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james laube's wine flights

Gearing Up for Santa Barbara Futures

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 1, 2007 11:46am ET

Today and tomorrow, a delegation of Santa Barbara County wines arrives at Wine Spectator’s Napa office for what has become an annual event.

I will be doing a blind tasting of some of the wines being sold as futures through Wine Cask, a Santa Barbara retailer. Each year, Wine Cask owner Doug Margerum and his staff taste hundreds of infant wines from barrel from their region. From that mass, they choose what they consider the best.

A portion of those selected wines are then sold as wine futures, which is where you pay a discounted price today for wines that will be released in the near future. You can read the offerings at www.winecask.com and also buy tickets to a walk-around tasting at the store on two dates—March 10 and April 28.

I’ve been reviewing some of the futures wines for the past few years, and this year I will taste around 70. It’s a fun way to get an early hand on the soon-to-be released wines, and for consumers, it’s an opportunity to secure special wines that might be harder, and a little more expensive, to get later on. The futures prices are about $5 less than retail.

I focus primarily on red wines. The majority are Pinot Noirs and Syrahs, with a few Grenaches, Rhone blends and the like included. Lately I haven’t reviewed the whites, many of which are still in barrel, because I think it’s wiser, both for me and you, to evaluate those wines after they've been bottled. Whites change faster than reds at this stage of development, and I don't think you should be in a hurry to buy Chardonnays or Sauvignon Blancs—unless you have a specific producer you buy every year. In that case, it makes sense.

I also like to taste the wines blind at my office. Logistically it’s easier to group the wines by type, input the pertinent data (special vineyard, futures cost, release price, case production, etc.) in my office than on the road.

In the past, I’ve been impressed by Margerum’s choice of wines (and the catalog descriptions of the wines makes for some slick sales pitches) and how well Santa Barbara vintners are able to assemble barrel samples that have been, more or less, true to what ends up in bottle.

That’s not always easy. If a winery has a dozen barrels and has to blend those barrels to create a single bottle sample, that takes skill. It would be easy (and I know it’s been tried) to submit a supersample. But I’ve found the samples are indicative of what lies ahead, and soon I’ll have a handle on what the next crop of Santa Barbara wines tastes like.

Tim Sylvester
Santa Monica, CA —  March 1, 2007 3:02pm ET
James--Having participated in the Wine Cask futures program since its inception one thing is clear; Doug's palate is right on the money and his discoveries from the area can't be beat. I bought Kaena's inaugural vintage last year, as well as Curran's, Sea Smoke and Foxen some years back, the list goes on and on. This is a super opportunity to find new wineries and new releases.
Joshua Masur
Redwood City, CA —  March 1, 2007 4:04pm ET
I used to look forward to reading your Santa Barbara futures report, then placing my orders with the Wine Cask, trying to find great values for low-volume wines. Your report and the futures sales introduced me to wonderful wines from Beckmen, Drew, Curtis, Jaffurs, Sea Smoke, and of course, Margerum -- all of which I'd have been unlikely to find or buy otherwise.

Sadly, Sideways changed that.

I've never been to the tastings, but a colleague who used to go gave it up last year, after the zoo that was 2005. Doug used to bend the rules to allow me to buy three-bottle lots, even though the official rule was six. Last year or the year before, all exceptions were eliminated. Obviously, I understand it from the company's perspective -- smaller lots mean more work, and the post-movie increase in demand presumably made it less than desirable -- but I rarely buy a half case of a single bottling that I've tried, let alone one where I'm taking someone else's word based on a barrel sample.

A couple of months ago, we went to the opening of a new restaurant and brought my last bottles of the 2002 and 2003 Drew Family Rodney's and Larner Syrahs, of which 150 cases were bottled in each vintage. I and my dining companions loved them, as did the sommelier, who loved the winery but hadn't had the chance to try that bottling. For me, though, it was bittersweet, because I knew that it was probably the last time I'd get a chance to drink them.

Curse you, Hollywood.
Jonathan Merer
denver, co —  March 1, 2007 6:10pm ET
James,I am about to put in my online order and need someone to help me make my last choice. What do you think of these wines, Hitching Post Syrah Big Circle, Kunin papa star GSM, or Curtis The Crossroad? I can only order the minimum 6 of one of these, and I am about to close my eyes and point to the screen. Any suggestions?
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  March 1, 2007 7:57pm ET
James,Thanks for posting about this event. It certainly assists many of the best SB Cty wineries with much needed and deserved exposure. A couple of important notes:This event does NOT include all wineries from the area. Doug only has space for some, and many others, including Fess Parker and Epiphany, where I work, are not included. Just want to alert your readers of this.Second, it will be interesting to see how these wines fare with you. With the current WS issue on the streets, it is very interesting to note your general and specific scores for the red rhone wines produced in our area, especially in comparison with other areas. Let's see if this trend continues or if these wines will not only show the potential, but the realization of quality that dominates our area.Once again, thanks for the blog!
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  March 1, 2007 9:49pm ET
Joshua and Jonathan I feel your pain. Buying 6 bottles is always a dilema for any futures order. I for one would rather see 3 bottle minimums per bottling and then have a 6 or 12 bottle overall minimum order. This way you can try several different releases.
Paul Anderson
Longview, TX —  March 2, 2007 10:39am ET
James, i'm eager to hear what you have to say. That region makes some of my very favorite wines.
Robert Boyle
California —  March 2, 2007 8:11pm ET
For those of you worried about 6 bottle minimums, the Wine Cask has two tastings for the futures and the reviews generally come out between the tastings. Other than the truly hot wines, like Sea Smoke and Foxen (which Wine Cask is RAVING about this year) a lot of the wines are available long after the second tasting. Last year's Kaena Hapa, which Laube rated very highly, was still available long after the second tasting. We have found Doug and Wendy's descriptions to be right on the money. The truth is that most of these wines are terrific and the vintages for pinot and syrah from the years offered here really are outstanding. Santa Barbara County wines rock. Given the overall quality to price ratio, it would be hard to go wrong with just about any pick. Many of these wines are extremely limited production and you will never see them again once they are sold out. That is part of the reason for the madness of the crowds, it isn't just Sideways. I mean, at the end of the day, are you going to be sorry you got 6 bottles of some of the best pinot noir or syrah produced in California (or the world for that matter) for like $30 or $40 a bottle?
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  March 4, 2007 12:59am ET
I'm fairly new to the WC futures phenom, but having participated in the last two (and spending thousands of dollars collectively) I have learned a few things. First, there's only about a 50-50 chance that the actual final bottling will score in the range you initially give a wine (to my knowledge they've only come in lower, never higher). Second, most of the wines that come in with good scores do become available from other retailers within a couple of weeks following release (albeit at higher prices). The thing is, unless I'm dealing with Foxen or Sea Smoke Pinots, I'd rather take a chance that I can't get a single bottle of a random 94-point Syrah or PN than getting stuck with SIX bottles of an 87-point wine that I end up taking to parties or giving away before they get tired. I'm saving my money this year and put in a very limited order, thank you very much.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  March 4, 2007 11:38am ET
Troy,Do you actually attend the event? If you do, stop by and say hi - I'll be pouring for Kaena this year. Also, if you do attend, I'm assuming you're actually tasting and rating the wines yourself . . . Just buy those wines that knock YOUR socks off, rather than basing your purchasing decision on points or what anyone else says about them! Also note that since this is a futures event, though, JL is tasting barrel samples in most cases, and as he points out, there is always a chance that the final wine will differ from those he's tasted . . . And also note that there can even be a big difference between the ones HE is tasting and the ones YOU will taste at the Wine Cask - winemakers are putting these blends together from barrels, and there is always a chance that if one barrel or two are altered in the final mix, the final wine will be altered as well!
Jonathan Merer
denver, co —  March 4, 2007 3:49pm ET
If only I could convince my wife and kids that we should vacation at the same time as the event in California. For many of us who live in other parts of the country, we must rely on Doug's notes, Jame's notes, etc., and our own if we ordered that wine the previous year. I ordered Bruno's Badge pinot noir last year after reading Jame's notes and researching his wine style a little. It was a win for me as the wine is top notch. But, unfortunately I don't have the luxery to always taste the wines the I most heavily invest my money into. It is a huge risk on my part, but I do rely on ratings and notes to fill my cellar. But thats my choice.On the whole, notes from James and Doug have been right on for me. I'll keep ordering futures this way because it is the only way I can easily get my hands on these wines. I am thankful that the wine cask and it's owners organized so many wine producers and made these futures available to consumers like myself.I don't think that the minimum 6 bottles is so bad. I order fantastic wine on futures from a great wine maker in dry creek valley every year. In order to get the best future pricing, you must order at least 2 cases of wine. I am really glad I have 5 bottles of the Badge Pinot left.
Gilbert Vasquez
San Diego —  March 6, 2007 10:11am ET
Larry Shaffer, thanks so much for the invitation to meet you at the tasting. Congrats on the favorable reviews on your wines, by the way. But I, like Joshua and Troy, have to say that the tastings have evolved into an insurmountable situation. One would love to meet winemakers and learn of their passion. Larry, like many winemakers I've met from the area, always love to share their stories. And I always relish the opportunity to hear. But, not at the SB Futures tasting. Last year's event was an absolute mess. It reeked of the organizers not having the fortitude to cut off ticket sales, or just being too greedy. How could anyone have a meaningful experience and learn about the future releases when the winemakers are pouring in a frenzy to a crowd six people deep? No way, not for me. I was able to squeeze a tasting from Jaffurs, Rusack & Sea Smoke, then had to leave in disgust. Crowds? Yes, I can handle crowds; and understand that an event like this would get thick with people. But, c'mon! I couldn't even breath in that room. I'm sure the event broke 99 different fire department regulations......Granted, I appreciate the work Wendy and Doug put into the catalog. Its also cool to read Jim Laube's thoughts after he's sampled everything. And it is, I'll admit, a nice little peek into the future of an exciting phenomenon happening in the Santa Barbara area. But, I sit here regretting the aftermath of a lot of attention in the area. It is truly a frenzy. Guess I'm just "smarting" a little bit from the change. I've visited the area, attending wine festivals, for over 16 years now. Attention in the area is incredible now. I'm with Troy. Take my chances and work with my local wine merchant and the wineries direcly on the releases.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  March 8, 2007 11:51am ET
JL -Thanks for your reviews on some of the wines featured at futures. It appears you liked the 05 pinots you tried - no surprise in that it really was a terrific vintage for pinots down here. Question about the syrahs - was if 'difficult' to taste the 2006's as they are so young and probably still going through secondary fermentation? Curious to hear - as I was out tasting through my own and our winery's wines over the past week and though good, they were a bit 'awkward' at this stage. Thanks for the input!
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  March 11, 2007 4:07am ET
Just an update that today's Wine Cask futures event was fantastic - great food, nice stemware, and a wonderful, albeit inconsistent, collection of wines. Surprisingly, there were very few pinots there (!), and even fewer grenaches . . . There were quite a few syrahs, and I would say the 05's were better received than the 06's - probably because they are closer to the finished product.Looking forward to more comments - perhaps JL can get Doug to comment . . . Thanks again for the forum!

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