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Over a Barrel
By Linda Murphy
Apr 28, 2015
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On May 1, the Sonoma County Vintners association will conduct its first Sonoma County Barrel Auction, with bidders grabbing one-of-a-kind wines not sold commercially.  It’s not a charity auction but rather a fundraiser for Sonoma County Vintners’ administrative and marketing efforts, modeled after Napa Valley Vintners’ hugely successful Premiere Napa barrel auction.

The idea is simple:  Wineries produce a barrel of wine impossible to attain anywhere else, and donate it to the auction.  Members of the trade -- largely wine retailers and restaurateurs -- purchase the barreled wines at auction, and when the wines have matured and been bottled, the buyers take possession sell them to their best customers.

For example, Dry Creek Vineyard will offer an unusual (for Sonoma) blend of Sauvignon Musque and Sauvignon Gris from Dry Creek Valley.  A Pinot Noir lot named “The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost” is a collaboration of Joseph Swan Vineyards (Father), Williams Selyem (Son) and Kosta Browne (Holy Ghost).  Joe Swan was a pioneer in planting Pinot Noir in Russian River Valley, and the three wineries will blend their wines produced from Swan Selection Pinot Noir grapes into one wine that won’t be available anywhere else than at the auction.

This is all good.  Special, gotta-have wines stimulate interest in Sonoma County wines, just as Premiere Napa does for Napa Valley wines.  Folks from around the world attend these auctions and take back with them not only their receipt for the barrel lots and anticipation of their delivery, but also a greater understanding of the regions and the people who grow the grapes and produce the wines.  It’s smart marketing, and the effort continues as these one-off wines are sold by the bottle to consumers, with a unique story behind them.

But that’s where some of my enthusiasm for barrel tasting ends.  They’ve multiplied across the country like Star Trek Tribbles on the USS Enterprise, with the “sell now, deliver later” concept catching on with wineries who get cash up front for wines they don’t have to sell two years later.  Consumers like the idea of buying wine at what is likely a discount, though the discount doesn’t always pencil out, as economic changes and shipping costs can negate any savings.

Tasting wine from barrels a year or more before they’ve fully matured is risky business for the consumer.  Who knows how much the wine will change in its final years in oak, after fining and filtration?  Will the winemaker find a need to blend in other varieties for a more complete wine prior to bottling?  Will the winery even be in business two years after the barrel tasting?  Could possible new ownership force a change of winemaker and/or wines?

The father of all barrel tastings, Bordeaux, recently completed its annual en primeur week of tastings of the 2014 vintage -- less than one year away from when the grapes were harvested.  Experienced wine media and buyers descend in droves on Bordeaux each spring to recommend/purchase the baby wines long before the wines will be bottled.  With their early abrasive tannins and awkwardness, these wines are akin to a house that has been framed and wired, yet doesn’t yet have its walls and appliances in place.  Who knows what will take shape as the structure is completed?

In Bordeaux, en primeur tastings are all about investment and gamesmanship.  The selling of “futures” wines in barrels is a way for merchants to get a jump on acquiring the wines at an opening price that traditionally rises as the wines are released.  Consumers who purchase early from these merchants get a discount of 10 to 20 percent, depending on the quality of the vintage.  Snooze, you lose.

Yet in some recent years, Bordeaux prices have fallen after the initial en primeur offerings.  Sales of wines from mediocre and average vintages have stalled, and even the wines from premiere years no longer comment the top dollar they once did.  The investment game has soured, and many buyers of Bordeaux now purchase when the wines are actually finished, for the current prices, so that they know exactly what they will get and evaluate the value. 

Even uber-critic and Bordeaux aficionado Robert Parker said recently that he would no longer taste Bordeaux en primeur.

Over the years, there has been talk of instituting en primeur-like tastings, and I hope that doesn’t happen, for consumers’ sake.  Events like the Wine Roads of Northern Sonoma’s annual Barrel Tasting over two weekends in February and March fill tasting rooms during a slow season, introduces visitors to wines they might otherwise not find when they get back home, gives them a jump on buying hard-to-get wines, and affords small wineries an opportunity to collect sales proceeds early, to be reinvested in the business.  Education is a huge part of the weekends, too, for more casual wine consumers who attend the event.

The Wine Road Barrel Tasting has grown from a one-day affair in 1978 to two three-day weekends that are attended by 15,000 people, 50 percent of them from out of state.  They travel from winery to winery, sometimes in limos, dressed way up, or down, to try wines that aren’t yet ready to drink. 

Rod Berglund, winemaker at Joseph Swan Vineyards in Forestville, said: “Futures can be the only way to acquire a wine made in small amounts.  People like to have something the rest of the world doesn’t have.  We also try to offer futures at a generous discount.  Since wine prices seldom go down and our costs are constantly going up, futures buyers often get a very, very good deal.”

That’s my kind of barrel tasting, as it serves the needs of consumers and producers alike.  The risk is so much lower and the experience much more accessible than Bordeaux’s en primeur.

So please, keep the Bordeaux model in Bordeaux.  It’s days of success selling wines way ahead of their time may be running out.