Sample-sized Wine Bottles Aid Online Sales

Crushpad developed TinyBottles to build boutique wine brands

by Paul Franson
tiny bottles
TinyBottles come in sets of four.

San Francisco, Calif. -- Contending that direct-to-consumer sales has not worked out the way many people hoped, Crushpad, Michael Brill’s custom microcrush winery, is taking another tack -- one that recognizes that most people buy wines recommended to them by critics, wine experts, retailers, friends and even wineries. It’s also starting to offer samples of wines in TinyBottles, 50- and 100ml bottles at as little as 10% of the cost of a full bottle, to make it more practical for wineries to give customers a taste.

Brill, whose business is based in San Francisco with outposts in Napa and Bordeaux, points out the obvious: Boutique wineries are having a tough time. “I expect to see hundreds of boutique brands disappear in the next year or so,” he warns. The problem is that the $50 bottle of Pinot Noir now sells for $30. Little-known boutiques can’t afford to sell through the usual distribution channels. “The only way they can make it is selling direct to consumers, and historically, this has never worked very well, unless you got a 95 from the Wine Spectator or Advocate,” he says.

He adds that many boutiques don’t have tasting rooms, and “building networks with Facebook and Twitter does do it,” but the solution has to be online.

Brill notes that even though Amazon.com gave up on wine sales (at least for now), the e-commerce giant’s model suffered from one of the problems of using distributors: Amazon wanted to take 53%, and it didn’t have a means of directing customers to wines. “The problem is that there are millions of consumers and tens of thousands of SKUs. We need a way to match them up.”

To solve this problem and help his 120 or so small commercial brands -- most making 50 to 500 cases of wine per year -- Brill and his nine software experts created BrixR.com, an online platform based on tastings and recommendations from influencers like critics, sommeliers and bloggers. It naturally also makes the wines available for sale from the wineries.

The intriguing twist is facilitating the possibility of online tastings with the TinyBottles.

While originally he intended them for his own customers, Brill has found great interest in the sample bottles among other wineries, too. Crushpad can take wine from existing bottles or in bulk -- even barrel samples or imports -- and handles label modification and COLA approval as part of a package. Right now, it costs about $2.50 per bottle, but he expects this to drop by half during the next year, as volume builds. Shipping is typically $6 by UPS envelope

The wine can be offered in two-, four- or six-packs, allowing a winery to let wine club members and others taste before buying, or even try barrel samples for futures. The TinyBottles can be used for online, directed tastings. Some distributors are even considering them for retail and restaurant sampling; the present practice of opening 750ml bottles can be very wasteful. Airlines are also looking at them for in-flight wine tasting.

Magazines could sell packs of Top 10s to pair with their articles. Wineries also are looking at them to expand their samples for bloggers and others, though Brill acknowledges that the top reviewers will continue to want 750ml bottles.

Brill emphasizes that the goal of the program is to help his customers who sell their wines through Crushpad Commerce, but he thinks the TinyBottles will be very popular. “We expect to sell a lot of them in 2010 and 2011.” He also acknowledges that other wineries could do their own bottling, but says it isn’t a trivial process. The company developed special machinery to deal with the sparging needed for the small bottles.


Posted on 12.10.2009 - 08:22:01 PST
This concept is much overdue for those of us who would like to take a decent wine through TSA at airports... the 3 ounce limit has been a nightmare ... bravo! Let the Frequent Flyer world know when and how to buy!
Barbara Keck of WineBizNews blog
San Francisco, CA Canada