Ten months ago, I bought a book. Yesterday, it finally turned up. This was my first experience of Unbound, the online crowd-funding platform for authors. It works by inviting advance pledges from people – much like Kickstarter and other crowd-funding platforms. When a predetermined total has been reached and the book is therefore fully funded, the author writes it. (Which is precisely what happened for Nick with his book On The Menu to be published next week.)
Avoiding the middleman and connecting customers directly to producers sounds like the kind of thing that would suit wine very well. Indeed, the model already exists in several forms. Perhaps the Bordeaux en primeur market is the original example, which has for decades allowed vinophiles to purchase the latest vintage from their favourite châteaux in advance of its release - though it hardly avoids middlemen in the process.
Of the internet-based modern versions, however, Naked Wines is the best known within the UK – though it doesn't follow quite the same procedure. In this instance, investors pay a monthly fee (they prefer the term deposit, since it can be refunded at any time, I am told) to then receive discounted prices on exclusive wines. The accumulated angel funds are used to finance winemakers upfront, allowing them to 'focus on growing quality grapes rather than volume'.
Some observers quibble with the bottle prices quoted by Naked, claiming that the discounts are artificial – but the relationship between wine price and quality is non-linear at the best of times, so Naked are hardly breaking the mould. But either way, their model isn't exactly like the Unbound style of crowd-funding. Neither is the scheme launched by Columbia Crest for their Crowdsourced Cabernet project, which invites customers to vote on winemaking decisions and therefore influence what style of wine is being produced.
Both these websites offer platforms whereby producers offer their wares at the pre-production stage, and anyone can pledge a certain sum in support. This includes bottles or cases of wine, of course, but also covers vineyard visits, lunches with the winemaker and other attractions.
This is a direct facsimile of the Unbound model. Yet Cruzu currently has only one active offer, from a historical total of 28. Furthermore, a sizeable proportion of those look more like flash wine sales, where already existing wine is sold at (purportedly) discounted prices.
Fundovino, based in France, is still only partially formed, and has two current offers out of 22 in total. However, it is not wine that is on sale here, but the opportunity to help out struggling winemakers by partially funding their new vineyards or viticulture equipment or winery kit. But helping a producer buy stainless-steel tanks or plant two hectares of AOC Bordeaux is hardly the recipe to get many wine lovers' pulses racing.
So why has crowd-funded wine apparently not caught on?
One problem wine has is the inability to offer samples. Inventors can show videos of their prototypes, authors can provide sample chapters and musicians can record demos – but winemakers can't give tastes of a wine that doesn't exist. Whereas at least with en primeur, flawed though it may be, critics and merchants are able to taste (a version of) the wine that is being sold.
Cost might be another hurdle. Whereas books, albums and gadgets have standard market prices in most cases, wine can be bought at anything from pennies to thousands. When there is so much good wine available in the world at every price point, buying untasted wine online constitutes a big risk.
Then there's the nature of the product. Pre-selling wine requires guaranteeing a certain level of volume, which is simply impossible in most winemaking regions of the world. Plus, especially if the wine is being oak aged, it might take several years before the finished product is ready to be delivered.
It is starting to sound untenable - yet crowd-funding wine projects are successfully achieved. For example, one Chilean Carmenère raised £7,500 through Cruzu - although only 314 bottles were sold to raise that sum, and with 1,200 kg of grapes involved, there must be at least twice as much wine left unsold. Is that really successful?
The wine trade is often accused of being old-fashioned and insular, but sites such as Cruzu and Fundovino show that innovation within the category is alive and well. What it doesn't prove is whether crowd-funding is a viable model for wine. On the current evidence, I suspect it is not.