The California winemaker's dilemma: Making wine for the retail market in our gloriously sunny state is an expensive endeavor. You need investors with loads of cash to build a winery. Investors with loads of cash have lots of opinions about what the winemaker should and should not be making. The bottles are often priced well beyond the average consumer's nightly dinner budget, so the investors sell them to their wealthy friends while the rest of us stock up on imports at Trader Joe's. Again.
Find out more about the Naked Wines' $40 click-to-invest approach after the jump.
The Naked Wines webpool solution: You pay $40 per month in an "investment pool" that Naked Wines distributes among winemakers, who do their grape juice fermenting thing largely on their own. The wines are sold directly back to investors (no middle man markup) at a 40% to 60% discount -- the prices wine shops would pay for them, essentially. That $40 monthly "investment" sits in your online account waiting until you find a few bottles you want to buy, so it always goes towards your next order. Prices vary, with a handful of $5.99 steals and plenty of $10 to $20 options (if you scroll through individual wines online, the faux "retail" price is listed but investors get 40% or more off).Early buzz for the company, as in this article in Forbes magazine over the summer, centered on the potential for Naked Wines to tap into overlooked talent like "would-be winemakers stuck in assistant winemaking or cellar rat positions," says author Erika Swallow. "In many cases, these wine aficionados know the trade, but it can take years, even decades, to work up the ladder in the winemaking business."
It's an accurate assessment of the industry, and the sort of underdog story we all love. Some of those guys are here. But scroll through the list of California winemakers and several don't exactly fall into the "work up the ladder" category like Randall Grahm, the founder of Bonny Doon Vineyard who got his start in L.A. wine shops in the 1970s. Others, like Jason Moore, fall into the "young winemaker" category but already own their own wineries (Modus Operandi in Napa).
But actually, that diversity of experience makes the investment concept all the more interesting. The age/years of experience of those cellar rats often has little to do with why a winemaker doesn't have their own label. Many spend their lifetime working directly for a winery or consulting, never landing the financial opportunity to settle down with their own label. There are also hidden resume gems here that you don't often find touted elsewhere, like the longtime UC Davis professor and consultant who is now making Naked Wines (Alumni: Now you can give him a grade on those wines).
That hearty dose of British humor pulsing throughout the website keeps things from getting too serious (And really, we could all stand to be a little less serious about wine, couldn't we?). In the bio of British winemaker Robin Langton, Naked Wines' Director of Winemaking (here, tinkering around with California wines), we get this little nugget: "He's the only winemaker in the world who used to be a cop on the Drug Squad in South London." As with that bagpipe playing winemaker, all good things to know before you take a sip.
Are the wines any good? You'll have to ask the members. They post their reviews online, for better and worse. If you're interested in what other imbibers think, you can scroll through the list of wines to see the overall comments (96% would buy that 2011 Bear & Crown Sonoma Zinfandel again, for instance) before you purchase.
You can also take a closer look at individual reviews. One member takes Grahm's 2011 Close But No Cigare literally ("I can't imagine anyone, anyone at all even remotely liking the taste of this wine"), others sing the wine's praises. Our favorite comment (for a different wine): "This wine tells me to barbecue some meat." In a wine review, isn't that all you really need to know?
Note: Naked Wines' Adam Reiter and winemaker Ken Deis will be on Extra tonight giving away $100 gift cards to audience members and viewers (on the Facebook page after the show).