The Internet's Wine

by Betsy Morais

Snobbery may be nearly dead: The Brandenburgs are big on YouTube; ballet sells undershirts; and winemaking has been crowdsourced. “There’s no right or wrong way to transform a bucket full of grapes into wine,” Juan Muñoz Oca, the head winemaker at Columbia Crest, a Washington-state vineyard, told me the other night. “There’s just maybe the way that you would like to see them.”

Muñoz Oca, dressed as the aesthete, wore a sharp black suit, a lavender shirt, and a neatly folded turquoise-and-purple pocket square. At his ankles, a more experimental touch: gray socks with orange and magenta squiggly stripes. “When I get talking and really dive in deep to the nuances of the process, I get geeky, like, in no time,” he said. “And people are, like, ‘I really don’t know what you’re talking about!’” Wine is for sniffers, swirlers, tannin inspectors — people with a nose for detail and the funds to support the burden of discerning taste. Those who run the vineyards are the keepers of mystery, enabling the conceit that acquired knowledge — experience itself, one might say — can be sipped upon and make you tipsy with rarefied pleasure. Still: Thomas Jefferson — wine collector, Bordeaux admirer, American president though he may have been — failed to produce Cabernet at Monticello; the feet-crushers have long persisted. So Muñoz Oca decided to share the mantle with anybody who’s got an Internet connection and an opinion: is a vote-for-your-vino system that, starting in August, began to call upon the masses to dabble in the domain of the genteel.

To prove his dedication, Muñoz Oca came to meet the people on their turf, by paying a first-time visit to the MLB Man Cave, in downtown Manhattan. He stood beside a banquet table and gestured underneath, at a stump of gnarled roots and dead leaves: whence the wine came. “This one was sacrificed,” he said. Every few years, the winery will pluck some vines out of the ground and inspect the insides — a check-up that necessitates the death of the specimen. He had put a few on display. “I couldn’t use them any more, so I brought them with me.” Wine was poured and a crowd gathered at the table. Guests — guys, mostly — sipped from plastic cups and milled around in a vast room that also contained a gigantic surfboard and a very serious-looking motorbike.

“I’ve never done anything other than wine,” Muñoz Oca told me. “I grew up on a winery.” His grandfather and his father taught him the business. “For them, it was very important to expose me to the hard work goes into crafting a bottle of wine. Going out and hand picking the grapes and being out there in the sun for ten or twelve hours in September to October. It was a lot of learning how important the little details are. Like, leaving the clusters that were not perfectly good, and making sure that the grapes that you harvest are treated properly, so you don’t bruise the berries or crack them open. Those little details that seem really obvious for a winemaker are not obvious to everybody.”

He added, “Winemaking is knowing how wine will react to different environments and different things. Knowing certain grapes that are grown in a certain vineyard, maybe in a specific block, and knowing how they react to an eighty-five-degree fermentation versus a seventy-nine-degree fermentation.”

A bit much for amateurs, one might think, though that logic has gone the way of the flip phone. Virtual winemaking used to mean producing wine without a vineyard — that is, small companies outsourcing to bigger operations the grape-growing, fermentation, warehousing, and so on. (There are more than a thousand such outfits in the United States.) The notion of crowdsourcing takes that a step further: neither supplies nor expertise are required. The would-be winemaker merely responds to questions online. To produce the people’s cab, Muñoz Oca and his colleagues put weekly decisions to a vote: “Should we irrigate?” “Should we night harvest?” “Rely on natural yeast?” Insta-sophistication has broad appeal: Over fifteen weeks, 2,951 votes were cast. The devotion elicited from this interactive marketing stunt rose to such an extreme that some voters visited the vineyard — a four-hour drive from Seattle — to personally check up on the progress of the grapes. And around the time that Columbia Crest opened the polls on its cabernet, another company, La Crema Winery, in Sonoma, set up “Virtual Vinter” — same interactive deal, but voters could pick between Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. (They went with pinot, and just completed the name-choosing phase — “Virtuoso” or “Aggregation”?)

But how much can be entrusted with the folks at home? “We did not give our crowdsourced cabernet community any opportunity to take some crazy action,” Muñoz Oca said. Each ballot came with guidelines — in a video explaining the benefits of the company’s cultured yeast, he explained, “We know some of the aromas and flavors that this yeast will give to the final wine”; sixty percent of the respondents took his word for it, and natural yeast was voted down. He told me, “We try not to steer them too much, but we stay within parameters that we would normally use.” Democracy only went so far. The vineyard manager kept watch. “He wouldn’t let us get the vines into trouble.”

Several days before arriving at the Man Cave, Muñoz Oca took his first taste of the crowdsourced cab. “This wine has a lot of texture to it. It’s rich but delicate at the same time,” he said. It now needs to mature. (Voters will be able to start buying bottles in the spring of 2016.) “Wine takes on the personality of the people who participate in the process,” he explained. Then he compared it to the other wines that Columbia Crest makes: “The Crowdsourced Cabernet is a little bit more elegant.”

Photo by Paul Lieberwith