Winery asks the Internet its opinion

Ste. Michelle opens decision making to crowdsourced votes

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KENNEWICK — If you’ve ever dreamed of making award-winning wine, but didn’t have the grapes, equipment or space, here’s your chance.

All you’ll need is a computer or smartphone.

Virtual winemakers will make about 1,000 cases of Crowdsourced Cabernet Sauvignon for the largest wine producer in Washington.

Ste. Michelle Wine Estates officials said it is the first time crowdsourcing will guide winemaking from vineyard to finished vintage.

The fate of a quarter of the grapes typically used to create Columbia Crest’s Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon will soon be in the hands of the online community.

Wine drinkers and others will see how the vines look in real time and then vote on decisions the professionals would normally make.

Their votes will guide Columbia Crest’s head winemaker Juan Munoz-Oca and vineyard manager Juan Uribe on one acre of the Paterson winery’s Cabernet Sauvignon estate vineyard.

Virtual winemakers cast their votes at www.crowdsourcedcabernet.com. The site launched this week, and already they have 165 email subscribers from across the U.S. and 245 votes cast on the second winemaking decision.

Munoz-Oca, in his third vintage as Columbia Crest’s head winemaker and 13th vintage with the winery, said the online decisions are going the way he would have advised, but he expects that to change.

Still, he’s prepared to do whatever the majority decides. “It’s going to be a collective wine,” he said.

The idea of crowdsourcing wine sprang out of a desire to be more interactive with Columbia Crest’s consumers.

Munoz-Oca said it’s a chance to educate them on what goes into making Washington wine and introduce them to some of the nuances.

For example, there’s information about temperature, humidity, precipitation, dew point and weather forecasts.

The website compares the current situation with past vintages, Munoz-Oca said. Hopefully, that will help the crowd make more educated decisions.

“At the end of the day we make wine so we can enhance people’s experiences,” he said.

Columbia Crest’s estate vineyard was chosen because he said they have absolute control over it. They chose an acre of Cabernet Sauvignon because it is within walking distance of the winery, giving them easy access to the live camera in the vineyard.

They also want to use the best grapes they can, Munoz-Oca said.

Grapes from the vineyard created Columbia Crest’s 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which was ranked the top wine in the world by Wine Spectator magazine in 2009.

It was the first time a Washington wine had topped the list since Wine Spectator began it in 1988.

Typically, Columbia Crest makes 4,000 cases of Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Munoz-Oca said he’s been impressed with how much consumers and fans already know about wine, and the kinds of details they want to know.

They also are trying to make it accessible, no matter how much knowledge someone is starting with.

Munoz-Oca said it’s a challenge to be accurate and to present the science behind making wine at a level where it doesn’t take a master’s degree in viticulture to participate. They are trying to keep decisions to ones that can be answered with yes or no or by picking one of a couple options.

For example, the current decision is whether to remove unripe grape clusters. So far, about 65 percent of the votes favored thinning the clusters, but voting won’t close until today.

Typically, Munoz-Oca said they’ve picked that block of grapes Oct. 20. But this year’s harvest will depend on viticultural decisions voters make in the next few weeks.

The five to six weeks after harvest will be packed with winemaking decisions.

He said he might divide the grapes into a couple different wines, based on how voting goes.

For example, tanks come in different shapes and are made of different materials including concrete, oak and stainless steel. And the wine could be aged in newer or older oak barrels. Munoz-Oca said he can easily come up with three to four different decisions each day.

“We are going to try to make it as much of the real thing as we can,” he said.

He hopes some of the virtual winemakers will visit the winery.

The 2014 vintage will age for 12 to 18 months depending what the crowd decides, so it won’t be bottled until early 2016, Munoz-Oca said. It will be sold online and at the Columbia Crest tasting room in Paterson — and submitted to leading wine publications.

Munoz-Oca wants to be able to continue crowdsourcing for a 2015 vintage. Voting would start in December as Columbia Crest prepares to prune the vines.