Two ventures seek ways  for consumers, trade to try wines in pure form

[caption id="attachment_17455" align="alignleft" width="199" caption="TastingRoom's custom-built TASTE system combines undisclosed technology from the pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries to transfer wine from larger bottles into 50-milliter bottles under inert gas to protect wine quality."][/caption]

The decade-old promise of wine e-commerce still isn't as easy as point, click and sip, but two local companies are putting millions of dollars toward making direct marketing of wine to consumers and the trade a closer and more cost-effective approximation of the tasting room experience.

The newly launched mini-bottle tasting pack ventures by Healdsburg-based startup TastingRoom Inc. and established custom microvintner Crushpad of San Francisco come at a time when a number of wineries are looking to expand direct sales amid a slowdown in retail and restaurant sales of fine wines in the past two years.

Salespeople would be able to present a wider variety of samples to trade buyers, and wine club members could try a flight of wines, before placing orders for full bottles.

"What we're trying to do is help wineries sell more wine," said TastingRoom founder Tim Bucher, 46. "Wines over $25 are now considerable purchases, and to put down that money and not know what you're giving as a gift is big. It's really about trying and buying."

TastingRoom, which has facilities in Healdsburg, north Santa Rosa, Napa, Silicon Valley and Paso Robles, has unnamed investors pouring in "millions of dollars" to roll out a patent-pending technology called Total Anaerobic Sample Transfer Environment, or TASTE, according to Mr. Bucher, a high-tech entrepreneur and owner of Dry Creek Olive Oil Co. and Trattore Wines.

[caption id="attachment_17454" align="alignright" width="199" caption="Seghesio Vineyards had TastingRoom use the TASTE system to create six-bottle tasting kits."][/caption]

Pete Seghesio, CEO and winegrower of Healdsburg-based Seghesio Vineyards, is the first client. He said that sampling packs help remove uncertainty for consumers and trade buyers and help communicate written descriptions of wines.

"It's so difficult to get time with sommeliers and buyers," he said. "You do not get time to pour one wine, no less six wines. This allows us to send packs to the buyers to pour the wine on their own with a tasting card after hours or between shifts."

The winery had rebottling some wine samples in half-bottles, but the concern about exposure to air during the transfer always was present.

Crushpad received another $9 million in funding early last year, much of which has gone into preparing equipment and software for new interrelated services called TinyBottles and an Internet-based wine tasting interaction service called Brixr, according to Crushpad Chief Executive Officer Michael Brill.

"Small bottles have been around for a long time," he said. "Combine them with the Internet piece and it creates an environment to dramatically reduce the cost of trying wine by 90 percent."

For example, a consumer could try a $50 wine for as little as $5 as part of a multibottle sampling kit.

Mr. Brill asserts that lowering the cost and expanding the tasting room experience globally will lead to a "democratization" of wine that could help bring about the promise of Internet wine sales the way online samples of songs propelled online music sales.

[caption id="attachment_17440" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Crushpad launched its TinyBottles program in late 2009."][/caption]

Brixr, being tested with Crushpad's 120 commercial vintners clients, is designed to allow "influencers" in wine purchases, such as winemakers, critics, bloggers and aficionados to host streaming or archived video tastings with the ability of viewers to use chat and social-networking services to provide feedback on their joint experience with the wine. So far there have been eight virtual tastings.

TastingRoom's custom-built TASTE system combines undisclosed technology from the pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries to transfer wine from larger bottles, such as the standard 750-mililliter bottle, into 50-milliter bottles under inert gas to protect wine quality.

This is the size used for liquor on airlines, while the 187-milliliter quarter bottle is used for wines. However, TastingRoom conducted consumer research that showed a sample bottle needed to be at least the California tasting room legal limit of a 1 fluid ounce pour, which is 30 milliliters, but less than the full-glass-plus of the quarter bottle, according to Mr. Bucher. Existing federal alcoholic beverage rules allow for a 50-milliliter package.

TastingRoom has one rebottling unit housed in a trailer the size of a mobile bottling line and says it can handle millions of bottles a year. The company plans to have three mobile or standalone units operational eventually.

Crushpad's oxygen-free wine transfer system operates at 400 bottles per hour or up to 7,000 bottles per day, with options for paper or screen-printed labels. It offers "TinyBottles" in 50-milliliter sample and 100-milliliter retail sizes.

TastingRoom is charging a single rate in the "near single-digits" in dollars per bottle for rebottling, glass and any needed regulatory compliance and label design. Crushpad is charging $1.40 to $2 a bottle, depending on volume, for similar services.