The particulars change from year to year, but the appeal of Spring Barrel Tasting is timeless: It’s the first opportunity for the real connoisseurs to try the newest wines, and it’s an opportunity for those who are just getting into wine to get a peek into the winemaking process by tasting something unfinished.
“It’s a look forward to the vintage to come,” says Barbara Glover, executive director of the industry group Wine Yakima Valley. “That’s always exciting to see. What’s new? What’s to come? It gives our customers a chance to be the first to get their hands on the new wine.
“And it’s fun to taste wine from the barrel and compare it to the previous vintage that’s already in the bottle. Wine is forever changing, so that’s a fun thing.”
The bulk of Spring Barrel Tasting customers come from the population centers in Western Washington, and this year is shaping up to be a big one. The weather should be warm — temperatures in the low 80s are projected for Saturday — and the mountain passes should be clear. Wine Yakima Valley sold its first allotment of 1,500 “premier passes” early this year, Glover says. She expects to sell another 1,500. And there are plenty of people who will go tasting without one, adding up to several thousand customers at wineries from Naches and Yakima down to Prosser and Benton City.
Carrie Curtin, the manager of Hyatt Vineyards in Zillah, says Hyatt will be ready for the crowds. Spring Barrel, because it’s the beginning of the wine tasting season, always has a special air of celebration about it. That helps bring crowds, she says.
“It’s warmer, and you can be outside,” Curtin says. “It’s more of a festival feel. ... The sun has a lot to do with it.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Yakima Valley earning recognition as its own American Viticultural Area, and the local industry continues its yearlong celebration of that during Spring Barrel Tasting. There’s a new Wine and Dine promotion among several Yakima Valley restaurants and Yakima Valley wineries. The six participating restaurants will offer special wine and food pairings as well as limited-edition wine glasses for Wine Yakima Valley premier pass holders.
Wine and Dine begins today and goes through Sunday. Tonight’s dinners were designed with an eye toward rewarding local customers who want to get in on Spring Barrel Tasting action before the big out-of-town crowds arrive, says Jessica Moskwa, general manager of Gilbert Cellars, which is partnering with Second Street Grill.
“We’ve selected three of our wines to go with a three-course dinner Thursday at Second Street,” she says. “It’s wines that they don’t normally have, and our winemaker, Justin (Neufeld), will be there to answer questions.”
Gilbert’s downtown tasting room will be open throughout the weekend as always, and there will be live music there Friday from Navid Eliot of local favorites Not Amy. The twist this year is that Gilbert will, for the first time, have live music at its Gilbert Cave music venue out in West Valley. Not Amy, the full band, will be there Saturday.
There will be live music at wineries throughout the Valley, something that’s become more and more common on event weekends over the past few years. Hyatt has local jazz singer Rondi Marsh, which will only add to that “festival feel” Curtin refers to.
But, of course, the main attraction is still the wine. Hyatt, which will offer tastes of its 2012 cabernet straight from the barrel, uses the weekend to get the word out on its new wines. From a winery’s perspective, Spring Barrel is a great promotional tool, Curtin says.
“It helps us,” she says. “Our first zinfandel was released in 2007, and we wanted to get that out, get people to remember. So we did some futures of that and it worked great. People were ready to buy it right then.”
That’s not artificial excitement. Spring Barrel is a marketing thing, sure, but it’s not ginned up out of thin air; there’s a real novelty to tasting wine straight from the barrel. For wine aficionados, it’s an indication of whether the vintage will wow them later. For those still learning, it’s a way to experience first-hand what changes a wine goes through after bottling.
“One of the most exciting things about wine is that it’s always changing,” Moskwa says. “From the time you crush it, through the years and years in the bottle. And this is an opportunity to taste that. ... People come because they’re excited about wine. There’s a lot to be shared, both in conversation and in wine.”
• Pat Muir can be reached at 509-577-7693 or email@example.com.