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Votes for vino! Crowdsourced wines blend customer input

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Ever taken a sip of wine and thought, "I could do better?" Now's your chance.

Two wineries — Columbia Crest in Washington and La Crema in California — recently launched crowdsourced wine projects in which online voters get to decide everything from the types of grapes used to produce the wine to the design of the label on the bottle. Being a home winemaker just got a lot less messy.

"It's groundbreaking for our industry," says Caroline Shaw, chief marketing officer and executive vice-president of Jackson Family Wines, parent of La Crema. She sees the project as "lifting that curtain that I think gets people so intimidated when they see a wine list."

In the La Crema project, which launched last month, voters already have decided to make pinot noir, which beat out chardonnay by a mere 78 votes, and have further picked the Russian River appellation as a source of the grapes. Within three weeks of launch, the effort had attracted nearly 15,000 registered visitors and about 135,000 page views.

Decisions yet to come on the wine, which will be released in fall 2015, include fermentation style, what kind of barrel aging should be used, what the wine should be called and how it should be labeled.

Crowdsourcing — soliciting input from a community of users, typically online — has been used elsewhere to make everything from a better ice scraper to a more comfortable shirt. But it's relatively new to wine, an industry that hasn't generally been in the vanguard of digital marketing.

There's no cost to participate in the crowdsourcing of the wines. Customers cast their votes at winery websites dedicated to the projects, and there's no obligation to buy the finished wine. Columbia Crest expects to make 1,000 cases of the wine, which will be available for purchase in the United States online and in the winery tasting room. Prices haven't been determined.

"This is a great idea," says Paul Mabray, CEO of VinTank, a Napa-based software company. He expects to see more of this, at least for some wineries, "and there will be a clear delineation between those who use this key channel and those who don't."

At Columbia Crest Winery, voters knew going in they were creating a cabernet, for about five acres of reserve grapes have been set aside in the winery's estate vineyard. But there still are lots of decisions to be made, including irrigation techniques and harvest practices. And they won't be deciding blindly. Participants will be given information such as weather analytics and past data, and can also check in on the grapes by way of web cams.

Visitors who make it to Columbia Crest love getting that kind of detail on the winemaking process, but not that many can visit since Columbia Crest, in Paterson, Washington, is "kind of in the middle of nowhere," says head winemaker Juan Munoz Oca. The crowdsourcing project gives the winery "a chance to share what we do with the consumer and engage them in the process."

Does it bother him that online users have control over choices that usually are firmly in the winemaker's hands?

Not at all, says Munoz Oca, noting that Columbia Crest has a team of eight winemakers so collaboration is nothing new.

La Crema, too, is ready to follow the dictates of the masses. There's some guidance in the way choices are presented, but other than that "there are no wrong answers," says Shaw. "That's the great part about this and that's what makes it so engaging."

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Online:

La Crema: http://vv.lacrema.com

Columbia Crest: http://crowdsourcedcabernet.com

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Michelle Locke tweets at https://twitter.com/Locke_Michelle

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