Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to sell wine before it's finished and alienate people

There are so many ways to sell wine it can make a vintner's head spin. Finding the easiest and most efficient way is the goal of every winery. Case in point: en primeur. Every spring, the châteaux of Bordeaux invite the wine world to come taste the wines that are sitting in barrel from the previous harvest. En primeur is a method for selling wine while it is still in barrel. It is often referred to as "wine futures." Payment is made 12-18 months before the finished wines are bottled. The idea behind the system is that wines may be cheaper during en primeur than when they are released on the open market. Though, with the exorbitant prices the top châteaux now charge (Mouton Rothschild, Château Margaux and Haut-Brion released their 2012 wines at €240 per bottle ex-negociant, and that was roughly 33% less than the release price of the 2011 vintage!), investment opportunities are not going to be as easy to come by as they were in the early 1980s.

Many wineries around the world offer future wines for sale, but the producers of Bordeaux have been fine tuning their system for what seems like eternity. The system has been in place in Bordeaux for centuries. Why do they do this and why do other producers attempt to do the same? Well, producers benefit from the early cash flow. They also often sell their entire inventory before the finished wines are released. Pretty good deal, huh? It's almost like printing money. Or at least painting your own masterpiece...

Anyone that has ever tasted wine from barrels or tried blending knows that it is a tricky proposition. Different lots of different grapes can go into different types of barrels. With a large enough production (10,000-20,000 cases for classified wines) makes the process kind of like a vinological factorial. Wines can vary wildly from barrel to barrel. The barrels are like paint on a palette from which winemakers can careful select to create the picture they want. Add in the fact that the wines sampled at en primeur are so early in the vinification process (wine harvest around October of 2012 are being sampled in April of 2013 and won't be released until 2014 or 2015), lots of characteristics and identity of the final wines is a mystery to even the winemaker. Obviously, winemakers want to show the best wine possible to the important media and trade guests, but how much those samples represent the real wines is up to debate. Many critics have responded to these discrepancies by only offering a range of scores and not announcing final scores until the wines are bottled. Of course scores of bottled wines rarely fall outside of the preliminary range, or else critics' judgements might be questioned. And I still don't know what numbers taste like, even a range of them...

An American corollary to En Primeur is Premiere Napa Valley. I attended my first PNV this year. The event is actually a fundraising auction for the Napa Valley Vintners Association. The barrel tasting is seen as sort of a preview of the prior vintage, but the wines are not normal examples of what the wineries will release to the general public. So, in a way it is similar to en primeur in showcasing the most recent vintage in a high profile way, but is different (in theory) in the fact that special barrel samples are created and poured for attendees. Notwithstanding, the prices of the Premiere wines can be just as high as the their en primeur counterparts. And critics still rate and score these Premiere wines, but with only 5-20 cases made it is more akin to masturbation than any real consumer advocacy. At least the producers and critics know that the ratings they give don't affect the prices because retailers bid on the wine only hours after everyone has had a chance to taste them, so their (our) self indulgence does no harm. And even more important, the wineries donate those wines to raise money for the entire region. Shafer Vineyards only benefits in its reputation when its wine sells for almost $833 a bottle.

But with the Bordeaux en primeur campaigns size, scope and value the stakes are higher for both producer and consumer. Through critics into the mix and the system really gets messy. Stakes might even be higher for critics! Starting in 1982, when Robert Parker made his reputation by championing the vintage when other critics were concerned that the warm weather and concentrated and rich wines were not the norm for Bordeaux, critics have become indispensable for the process to work the way it does.Critics are supposed to offer an independent voice for consumers' benefit when they are trying to decide which wines to invest in. Nowadays, many critics stake their claims on their Bordeaux en primeur proclamations and their desire to be the first to announce their findings. Often scores are released during or immediately after the barrel tastings in April. Wineries love to see these scores before they assign prices because a good score (think 95 points or higher) can really earn them a few extra (or hundreds of) Euros to the price of a case of wine. Add in the fact that merchants like to use the highest score given and the system seems to be wobbling tower of cards.

Jancis Robinson, MW has mentioned that she'd like to see other journalists hold of on publishing reviews until after prices have been set. But it only takes a handful of eager critics to ruin that prospect for everyone else. Some writers, like Jamie Goode, boycott the system all together. I didn't go for obvious reasons (really, I was invited, but obviously can't afford a week-long trek to Bordeaux...). Even some producers are putting an end to their involvement. Last year, Château Latour announced that it would no longer sell wine as a future. This year, instead of offering the 2012 vintage, Latour sold library wines that it deemed ready to drink. It offered the 1995 Grand Vin, the 2005 Les Forts de Latour and the 2009 Pauillac de Latour.

Other producers made headlines this year. First, Stéphane Derenoncourt (see my piece on his California wine brand here) stated that he specially selected the wines for en primeur tastings. This in and of itself is no surprise, but he added that he put the samples through a special preparation. On the surface, that seemed like a pretty big admission because a special preparation would imply the wines are not representative of the bottled product sold to consumers. But topping that, Decanter ran a story with a variety of Bordeaux winemakers giving their take on en primeur. Yann Bouscasse, of Château Cantinot in Blaye, admitted that he provides different journalists with samples from different barrels. Neal Martin, of the Wine Advocate, vehemently denied that he or Robert Parker even tasted Boucasse's wines. Michel Rolland chimed in to say that en primeur is a game that can be won or lost by both the producers and consumers.

Is all this bickering and whistle-blowing a foreshadowing of problems for the en primeur system? One thing is for sure; all this attention to the system can only mean things will change for the better (one can hope). Winemakers and critics must be aware that the spotlight is on them now more than ever in this digital age. Openness and transparency are necessary for success in this social media paradigm we all live and work in. Just think, 10 years ago before Facebook and Twitter were all the rage a guy like me could never interview one of the world's top winemakers. But, that's what I did (twice now, actually).

I interviewed Derenoncourt as a follow up to the report of his special process and Rolland's claim of gamesmanship and to clarify his "special preparation" quote. Most of his responses were not surprising, but he did echo Rolland's sentiment that the current en primeur process is increasingly a risky proposition for consumers when it should be boon. He explained that is process of creating en primeur samples is transparent and representative of the final blends. He also said that he would consider withholding his wines from the system à la Château Latour. Perhaps most importantly, he expressed his desire that en primeur be held later in the year. He thinks holding the barrel tasting in April is too early to get a good perspective on the finished wines.

You can read the entire interview on Decanter.com.

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