Barrel Tasting Insights – What am I Tasting & Do I Get Splinters? What should I buy?

2010 Wine Road Barrel Tasting: Article 3 of 4

It’s almost here! The first weekend of Wine Road Barrel Tasting. Yes its TWO weekends: if you live in the Bay area and love wine, plan for both weekends, at only $30 a weekend, it’s the best bargain in town! (Personally I think the price is too low, but that’s me.)

What exactly is barrel tasting?

Won’t licking barrels give me splinters?

In all seriousness, consumers can benefit in understanding the underlying premise that shapes this 32 year old Wine Road event.

(For additional insight, you may also want to reference more recent article My thoughts on Wine Road Barrel Tasting. )

What Barrel Tasting Is:

The premise of barrel tasting was to let consumers have a sneak preview to an early wine still in production, and in some cases (not all) also buy ‘Futures’ or advance sales of the future release, at a discount, or in cases of allocation, ahead of release. This is a win-win; the consumer can save substantial money on varietals or brands they buy regularly. The winery gets cash earlier in the process. Cash flow has always been key to winery operations, and certainly is as important as ever in today’s financial climate.

What Barrel Tasting Isn’t:

What it isn’t meant to be: a drunk-fest. This event obtained a bit of a reputation for being a party festival (in part to the low ticket cost); which is a shame, given its deep tradition and intent. I implore consumers to have fun, behave respectably. All in all the number of incidents are few, but it only takes one to sour everyone’s experience. This isn’t charity folks – many of the Wine Road wineries are small business, family owned, working long hours as artisans to make  a living. They are here to pour for you and to ultimately sell some wine.  Stick to Happy Hour for drinking specials and parties.  Wineries shouldn’t hesitate to promptly deal with inappropriate behavior. FYI it’s a criminal offense, that can cause them to be shut down, to serve someone who is visibly impaired. There are a few extra California Highway Patrol on duty that day for the added safety of all, for those rare outbreaks of rash behavior.

Ok, What exactly am I Tasting?

Barrel samples are unfinished wine tastes, that’s why its coming from the barrel. I have heard complaints of  ‘Its not good wine’ or ‘I don’t care for the taste.’ Look at what I just wrote – it’s unfinished. It may be nearly ready for bottling and taste familiar, it could be another year+ in barrel still.  I do encourage everyone who is learning about wine (you never stop learning by the way) to try a few,  experience it, and gain an appreciation for wine as it evolves and changes. Some wineries even do interesting things, like Kendall Jackson is, to sample the same pre-release of wine, in different barrel toasts, for comparison.  Ask the winemaker questions; don’t worry about if it may seem basic – most wine makers love to share knowledge on wine making.

I think a few samples suffices for many; don’t hesitate to skip varietals (wine types) you don’t like, dump, or spit. You aren’t offending the wine maker, if anything he knows you are more serious taster then.  So then why would I be going to wineries if I don’t try the barrel samples?

It’s ok to skip a barrel sample at some stops; all wineries are still pouring something else, and many offer food pairings and other fun activities.

‘Other’ Tips

Of course there is my usual diatribe on using a Spit Cup; both encouraging wineries to hand out, and people to use. After two winery stops, your palette is now influenced by alcohol and you are drinking, not tasting. At least dump wines you don’t like; wineries aren’t offended.

You can also consider driver services like WeDriveU, where bonded drivers drive you in your car. Similar local services can be seen posted on Craigslist (check references). For that matter, press your unemployed 18-24 year old into driving you around for a reasonable hourly rate, and buy them a $10 Wine Road DD bracelet.

Buying Futures

Not all wineries participating in Barrel Tasting sell futures. There is additional work, tracking involved that some opt not to due. The reputed Wine Road King of Futures is David Coffaro Winery. If you are interested in futures, you should plan a stop here and check out the “Crazy Coffaro Futures Program.”

If you are new or hesitant on buying futures, start with wine producers whose wines you have drunk regularly, and know it appeals to your palette.  (In which case you should consider the wine club anyway.) You may also be offered to compare the current release with the barrel sample – this is a another great way to buy samples, if a winery or winemaker is new to you.

Feel free to ask the wine maker questions: has the wine changed much in where the fruit came from? Russian River zin is very different than Dry Creek. Did the vineyard source change, even in the same appellation? Have you made any substantial changes to the wine production methods; barrel program, yeast, cold soak etc etc.

Ok, decided you like the wine, want to save some money, and stock up. (Usually a minimum purchase is required.) Now what? The winery will collect the money for the purchase, and record your name, contact information, and give you a receipt. Wineries keep good records, but as a precaution, SAVE it. If you use a online or smart phone calendar for reminders, put a reminder appointment now to prompt you for the expected pick up month, so you have peace of mind you won’t forget. The winery is of course going to contact you, but this way you are double covered.

When its ready for release, pick it up, crack open a bottle to celebrate the money you saved, and the support you gave to your favorite winery – win win!

Come back tomorrow for a special article on selected Wineries offering special incentives on sales of existing inventory (aka bottled wine.) Take advantage of special pricing and stock up now too!


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