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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.

For the first time, they also offered white wines in barrel for futures purchasing, including a malvasia bianca, making the winery a very good place for wine drinkers looking to expand their horizons and taste how different wines taste in barrel.

Where to Go

A. Rafanelli Winery: The Dry Creek Valley producer is typically open only by appointment and its wines not widely available outside of the winery. It will only participate in the first weekend of Barrel Tasting (March 2-4), so be sure to make a point of stopping by then for Rafanelli's superbly age-worthy zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

4685 West Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 433-1385, www.arafanelliwinery.com.

Claypool Cellars: Yes, this is Les Claypool of Primus's operation, set in a railcar caboose in Sebastopol and lovingly referred to as Home of the Purple Pachyderm (what he calls his Russian River Pinot Noir). His Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Ros?is called Pink Platypus. This isn't any ordinary Wine Country stop, as you'll probably deduce from his tagline, "Fancy Booze for Semi-Fancy Folks."

6761 Sebastopol Ave., Suite 111, Sebastopol, 861-9358, www.claypoolcellars.com.

David Coffaro Vineyard & Winery: Owner David Coffaro knows a lot about futures and often has barrel samples to taste year-round. If you want to better understand the philosophy behind futures and how wine tastes in barrel versus how it will taste later, after bottling, Coffaro is a fine source.

7485 Dry Creek Road, Geyserville, 433-9715, www.davidcoffaro.com.

- Freestone Vineyards: Freestone is simply making beautiful, cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay, and it would be a shame not to taste samples of their upcoming 2010 vintage wines, in addition to a lineup of current releases.

12747 El Camino Bodega, Freestone, 874-1010, www.freestonevineyards.com.

- Inman Family Wines: Set in the winery's Olivet Grange Vineyard — complete with a charging station for electric cars — Inman makes a fine stop for sampling both pinot noir and pinot gris.

3900 Piner Road, Santa Rosa, 293-9576, www.inmanfamilywines.com.

- Joseph Swan Vineyards: Co-owner/winemaker Rod Berglund works hard to keep things simple during barrel tasting, offering just a handful of barrels to taste. He's also a superb resource for understanding what to look for while tasting. Start here and the rest of your tasting will make a lot more sense, not to mention, the wines (old-vine zin, three syrahs, tannat and more) will be crazy good.

2916 Laguna Road, Forestville, 573-3747, www.swanwinery.com.

- Mercury Wines: Mercury specializes in estate-bottled, Bordeaux-style blends (The Messenger, The Bastard), small-lot pinot noir and unusual white wines, including Orange, a 100% chardonnay aged on its skins that yep, looks orange. For barrel tasting, Mercury will have out its 2009 Petit Verdot and the Ramazzatti 2009 Ricardo Zinfandel.

21015 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville, 857-9870, www.mercurywine.com.

- Old World Winery: Founder/winemaker Darek Trowbridge is all about blending old-world and new-world skills together and for the barrel-tasting weekends he'll have four wines in barrel: 2011 Elk Prairie Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 Mononi Vineyard Pinot Gris, 2010 Taurien Vineyard Zinfandel and 2010 Sherry Martinelli Vineyard Abouriou, as well as be pouring new releases and corresponding wines already in bottle. That makes it a fine stop for comparing and contrasting finished wines with those still developing.

850 River Road, Fulton, 490-6696, www.oldworldwinery.com.

- Sunc?Winery & Vineyard: Sunc?makes a dozen single-vineyard varietal wines and is a good destination for those who like variety and want to see how different wines taste in barrel. Plus co-owner Janae Franicevic is a pro about futures.

1839 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa, 526-9463, www.suncewinery.com.

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com.

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