Michael Brill: Virtual winemaker lets vino lovers taste their dream 

When San Francisco resident and amateur wine lover Michael Brill decided to rip up his backyard in Potrero Hill in 2002 and turn it into a makeshift vineyard, he expected a little help from his friends with the project — but what he got was a community gathering of interested individuals.

"I would be working in my backyard on my grapevine, and people would wander by and check it out," said Brill, who previously worked at a software company. "These people would end up sticking around all day, helping me crush the grapes, and clean up and sort everything. That’s when I decided to create a company for quality wine enthusiasts who wanted to stay involved in the entire winemaking process."

Brill took that experience and created Crushpad in 2004, a company that connects Northern California’s acclaimed vineyards with devotees all over the country, through a unique, interactive winemaking experience.

Customers use Crushpad’s online services to select a particular grape from a specific vineyard, which will then be carefully developed into fine wine at the company’s warehouse headquarters in downtown San Francisco.

Customers can get live updates via online chatting and webcams, and are encouraged to visit Crushpad’s processing center whenever a major step in the winemaking, such as the grape crushing, takes place.

Crushpad offers more than 650 unique wines from vineyards in the Russian River Valley, Napa Valley, Santa Barbara, and beyond. Customers can choose to have the finished product shipped to them, or they can pick it up at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.

"When we first started, I didn’t think anybody outside the Bay Area would be interested in this," Brill said. "But the response throughout the country has been pretty amazing."

After a slow start, Crushpad now has a customer base of more than 2,000 people hailing from 35 states and eight countries. In 2004, Crushpad produced 200 barrels. Now, after four seasonal cycles, the company is pushing out more than 1,000.

To place an order with Crushpad, customers must purchase at least one barrel of wine, ranging in price from $5,000 to $9,600. One barrel produces about 25 cases, or roughly $17-$32 price per bottle for a high-end product.

"I think 90 percent of America has a dream of selling everything, moving the kids and the pets to Napa and opening up a vineyard," Brill said. "We give them a piece of that dream for a pretty affordable price."

Business

New project: Crushpad

Last project: BlackPearl (software company)

Number of e-mails a day: 200+

Number of voice mails a day: Don’t know, voice mailbox is full

Essential Web site: crushnet.com

Best perk: I drink wine for a living

Gadgets: iPAQ with GPS for finding vineyards

Education: B.S., computer science and finance, University of San Francisco

Last conference: Web 2.0 Summit

First job: Picking worms for a bait shop

Original aspiration: Lead singer for a goth band

Career objective: Rebuild the wine industry around consumers

Personal

Details: 42, 6’1"; I wrestle with my son and dog and usually lose.

Hometown: Racine, Wis.

Sports/hobbies: Ultimate Frisbee

Transportation: Prius

Favorite restaurant: Thai House Express

Computer: HP laptop

Vacation spot: Loud, dirty, congested cities. Beaches drive me crazy.

Role Model: Fred Franzia. He has transformed his part of the wine world.

Reading: "The Wealth of Networks," Yochai Benkler. What Karl Marx would have written if he had Firefox.

Worst fear: Being surrounded by a hundred smug Mac owners

Motivation: Fear and greed, like everyone else.

About The Author

Will Reisman

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