Sonoma County's Wine Road hosts a variety of events throughout the year, from food and wine pairing-themed weekends to full days devoted to art and education. But for this year's 34th annual Barrel Tasting, which will take place over two weekends beginning on March 2, it's all about the wine.
"This is not a food event," said Wine Road executive director Beth Costa. "There's no music, there's no theme. It's a really simple event with the unique opportunity to taste wines in the barrel and buy futures."
Buying futures is a tradition borrowed from France, where in early spring wine drinkers can go to wineries and get a preview of what wines will be coming out in the future by tasting them young, in the barrel. If they like what they taste, they are given the chance to buy "futures" — the wines at a reduced price, well before they're available.
The Wine Road wineries adopted this practice three decades ago as a way to both introduce people to their wines and improve cash flow, in some cases to pay for bottling the wine soon after. The annual rite of spring has only gotten bigger and better since.
"We draw people from almost every state," said Costa. "Some people have been coming for 34 years and they come every year, focused entirely on buying futures and stocking their cellars."
For Rod Berglund, winemaker and owner of Joseph Swan Vineyards, as the event has become more popular he's learned to keep things simple.
"The people who come range from big collectors to people wondering what color zinfandel is," he said. "People are fascinated that wines can be really different from one another. I like to let them discover that themselves."
He and fellow vintner David Coffaro of David Coffaro Estate Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley are long-time participants of barrel tasting weekend, so much so that they lead seminars every year for fellow vintners about how it all works.
Coffaro is mixing things up this year by offering his futures customers a choice of two styles — cabernet sauvignon aged 10 months and cabernet sauvignon aged 16 months, the more traditional practice.
"I could be traditional, but that would be no fun," he said. "I like our cabernet aged 10 months because it has more intensity and structure; (it's) less smooth."
Coffaro sells about 75% of what he makes through his "Crazy Back to the Futures Program," selling the wines people taste in barrel for about a 40% discount from what they will eventually be priced upon release.
He says he likes selling his wine this way because it cuts out the middle man, giving the discount to the consumer instead.
Janae Franicevic of Sunc?Winery and Vineyard likes that, too.
"The wines have made it this far and you get to taste them right out of the barrel and purchase futures at 40% to 50% off the release prices," she said. "The rule of thumb is that if you like it this much now, it will only get better from here."
She adds that by buying futures, consumers are often securing tight allocations of wines that will sell out before they're ever bottled. At last year's barrel tasting, Sunc?poured 16 different varieties, from pinot noir and grenache to barbera and nebbiolo, as well as four different blends.