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Naked Wines 

100,000 angels can't be wrong

click to enlarge JAMES KNIGHT

Virgin. Orgasmic. Naked. Those aren't headlines ripped from the back page ads of an alt weekly. That's Rowan Gormley's résumé, ripped from the pages of Wikipedia. After leaving a financial-services gig in the employ of billionaire spaceman Richard Branson, Gormley launched an outfit called Orgasmic Wines, which Branson promptly bought in to and renamed Virgin Wines. Next, the South African–born entrepreneur formed Naked Wines in 2008. Now Gormley's worldwide, social-media-styled experiment in wine marketing has landed in little old Kenwood.

I'm actually looking for St. Anne's Crossing Winery when I find Gormley planted behind a small bar in a corner of the tasting room, flanked by a pair of young women in Naked Wines T-shirts. "Would you like a spot of rosé?" he asks. There's nothing doing at the St. Anne's bar, so why not?

Old-timers may remember this place as the original home of St. Francis Winery, which still owns the surrounding vineyard. Later, Blackstone Winery made its quality-driven Sonoma Reserve wines here, but the bean counters at parent company Constellation sold the old shack to Healdsburg's Wilson Winery, which has lately added St. Anne's Crossing to its burgeoning brood. We'll check on them later. The Naked folks lease the production space and share the tasting room.

Naked Wines is an innovative mix of Kickstarter-type investing and web marketing. Investors, called "angels," natch, sign up to the tune of $40 a month. In turn, they receive deep discounts on wine, up to 60 percent. In turn, client winemakers receive loans to help start their business. The catch is that their product is sold only through Naked's website, and at select locations in the U.K., Australia and Kenwood, Calif. Customers recommend their purchases to others and leave comments, which may be promptly answered by the winemakers. The smallest is a Catalonian who doles out just 120 bottles a year; the largest produces 500,000 cases.

"Winemakers are a bit like chefs," Gormley says. "They all want to do their own thing." What they don't want to do is marketing. This is not a vanity crush operation geared to beginners, but rather to people like Ken Deis, former winemaker of 37 years at Flora Springs, who makes a 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.99) that's perfectly smooth and delicious. The nicely priced Sin Fronteras 2011 Tempranillo ($11.99), from Piña assistant winemaker Macario Montoya, has bright, forward red cherry fruit. Wines from Spain, Australia and New Zealand are available, too, and you needn't get naked to enjoy them—shedding as little as $10 gets your feet wet.

Naked Wines, 8450 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood. Open daily, 11am–5pm. Tasting fee, $10. 707.408.0011.

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