Tuesday, March 22, 2016

BRAMBLES: Rights of Spring?

Bud break of  a vine Spring

Anticipation in the wine industry can be a wonderful thing.  Spring is around the corner and bud break is erupting from dormant vines with the promise of another fine harvest. Hopefully, soon the sojourn of winter will be a fading memory, and the optimism of the cycle of rebirth in spring will nurture us.  It is also the time of promise with the annual consumer ritual of tasting the future, a young wine drawn from a barrel.  For producers and wine marketing groups, like the Northern Sonoma's Wine Road recent Barrel Tasting Weekends, this industry practice has for many become a 'right of spring'.

Event tasting from a barrel can be found from the Santa Maria Valley AVA to the Lake Chelan AVA of Washington State, and almost everywhere in between.  Locally, we have just drunk thru events that taste immature wines, like 'Savor Sonoma Valley' and the Livermore Valley 8th Annual Barrel Tasting Weekend(March 19-20).  These events obviously are important to expose a small brand to new consumers, bringing wine loving communities together, and may even offer pricing promotions to encourage bottle sales.  Based in traditional wine marketing, these festive contemporary events probably have their origins in a traditional French business practice.

En primeur is the long established practice of offering wines tasted and purchased prior to bottling,  released at prices that are intended to be 'in bond', where their future prices were expected to be higher. Very popular or celebrated wines were certainly going to be scarce. Also known as 'wine futures', since 2008 however, the returns from Bordeaux futures has mostly been negative; for in these cases eventual release prices were less than what consumers paid en primeur!

17th century English and Dutch business relationships with Bordeaux dictated that wines made by its many grape growers were sold to merchants(négociant) who would then bottle and sell the young wines, some were even sold while still in barrel. This relationship was negotiated and managed by a broker who acted as a middleman. Even as it is required today that wines are blended, aged and bottled at the château(farm), the aged practice has remained in place, a current opportunity for more than 400 brokers and 11,000 Bordeaux growers.
Dutch Wine Merchant Guild 17thC

For the wine seller, these transactions aid their allocations by early commitments and importantly improve cash flow. They get the cash now, but don't have to deliver for a year or two.  Once a gift almost exclusively for the gentry, selling "futures" today is still ripe with historical pitfalls. That's because barrel samples are typically drawn from lots that are the most evolved and expressive.  There is no guarantee that the same lot will be in your delivered bottle. As offered in Isabelle Saporta's Vino Business, "...for tasting you offer only the very best, but you'll sell a blend of everything".

Still, these are popular local events that lure us with a novel show of thiefing a young barrel, tempting discounted prices, and a promise of improving quality. For consumers, barrel tastings can feed our anticipation for something new, and give us an occasional rare wine catch. For the wine business, the practice is good marketing; an invitation to critics and consumers to get excited about what is being nurtured for the bottle. Ah, the anticipation. With spring just arriving, it may well be our consumer rite to dream of the future rewarded.
Vitis vinifera in spring flower

Note: A special thanks to any or all who have followed along the lighted path of this page over the last 100+ postings.

Salute' to the Rites of Spring!

*Apr. 22 - 24 Wine Yakima Valley(Washington) Spring Barrel Tasting
 *May 21 - 22 Lake Chelan(Washington) Wineries Spring Barrel Tasting
*July 23 - 24 Anderson Valley-Yorkville Highlands Barrel Tasting Weekend