Buying wine online is hardly new anymore, but Naked Wines Australia have taken digital business a few steps further by using social media and crowdfunding to produce wine.
Launched two years ago, the wine startup encourages customers or “Angels” to invest in local independent winemakers by paying a $40 monthly fee which is transferable and redeemable for wine purchases. For the selected winemakers it means they are paid upfront to make wine which is released exclusively for Naked Wines “Angels” at a discounted price.
Since 2012, the company’s crowdfunding model has invested $18 million in 22 Australian and New Zealand winemakers to produce 300,000 cases of premium wine.
For winemaker Sam Plunkett from Victoria’s Strathboogie Ranges, being financed to make wine via crowdfunding is a refreshing change from the industry’s traditional business model.
Several years ago Plunkett was bought out of his family business, Plunkett Fowles, and faced an uncertain future before being approached by Naked Wines.
“I like making wine and didn’t know how I was going to keep doing it,” he explains.
“I went from 20 years in the wine industry, building a little family business to having a vineyard with no brand and no winemaking capacity, no customers. (Naked Wines) said ‘Mate, if you’re up for it come and make wine for us but more than that we’ll give you the cash to buy grapes, buy barrels and pay for bottling.
“From my point of view it’s absolutely extraordinary what they’ve let me do.”
He says customers are able to interact directly with the winemakers via Naked Wines’ website which has been described as a “Facebook for wine lovers”.
The website and app feature videos, tasting notes, deals and allow users to post ratings while being able to chat to the winemaker of the wine they’re drinking.
“The Naked Wine model is to promote the winemaker and puts consumers in touch with winemakers,” Plunkett says.
“People feel like they’re part of a club but it is more democratic and egalitarian. Ultimately Naked Wines’ model is built on trust. Customers know an enormous amount about how the wine is being made as we’ll put videos up and I reckon people return that trust.”
Hunter Valley winemaker Ash Horner says leaving the financing, marketing and sales to Naked Wines allows him to concentrate on doing what he loves.
“There’s so much wine out there that it’s hard to get the right price in the wholesale market,” he says.
“I put in my invoices as I buy the fruit and (Naked Wines) pay me within a month and then I pay who I’ve got to pay within a month.
“I think it (this system) builds good rapport with farmers and where you get your wine made. It makes you feel good because you don’t have any stress of worrying about the bills or worrying about selling wine to pay your bills.”
Horner is also a convert to using social media for feedback from buyers after initially finding email replies time consuming.
“It’s like a virtual cellar door. You don’t get this sort of feedback when you’re a winemaker working in a winery,” he admits.
“You don’t always get the feedback about what was wrong with the wine or what they’d like to see more of in the wine.
“I also think if you’re not evolving with your drinkers, you aren’t going to do any good. I am still making wine I want to drink but when it comes to finishing a wine off, I listen to (the customers): whether they want it to be smooth or whether they want to see more fruit which is where I might tweak things towards to end.”
Horner and Plunkett are both confident that crowdfunded wine is a business model with a future.
“I reckon it’s got legs,” says Plunkett.
“I reckon it’s got serious, long-term potential. I hope in 20 years I’ll be getting to end of a working, winemaking life and can I imagine that I’ll still be working with Naked Wines.”