I know two wine industry sayings — here’s the first: “If you want to make $1 million in the wine business, start with $10 million.”
Not the most rousing sentiment for would-be winemakers and it suggests that wine is a rich person’s game (and a losing one at that). But it doesn’t have to be…
When it comes to industries that are historically capital-intensive, like technology, for example, scrappy entrepreneurs have to find their own ways in — in Silicon Valley, that’s often through the garage (see Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, et al). They have garages in France too, so it’s no no coincidence that many winemakers begin as garagistes, a term that emerged in the mid-90s to describe a group of renegade Bordeaux winemakers who produced “vins de garage,” a.k.a., “garage wine.”
But what if the budget for your winemaking ambition is less “garage” and more like “metered street parking?” Well, you can always be a négociant, a French term for those who bottle and market the juice of others under their own brand — but that’s more marketing than winemaking. So, what’s an aspiring winemaker to do? Or, perhaps the question should be WWSJD? (What would Steve Jobs do?).
He would probably get naked, more specifically, Naked Wines, a sort of Kickstarter-meets-Garagistes company that pairs winemakers with Angels, their term for the wine enthusiasts who crowdfund their winemakers’ ventures.
Launched in the UK in 2009 with subsequent footprints established in the US and Australia in 2012, the company boasts more than 300,000 “Angels,” (there are 100,000 Angels in the US alone funding over 150 winemakers). Altogether, 400 limited-production wines have been created, which are made available to funders at 60% off their online retail prices at NakedWines.com.
Where are Naked Wines?
Locally, Naked Wines keeps an office in Napa and a winery in Kenwood. It also keeps Ryan O’Connell, a winemaker-turned-in-house-evangelist on tap to keep their story in the public eye.
“We love to find passion and you want that to be coupled with an ability to deliver,” says O’Connell when asked about what Naked Wines looks for in a winemaker. “Ultimately, it’s up to customers.”
Naked Wines’ Angles fund newbies as well as industry pros interested in outsourcing their marketing and sales needs so they can concentrate on winemaking. Once funded, the wine is made available for order on the website. “We fund enough to make it a reality,” says O’Connell.
How to become a Winemaker (And Not Go Broke Trying)
According to alcohol beverage industry attorney Marbet Lewis, working with a third party company is often an attractive first stop for would-be winemakers.
“Pairing with third party companies that can navigate the pre-market processes and assist with a brand launch has therefore become an appealing option for many start-up producers and brand owners,” Lewis replied to a recent email query.
It seems, given the beguiling amount of regulatory requirements one encounters when making and selling alcoholic beverages — let alone the civil and financial liabilities — going it alone is a costly, Kafkaesque experience that will drive you to drink more wine than you’ll ever make.
“These types of services, be it through a third-party industry member that can produce and source product, or outside attorney counsel, allow the new brand owner or producer to focus on making the product and developing brand identity rather than the intricate regulatory complexities that can seem daunting at first,” says Lewis.
And because legalese is drier than a grüner veltliner on a hot day, the more a winemaker can avoid it the better. That, or imbibe the wisdom of the second wine industry saying that I know: “To make great wine, you need a lot of beer.” Ba dum tss.