Imagine a wine club that gives you half-off exclusive bottles, made just for you by some of the world's most talented winemakers. That's Nakedwines.com, a customer-funded wine company that launched five years ago in England and is helping to dismantle conventional distribution models, while reviving the tiresome wine club model.
Since expanding to the United States in 2012, the company has signed 150 winemakers around the world, including, just weeks ago, superstar sparkling-wine maker Wayne Donaldson, the former vice president of winemaking for Domaine Chandon California and parent company Moet Hennessy USA.
Nakedwines.com's 150,000 customers -- or "angel investors" -- raised $4.1 million to help Donaldson establish his first independent label, which includes a premium blanc de blanc and a luxury brut rose to debut this year. The wines will be available to the public, but only the angel investors get the 40 to 60 percent discount.
Join the club and your $40 monthly fee goes directly to wine purchases. But anyone can swing by the company's brick-and-mortar locations in Napa and Sonoma to sample wines from 40 of their winemakers.
To me, the crowd-funding model is a perfect match for winemaking, which costs mega bucks on the journey from grape to glass. Even Donaldson, who spent years in corporate winemaking and has a healthy consulting career, says launching his own label, something he has always wanted to do, was financially daunting. This way, he can focus on making the best wine he can.
"The nature of the wine business is so capital intensive, from buying the grapes to aging it in barrels, that when you're funding it all yourself, it's a lot of cash to part with," he says. "And with customers supporting it even on the sales and marketing side, it does free us up to get off the road promoting the wine and back in the cellar."
The perks go both ways, says Rowan Gormley, the company's founder and CEO. In addition to the deep discount on exclusive (read: expensive) wines, you get to meet other angels, rate and review bottles, and "friend" the winemakers.
"You can talk to them online, tell them what you like or didn't like about their wines," Gormley says. "It's all the fun of being in the wine business for $10 a week."
Gromley looks for winemakers who have "star quality," such as Matt Iaconis, a rocket scientist who left aeronautics to make Napa Valley chardonnay; or Jim Olsen, the veteran viticulture professor and former La Crema winemaker who's taking a break from pinot noir to experiment with barbera; or Carmen Stevens, the first black woman to graduate in winemaking in South Africa. She now makes chenin blanc and shiraz; angels raised $200,000 for Stevens in eight hours.
Because the interest from winemakers around the world has been so strong, a valid criticism of the company has been that it is bottling and releasing its wines, particularly its reds, very young in order to free up equipment for the next batch. But Gromley says they've doubled the tanks at the Sonoma winery in the past few months to accommodate demand. They don't want to miss any opportunities.
And opportunities certainly come in unlikely packages. Like Tom Shula, an affable Sonoma County real estate agent and home winemaker who turned up at Nakedwine.com's Sonoma winery recently to taste through their current releases. At one point during the flight, Shula told Gromley, 'Hey, I make wine. I've got some in my car. Wanna taste it?'
"I thought, 'Oh dear, what am I going to say?' " Gromley recalls.
But, you know what? It was really good. Turns out Shula had a friend who hooked him up with remarkable zinfandel grapes, and Shula knew exactly what to do with them.
"We don't really have to worry about who the winemaker is and if they went to UC Davis," Gromley says. "We don't have to worry about the wholesaler who sells to the distributor and the retailer and the customer. This is about individual winemakers expressing their craft and art. And the support is coming from the actual people who drink their wines."
Nakedwines.com has two brick-and-mortar locations in Napa and Sonoma, where you can sample 40 wines from 40 of their independent winemakers around the world. The Kenwood studio at 8450 Sonoma Highway doubles as the winery so you can taste from tanks and barrels and maybe even spot a customer-funded winemaker at work. The Napa location at 1141 First Street is where the winemakers hang out at night. Stop in for a drink before or after dinner. They're open as late as 11 p.m. Details: us.nakedwines.com.