A History of the California Barrel Tastings: Part 3 “Roll Out the Barrel”
This is the third in a series of posts surveying the history behind the MacArthur Beverages California Barrel Tasting and its predecessor Gerald Asher’s California Vintners Barrel Tasting.
The California Barrel Tasting
Two months before the Judgement of Paris, Gerald Asher held his first Californian Barrel Tasting at the Four Seasons in New York City. William Rice writing for The Washington Post noted that California needed new markets for the increased production of wine. In particular the tasting was taking aim at wine lovers in New York City and Washington, DC, who were entrenched in drinking European wine in the high-end of the market.
Gerald Asher based the tasting on the Paulee de Meursault and the Paulee de Paris held at Taillevent. His idea was to combine the elegance of these tastings with an American nature. It was initially difficult to get wineries to agree to pour unfinished wines to consumers at this event. Eventually he got Karl Wente and Robert Mondavi to attend then the event took off.
By several accounts the wines tasted at the early events were not the most inviting. At the first tasting in 1976, Frank J. Prial wrote there was little agreement on the best wines. The following year William Rice certainly conveyed the wines were better than before but “in the end, then the lasting impressions were of the winemakers rather than the wines themselves.” To be fair he did gush of the 1976 Joseph Phelps, Johannesberg Riesling compared it to the “nectar” of German trockenbeerenauselese. The barrel tasting soon hit its stride. Access to the 225 tickets for the third tasting in 1978 were “bitterly contested”. By the fourth year 2,000 people were trying to gain access to a tasting where all the wines were good. The success continued and Californian wines began to take hold. Soon it was not just 2,500 people jockeying to get a ticket, it was the wineries jockeying for a spot to pour their own wine.
The barrel tasting eventually reached the gastronomic equivalence to “an appearance at the White House”. However, the event was not to continue. The 10th and final barrel tasting in New York City was held in 1985. During those 10 years Californian wine had become accepted on the east coast. One aspect remained the same and that was the difficulty in tasting young, tannic wines. Warren Winiarski, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, felt that the first time the wineries were taken seriously outside of California was when they were first invited to the barrel tasting in 1975.
The Tasting Moves to Washington, DC
When it was announced that Gerald Asher’s barrel tasting was moving to California, James Conaway did not miss a beat. He proposed in The Washington Post that the barrel tasting be moved to Washington, DC. He even wrote “Who knows, it might even become a tradition.” It was not such a far stretch. While the tastings were held in New York City a market for Californian wine was developing in Washington, DC. Event Robert Mondavi once came down from New York City to hold a simultaneous barrel tasting in Washington, DC.
Beginning in 1972, escalating French wine prices drove both importers and wholesalers to look for alternatives. This would have been a perfect opportunity for Californian wines to grab a larger share of the market but the timing was not right. Many Californian wines were highly regarded but with a unique taste that did not match traditional European wines. The attitude was that they should be judged on their own merit. Most east coast merchants were fine just leaving them on their own.
Washington, DC, was a city where wine tastes were set by resident diplomats, foreign travelers, and French restaurants. In order to satisfy a European wine palate, the major importers Kronheim and Beitzell were bringing in new imports of petit Bordeaux, Languedoc, Loire, and lesser Rhone. Others reached out to Hungary, Spain, and Yugoslavia. Only one wholesaler was looking to expand its Californian offerings. This was not in response to find lower-priced alternatives; rather it was just a new line of wines.
By 1974, just a handful of stores in both New York and Washington, DC, focused in on fine Californian wine. Merril Dunn of Morris Miller Liquors in Washington, DC, had increased his Californian selections from 10 wines in 1974 to nearly 100 by the end of 1976. In order to expand his selection, Merril Dunn was traveling to California every six months to tastes the wines ahead of release. Morris Miller was not the only store to actively stock Californian wines so too was Harry’s. In fact, their selection of wine in 1978 was suggested as “unequaled outside California itself.”
It was in 1978 that French wine prices were once again rising. Aggravated by remaining inventories of the unwanted 1972 Bordeaux vintage and the extremely small 1977 vintage, prices of the 1975 vintage were trading above the 1970. The timing for California was better this time. More than 100 new Californian wineries had opened up during the wine boom. Major wholesalers like the Forman Brothers and Milton S. Kronheim and the smaller Beitzell were making purchasing trips to California for the DC region. Carrying the smaller Californian wines was not without difficulty. The wholesalers complained of small inventories, inconsistent delivery of wine, and price. They were, however, “good name droppers on a list, like classified growths from France.”
Thus Californian wine had effectively made inroads into Washington, DC, when Addy Bassin of MacArthur Beverages held the First Annual California Futures Barrel Tasting on June 7, 1986. It was the first time Californian wine was ever offered as futures.
It was not easy to convince the wineries to participate in the tasting. Al Brounstein, of Diamond Creek Vineyards, recalls that he had to push “like mad” to get people involved. Whereas Bob Long and Richard Steltzner agree to join, Warren Winiarski did not. Many wineries were already selling out of all stocks of wine so they did not see a reason to sell any of it at a discount. Al Brounstein’s solution was to first raise prices before offering them at a futures discount.
California futures were seen as a direct competition with Bordeaux futures whose prices had once again skyrocketed since the 1982 vintage. With a sinking dollar the 1985 Bordeaux futures were reaching twice the offering price of the 1982 vintage. According to the Wall Street Journal there were a lot of people who typically purchased wine futures. Unwilling to purchase Bordeaux, there was capital waiting to be spent and it was on Addy Bassins’ offering of 1984 Californian futures. This allotment was sold out within several weeks.
The offering of 1985 California wine futures were not limited to just MacArthur Beverages. There were some dozen stores doing so as well including Zachy’s in New York City. With excitement at the same level of the release of 1982 Bordeaux, MacArthur Beverages had quickly sold more than 4,000 cases as futures in advance of the barrel tasting itself. Robert Mondavi Winery reached a national audience through its own futures program with their distributors.
The pace continued the third year with the release of the 1986 Californian vintage. By this point Bordeaux first growths were priced at $740 to $960 per case. In comparison the more expensive Californian futures were a bargain with Shafer Hillside Select at $225 and Joseph Phelps Insignia at $229 per case.
The dollar began to slide in value during 1985. By the end of 1986 the French Franc was 50% more expensive which added to the escalation of French wine prices. The price of high-end Californian wines rose as well such that 1983 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Cask 23 cost $45 and 1985 Ridge, Monte Bello cost $50 as compared to 1985 Mouton-Rothschild at $55. Due to the sheer volume of Bordeaux wine you could still find bargains such as 1982 Chateau Palmer at $17. Not all Californian wines were expensive. Due to the sheer number of new wineries there were many excellent wines at affordable prices. James Conaway wrote at the end of 1987 in The Washington Post that California wines were enjoying “a huge, well deserved popularity” in filling the gap left by the “ionospheric price of bordeaux”. There was no longer a need to convince east coast wine lovers to drink California wine.
Next up: The wines served at the early tastings