Columbia Crest is owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, part of a one-half billion dollar company. La Crema is part of Jackson Family Wines, also a one-half billion dollar company. So why is each using a form of crowdsourcing, letting its customers make key winemaking decisions for one of its wines?
Because it’s not enough to make piles of money in the wine business anymore. You also have to be seen as local and accessible, and these multi-nationals (the eighth- and ninth-biggest producers in the U.S.) see crowdsourcing as the way to make them cuddly and artisan-like. Ask your customers for their advice about making wine, and how can they — and the rest of the wine world — not love you?
The Wine Curmudgeon can’t decide if this is incredible marketing or one of the most cynical things I’ve ever seen in the wine business, where cynical things are a dime a dozen. On the one hand, it’s a clever use for social media, which big companies have a hard time doing well. There aren’t too many opportunities for cute pet pictures on a multi-national Facebook page. And the crowdsourcing is certainly no scam — the companies have been honest and upfront about what’s going on.
On the other hand, it could be malarkey to make P.T. Barnum proud. Columbia Crest is making 1,000 cases of high-end cabernet sauvignon from its effort, not much when you consider its annual production is almost 2 million cases and it normally does 5,000 of this particular wine. La Crema churns out almost 1 million cases a year; it hasn’t announced how much the project will produce. First its crowd has to decide between chardonnay and pinot noir.
Plus, given the odds that each crowd could decide to make really crappy wine even with the best of intentions, how much input will it really have? Yes, each company says its winemaker will do exactly as instructed, but given how little most of us know about winemaking and how complicated it is, what are the chances of that happening? Because Columbia Crest and La Crema could turn into the wine industry’s version of New Coke if the wine turns out to be undrinkable, and one doesn’t get to be one of the 10 biggest producers in the U.S. by doing a New Coke.
There is one thing I am thankful for, crowdsoucing veteran that I am. At least the companies didn’t ask for cash to help pay for production, which is the most typical use for crowdsourcing — Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the like. That would have been too much to deal with, even for the Wine Curmudgeon.