After several minutes of politely jostling through an eddying pool of humanity, you finally arrive at the bar. The pourer’s lips are moving, and you lean in to counter the noise of a crowd that must surely violate fire regulations. “ ... vineyard on Wahluke Slope,” she says, handing you a glass of red wine poured from a pitcher. “We’ll be bottling it next spring.”
“What is it again?” you ask loudly.
“Our 2012 Syrah,” she responds, and turns her attention to the next patron.
You circulate away from the counter to let others partake, trying to avoid bumps to your drinking arm. Eventually you find enough space to swirl safely, to sniff and sip with minimal risk of spillage. It’s really good, and you wonder what vineyard it’s from.
Spring Barrel Tasting is fun, but experiences like this at popular wineries are not uncommon. Sometimes the vibe is more like a stadium concert. Fun and exciting, but wouldn’t you also like to see the band in an intimate venue with better acoustics, where you can request a favorite song? Alas, unless you’re a very high roller, that’s just a fantasy.
Fulfilling the analogous wine fantasy, however, is quite possible.
Most wine tourists get ahold of an area winery guide and visit those with established hours. Why hassle with an appointment, when at so many places you can just show up? But appointments at wineries are fairly easy to get — they’re your backstage pass.
“Anybody that goes to the trouble of making an appointment deserves a little more attention,” says Knight Hill Winery’s co-owner, Terry Harrison. The most obvious benefit of appointments is that crowds and noise will never be a problem. Also, during the off-season, an appointment may be your only option and at smaller wineries there is a very good chance your host will be the winemaker. Not only can you talk shop with someone who knows more about the wines than any tasting room server, your chance to taste from the barrel is much higher.
Tasting appointments should be honored as all others. Tell your host how many are coming (if your party is large, an appointment should be made even during Spring Barrel Tasting), and if you’re late, call ahead. There are some other helpful tips for tasting appointments in general, and barrel tastings in particular.
One is to inquire about fees while making the appointment. Usually, your host will volunteer that information, but ask if it’s not supplied. This is also the time to ask about barrel tasting, if you want to do that. In some cases, the barrels are not at the same site as the tasting room, so if your host is willing, you’ll likely be visiting the production facility. If there are specific wines you want to taste from the barrel, it’s a good idea to mention that, because some wineries store barrels at more than one location. It’s instructive to compare a barrel sample with the latest bottling of that wine, but if that’s your hope, voice it, just in case the bottles and barrels aren’t cohabitating. If they’re not, your host can bring the appropriate bottles.
Note that barrel tasting requires additional effort from your host. The sampled barrels must be topped off, and the drips on them sanitized. If done too often, the wine in the barrel gets too much air, and the risk of forgetting to top it is higher. For those reasons, some wineries will only barrel taste during certain events.
“We’ll do some events throughout the year, the barrel tasting event, and when we do wine club events we’ll usually bring down a barrel,” says Patrick Rawn, general manager of vineyard operations at Two Mountain Winery. Other winery principals enjoy the experience too much to be deterred. “I’ll barrel taste any time,” says Harrison. AntoLin Cellars’ Tony Haralson tries to finesse those issues by scheduling barrel tastings just before he’s about to top the barrels anyway.
What to expect once in the barrel room?
For one, expect temperatures near 60 degrees, so dress accordingly.
Tasting rooms are perhaps the only places where spitting identifies you as a refined person. The only pitfall is mistaking the water pitcher for the spittoon. In the barrel room, the proper place to spit or pour may be less obvious, and it’s best to ask for a portable spittoon.
Your host will employ a tool resembling a gargantuan eyedropper, called a “thief,” to transfer wine from barrel to glass.
The younger your sample, the cloudier and more indigo hued it will be compared to finished wine, and it will sport more intense flavors. The nose, however, might be relatively muted. The fruit, the acid, the tannins and maybe a secondary flavor or two will likely all seem bigger. When tannins prevail in the finish, it indicates good balance in the future.
The oak flavor of the sample may be less representative of the finished wine for several reasons. First, the sample is generally taken from wine near the wall of the barrel, and will be oakier than the barrel as a whole. A mix of new and old barrels are often used in the same bottling, as well as different types of oak.
One theme in barrel tasting is to taste the same wine in different barrels, to understand the influence of different barrels. Another is to taste the different varietals that make up a blend. Another is to taste one varietal from different vineyards. Still another is to taste different years of the same varietal from the same vineyard to appreciate the difference between vintages. Right now, the cool years of 2010 and 2011 can be compared to 2012, a warmer year. Within those themes, you can choose what blend or varietal you’re curious about, or ask your host to pick what he or she is excited about.
Even without the carnival atmosphere of Spring Barrel Tasting, there’s plenty of variety to keep things interesting, and more opportunity for learning and conversation.
“I love bringing in people and talking about wine,” declares Haralson, “but I can’t do it all the time.”
So make those calls, and look forward to more education and more audible conversation, and perhaps to politely jostling some wine barrels instead of people. Just don’t all call at once.