Monday, December 01, 2003
Time is not all it takes to achieve the oenophile's nirvana making California's most prestigious wine allocation lists.
HARVEY HOWARD KNOWS how to get on an exclusive wine allocation list. "You gotta wait your turn," he quips. Although savvy wine lovers sometimes resort to stratagems to attain their vinous aims, in the end, nothing but time will help most of us migrate onto those enigmatic lists.
Howard, a Los Angeles lawyer, has collected wine for more than 45 years. And though he is on nearly all the most coveted allocation schedulesincluding Screaming Eagle, Marcassin, Peter Michael, and Martinellione has dogged him for three years: Colgin. "I probably won't live long enough to get on her list," he laments. To be sure, after spending six years dreaming of the day he would be able to procure an annual lot of Bryant Family, Howard received word this fall that he had at last made the grade. "Now I can rest,"he jokes.
For most wine connoisseurs, getting on a prized list, or bumping up one's allocation, is the favored enophilic sport. Anyone who has phoned a winery hoping to grab a spot knows there are actually two lists: the waiting list to get on the list, and the socalled "active" list. "We are currently moving clients from the waiting list to the mailing list who contacted the winery in 1997," says Ann Colgin, owner of Colgin Cellars, one of the cultiest of Napa Valley's cult wineries, so dubbed by the industry because of their often fanatical followings. "Our wait list is based on the date you contacted the winery." While this is the policy, it is not always the case; Colgin admits to ferrying devotees to the active list who have purchased pricey lots from charity auctions. Aspirants take note: If you've made the winning bid at an auction for any soughtafter wine, not just Colgin, it behooves you to discreetly let the winery know.
For those already on an allocation list, increasing one's take can be just as problematic as getting on the list in the first place. At Harlan Estate, seniority seems to be the only viable method. "Our loyal customers are rewarded for their loyalty," says proprietor Bill Harlan. "Those who have been with us the longest will have the best chance of getting a little more wine." The wine is worth the wait, although the increase is not extravagant. Harlan customers receive anywhere from a single 750ml bottle to a 750ml sixpack of estate Proprietary Red (at $235 a bottle) and possibly one magnum ($520). Harlan's oldest customers receive a boxed set of two magnums in addition to their sixpack.
"Rather than deepen people's allocations, we think it's better to let more people experience it," says Harlan Director Don Weaver. Toward this end, the winerywhich this year will release 1,800 caseslets in a few more customers each year. "We still have a modest amount of growth at Harlan. As our vineyard matures, we get more wine, and we're able to bring in a few more people. Patience is the key," explains Weaver.
Patience helps, but connections sometimes work wonders. Harlan himself concedes that wine lovers' buying histories can propel them from a wait list to a mailing list. "If you're buying large quantities of Harlan from the proprietor of a fine wine shop, you should let us know (and be prepared to reveal proof), because that can influence us," he says. Bribery does not work. "We've all been bribed. I remember Ann Colgin telling me that someone had offered her a Mercedes. I wish they had called me," he wisecracks.
Weaver admits to one surprising method for procuring a bottle or two. "We all have a soft spot for people trying to hit a birth year or to celebrate a graduate. Funny thing. You'd be surprised how many kids were born in '94 or '97," he says, referring to two of California's loftiest vintages.
The soft economy has vacated a few spots on some waiting lists. Steve Wallace, owner of Wally's, a Los Angeles fine wine shop, points to Opus One as an example. "In the past, Opus was bulletproof," he notes. "Each year, they'd sell out with 25,000 cases at about $125 per bottle. This year, it seems there's more of it to go around." Wallace also has noticed more collectors selling off their prized vintages. "We're seeing about 30 percent of the people on cult lists selling their allocations; this practice is up significantly from a couple of years ago."
While some of the lists might be easier to break, the economy has not pried open any from the top echelon, Wallace points out. "True cult wines have stayed hard to get because they make so little of it," he says. "The top 5 percent of cult wines will always be hard to get."
This short supply continues to drive pentup demand in Napa and Sonoma's boutique winery business. At David Arthur, the soughtafter wine Elevation 1147 Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the toughest beasts to snare. Owner David Long has closed his list at 1,200 customers and tries to placate the 6,700 souls awaiting elevation. His advice: Make certain to regularly update your contact information. A surprising number of hopefuls are simply knocked off the list because the winery is unable to contact them. "It's not like a Victoria's Secret catalog that comes in the mail once a month," Long observes. "You get one shot, and that's it. If you don't order, you get bonged. We have to do it that way because so many people are waiting."
Nevertheless, Long claims to have a soft spot for those who visit his winery. "If you come up here, I move you to the front edge of the wait list, because you've made an effort to show your interest," he explains. Of course, landing an appointment at the winery is not easy. "It may take a few months to get an appointment for a tour, but it would be worth it," he promises. Generous barrel tastings are always a part of the visit.
If you are one of the lucky few buying David Arthur, do not hold out for a larger allocation any time soon. Everyone receives the same lot: a mixed case of six 750ml bottles and the offer for one magnum. Even the magnum is not guaranteed. "I make fewer than 200 cases of Elevation 1147 and only 250 magnums," says Long. "It's first come, first served. So if you procrastinate on your order, you'll miss out."
Impatient and impetuous souls may balk at chasing runaway trains and opt for hopping one that has not yet left the station. Bond, Harlan's new Oakville project, will probably turn out to be the next superstar producer. For now the winery, which began taking orders earlier this year, consists of three highly acclaimed vineyards, each producing between 600 and 900 cases. Within the next five years, the winery will include six vineyards and will produce significantly more wine than Harlan Estate. At $150 a bottle, Bond is more affordable, and by all accounts should become a major player in the California wine scene. Although a separate venture from Harlan Estate, Bond is a favored relative. And, after all, we know that it is whom you know that matters most.