-world elixir.

Either that, or "buzz" words are just good cause for celebration.

I had that impression when I first asked one of the winemakers at Wine 2.0 how his business involved technology. "I have a cell phone," he answered, shyly.

WinePod
Credit: Provina
The $3,500 WinePod

But then I immediately stumbled on the WinePod, a $3,500 device for at-home winemaking that seems destined for the pages of Sharper Image. Made by San Jose, Calif.-based Provina, the WinePod debuted this fall to covetous attention from trade media and oenophiles.

The WinePod is the epitome of high-tech personal winemaking, with wireless sensors that automatically connect to and take direction from a home PC, along with pod sensors that control things like chamber and brick temperature. The pod itself looks like a giant metal egg with a top hatch that opens to a chamber for the grapes and temperature controls. (If owners tire of the novelty, they could easily use it as a coat rack or laundry hamper.)

Once they have their gadget at home, WinePod owners start out by ordering grapes online (at mywinepod.com). When the fruit is shipped, they begin a daily smelling-and-tasting process that lasts at least six months to yield a good five cases of cabernet wine, according to Provina CEO Greg Snell. Of course, Provina has software that feeds novices information and commands on how to make their first barrel, and it runs an online social network for winemakers to swap tips. But Snell said that if makers smell rotten eggs or nail polish in the process, "they're screwed." (The smell of nail polish means there's a bacterial infection inside the vat.)

So far, there are only 25 owners of the WinePod--but it's on back-order. The company plans to add chardonnay grapes (which are harder to crush) and a related software winemaking guide to the product in early 2007. Right now, it only sells cabernet.

Despite the WinePod, it still seemed like a far stretch to link wine with Web 2.0, which is defined by online community development and mass customization. Yet a few of the entrepreneurs in the room were keen to point out that that's where the wine business was headed.

Take, for example, the virtual winery Cameron Hughes. Cameron doesn't own a vineyard, but rather buys wine from traditional wineries and resells it. And earlier this week, it began selling the first 500 cases of wine it created for resale only online, via the wine e-tailer RadCru.

"For small wineries, it's hard to get distribution, and the Internet offers a lifeline," said RadCru co-founder Cornelius Geary.

Then I met with Crushpad, a custom winemaker based in a garage in San Francisco's Portrero Hill district. Michael Brill, president and CEO of Crushpad, had just come from crushing grapes before the party so he still had stains on his hands.

Brill's company lets people from all around the country pool resources or spend their own $5,000 to $10,000 to make a custom barrel of wine at Brill's headquarters. "They can be involved as much or as little as they want in the process," said Brill.

Crushpad is roughly 2 years old and it's profitable on its second harvest. This year, it expects to yield 15,000 cases of wine at the bequest of its roughly 2,000 customers, making it "the fastest growing high-end winery in the history of the wine business," Brill claimed.

As a former high-tech marketing executive, Brill is hip to what's happening in the world of Web 2.0 and he said Crushpad fits the mold. For one, the company's site has an online community of wine enthusiasts that blogs and shares knowledge via wikis. What's more, Crushpad gives the winemaking dreamer an unprecedented ability to make and customize his or her own bottle of wine and reach out to online communities.

"A lot of people dream of selling the house and moving to Napa and running their own winery--living that life," Brill said. "We're the next best thing."

And unlike the Web 2.0 people down the street, they don't make you sit through a bunch of boring speeches.

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