Regulation & Legislation
Who hasn’t dreamed of owning a vineyard and routinely roaming the hills of Tuscany or meandering through the grapevines of Bordeaux? Inhale deeply and you can practically smell the rich soil underfoot and the lush fragrance of fruit ripening under the Mediterranean sun. Imagine cultivating your own fields and reclining beneath a pergola, sharing your most recent creation with loved ones.
Martin Luther distilled this emotional fulfillment about 500 years ago when he opined that “beer is made by men, wine by God.” Then again, the 16th-century theologian may have slightly underplayed the time, effort, expense and sheer commitment involved in owning a vineyard. Fortunately, there are many ways to make a bid for immortality — or at least elevate your palate — without actually running a winemaking operation.
Specifically, a number of companies allow you to create your own wine based on your knowledge, interests and desired level of involvement. For example, there are workshops that teach how to blend a bottle of wine and programs allowing you to “adopt” a vine. More-intrepid enthusiasts can create their own barrel of wine, going as far as purchasing a home with its own vineyard and shared winemaking facilities in a community of oenophiles. Geographic locations are just as wide-ranging, from the U.S. to Bordeaux, Portugal, Argentina and beyond.
The Wine Foundry, a boutique winery specializing in custom winemaking for individual collectors and small commercial brands, and the MicroCrush program at the Judd’s Hill winery are two options in California’s Napa Valley. With either company, customers can make as little as one barrel of wine, which will result in about 24 cases of bottled wine.
The first step is meeting with a winemaker, who will help match client preferences with appropriate grapes. “It’s a really interesting process to see how the different vineyard properties, even in the same valley, will taste very different depending on where the grapes are grown, what the soils are like and what the elevation is,” says Valerie Von Burg, who owns The Wine Foundry with her husband, Philip.
Once grapes are selected and harvested, they are sorted and pressed. Clients can choose how much material other than grapes, such as stems, which influence the taste of the wine, they would like included. The next steps include fermentation, aging, blending and, finally, bottling, with the client choosing the label, cork and capsule.
Clients can join the winemaking process at any step. Though people who live near the companies may choose to visit regularly, both companies are visited by many clients from around the globe who make the trip less frequently. Luckily, the process can be done remotely, which was helpful during the COVID-19 lockdown. The Wine Foundry’s winemaker may create several blends, send them to a client and discuss preferences via telephone. Judd’s Hill sends samples and can do the blending session virtually.
For clients who want to cut straight to blending, both companies offer barrels of wine that are ready for this stage. Judd’s Hill offers Bottle Blending Day Camp for those who want only a bottle or two.
The varietal selected determines how long a wine will take to make, from grape to bottle. White wines may be ready for bottling within six to eight months of the grape harvest. Cabernet sauvignon, on the other hand, may take from 20 to 30 months, depending on how long a client wants to age it.
The time required to make the wine affects pricing, as do the varietal and appellation. While the wine is in the barrel, the cellar staff tend to it, guiding it through fermentation and the evaporation process, when it will need to be topped off (more wine added to the barrel so that there’s less space for oxygen). They test the wine to make sure everything is going well. Wine is rotated through a number of oak barrels, called “coopers.”
“In order to get some layering and complexity and the ideal balance, it might go into a couple of different barrels along the way,” says Von Burg.
Judd’s Hill conducts what are known as oak trials. “It’s a blind tasting trial where you taste your wine with different types of oak on it, and it’s all done blindly,” says MicroCrush manager Susie Dineen. “So you actually pick what you like and not what you think you should like.”
The Wine Foundry offers a program that provides infrastructure to customers who want to launch their own small commercial brands.
Bottle Blending Day Camp at Judd’s Hill starts at $350 per couple and includes four bottles they create. For corporations, camp starts at $200 per person; there’s a group competition, and each person receives a bottle of the winning blend. Groups from two to 50 people can participate.
The Wine Foundry’s per barrel prices range from about $6,000 for a white wine to around $14,000 for a red made from grapes cultivated at an exclusive vineyard that generally isn’t accessible to small winemakers.
Prices for the Judd’s Hill MicroCrush program range from $4,400 to $5,100 for one barrel, excluding the cost of blending wines and sales and excise taxes.
Both companies’ fees include approval from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), required for production of alcoholic beverages, but label design and certain other fees are not included.
Once their wine is bottled, Judd’s Hill clients can engage in a food and wine pairing at the winery. Says general manager Liz Mercer, “We’re all about playing with our wine and playing with our food.”