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Buying Burgundy

It's not easy to secure these small-production, high-priced wines, but where there's a will, there's a way

Dana Nigro
Posted: June 8, 2004

Geri Tashijan of Burgundy Wine Company reports that pre-arrivals are most heavily shopped for in the February and March two years after the vintage on offer.
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The 2002 Burgundies are now resting quietly in producers' cellars, but collectors are already clamoring for these wines. There's no way to guarantee that you'll be able to obtain the rarer bottlings, but understanding how the Burgundy market works may help you find the treasures you seek.

Consumers' first opportunity to buy Burgundy comes about a year after the harvest, when many wines-especially those from the best producers, grands and premiers crus-are offered on a "pre-arrival" basis. Pre-arrivals are similar to Bordeaux futures in that you pay in advance for a wine that the retailer has not yet received. For the '02s, pre-arrivals have been advertised from fall 2003 through this spring; many top wines are already sold out.

The next window of opportunity comes when the wines physically arrive in U.S. stores; for the 2002s, expect many whites in late spring, with the reds following mostly in the fall. Retail availability can be spotty, but you can expect to find village wines and bottlings from larger or less-prominent producers, along with a smattering of older vintages. Currently, wines back to the mid-1990s are still fairly common in small amounts at specialty shops and online merchants.

Finally, even after most wines from a given vintage have disappeared from retail shelves, certain Burgundies will turn up at auction. In recent sales, a broad array of wines from the 1990s has been offered, as have top older vintages. For the most part, these wines aren't much more expensive than when they were released; excluding a few top producers, Burgundies from the '90s rose in value an average of 10 percent, according to the Wine Spectator Auction Index.

Which approach suits you best depends largely on how particular you are. If you are satisfied with searching out well-rated wines from good vintages, you can take advantage of these multiple markets to look for the best buys. However, if you collect specific producers' wines, you need to enter the market as early as possible, and that means buying pre-arrivals.

"The main reason for buying pre-arrival is to make sure you get the wines you really, really want," says Michael Glasby, senior wine salesman for Premier Cru in Emeryville, Calif., a retailer known for its Burgundy selection.

Many of the wines that are in high demand are sold on a pre-arrival basis. Some pre-arrivals come through the estates' official U.S. importers, but others come through the secondary market, also known as the gray market.

Once a domaine determines the amount of wine it will have to sell from a given vintage, it offers the wines to various brokers. Its designated U.S. importer sells the amount of wine it has purchased (or been allocated) to distributors, who in turn sell that commitment to restaurants and retail stores. The retailers can offer what they have been promised to consumers, who pay for the wines and taxes up front; shipping fees are generally charged later.

Some U.S. retailers also obtain wines through European wholesalers, merchants or other sources that resell their allocations. This secondary market increases the flow of Burgundy to U.S. consumers. But other retailers and importers argue that these gray-market wines may be of questionable provenance-the consumer doesn't know who handled the wine or how carefully it was shipped and stored along the way.

Burgundy's pre-arrivals are not as synchronized as Bordeaux futures, and the releases can be scattershot. Some wines are offered while still in barrel, others after they've been bottled. Retailers cited offers for '02s from August 2003 to April 2004. But the most serious shopping time is usually the February and March two years after the vintage, says Geri Tashjian, president of Burgundy Wine Company in New York. By that time, she says, the importers and distributors have firmed up their allocations and purchases, and a broader selection is available.

To get a crack at the widest selection, sign up for numerous retailers' newsletters and e-mail lists; that way you'll be notified when the first offers start coming. Many stores also post updated inventory lists online. Other ways to find a particular grower are to check importers' Web sites or contact the importer directly to find out which retailers carry its wines, suggests importer Neal Rosenthal of Rosenthal Wine Merchant in Shekomeko, N.Y. It's essential to establish a good relationship with a merchant that has been dealing in Burgundy for some time. The best customers often get the first shot at the rarest wines.

Even if you're completely on top of things, you'll be bidding for a share of a very small pie. The rarest wines often reach retailers only in odd bottle lots. For Joe Kluchinsky, Burgundy buyer for MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C., a typical purchase on a single grand cru might be five to 10 cases. From a larger producer, such as Jadot, he'll get 20 to 30 cases. "That's a lot for Burgundy," he says.

Selection and quantities will also vary due to vintage quality, vintage size, the economy and the exchange rate. "In a strong vintage like 2002, we'll be buying a lot of producers that we would have skipped in 2000 and 2001," says Glasby. Many wines from those two vintages didn't sell as pre-arrivals and wound up on retail shelves, where they are still available.

But price pressures on the 2002s are curtailing some retailers' purchasing, even though the red wines of the vintage were rated potentially classic by Wine Spectator. The value of the dollar has fallen substantially over the past two years. With the euro now worth $1.21, says Kluchinksy, "you're looking at a 40 percent price increase. The wines are already expensive. I find myself having to pass on offers." While the top-end wines will still sell, he says, he doesn't want to get stuck with $50 to $60 village Burgundy.

"I'm buying more cautiously than I used to," agrees Tashjian, who expects to drop some midlevel Burgundies from her portfolio.

What will happen with the exchange rate by the time the tiny 2003 vintage hits the market is uncertain, but those wines will probably be even harder to find.

Any time you put down money in advance for a product that may not even be finished, there is risk involved. Delays in delivery are not unusual, and while retailers say non-delivery is rare, it does happen. Shipments can be damaged or stolen, suppliers can have financial problems, distributors may mix up orders, bottles are broken en route to the store.

"Every time there is a great vintage, there is always someone who ends up not being able to deliver," says private wine consultant Brian Orcutt, formerly a member of Christie's wine department. His New York-based Orcutt Wine Consulting assists wealthy collectors with everything from inventory management to sourcing rare wines.

There are ways to minimize the risks. Buy primarily from larger, well-established retailers who are financially stable and who can keep their commitments if something goes wrong. Ask fellow collectors about their experiences with a retailer. Online wine forums, such as those on www.winespectator.com, are good sources of information. If customers have gotten burned, you'll hear about it.

Consider price in conjunction with provenance and service, says Philip Bohorfoush, client services executive for San Francisco-based Vinfolio, which assists collectors with cellar management, finding "wish list" wines and storage. "If the collector never gets his wine, or buys wine that has been spoiled by poor handling, getting it for the lowest price is irrelevant."

Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Spread your purchases across a number of purveyors in different locations to minimize the risk of undelivered wine.

Ask how the wine has been shipped and stored, says importer and retailer Kermit Lynch of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley, Calif. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay ideally should be kept under temperature-controlled conditions at all times. "Otherwise, you're buying something that won't be the same wine it started out as," he says. Check with other customers about the condition in which prior purchases were received.

Look at the contract terms: Does the retailer guarantee to replace the wine if it's not delivered? "It's inappropriate for the consumer to be left holding the bag," Orcutt says. His clients generally don't want a substitute or their money back-they want the wine they were promised at the price they were promised. "The places that end up filling the orders even if they lose money will get that money back in the end," he says.

Finally, know what you're buying. Burgundy is not known for consistency: There are dramatic stylistic differences among domaines, communes and vineyards. Tashjian suggests that new customers buy and try a variety of wines from different producers and different appellations before investing.

"I think mostly once people are willing to buy Burgundy futures, they've heard enough to know this is a game at which they have to be more patient, understanding and tolerant of failure," says Glasby. But the reward of tasting your favorite wines as they evolve over the years is well worth the effort.

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