If you don't live in a winegrowing region, you may not be familiar with the term "cellar sale." Of course, as my colleague Alex Ponting pointed out, the name is pretty self-explanatory. He's right, but those of us who do live in Wine Country really enjoy them, so I thought I would go ahead and blog about the phenomenon.
The regular tasting room experience varies a bit from winery to winery, but a lot of it has become fairly standardized. There is likely a short list of wines that are included on the daily tasting list, a fee from about $5 to $10 is likely to be charged to taste through the list, the tasting fee is likely waived with the purchase of a bottle (or more) and so on. By contrast, cellar sales vary significantly from place to place. What they have in common is excellent pricing on wines that the producer has decided to move out. The decision can be based on many factors, such as a vintage on hand being superseded by a newer vintage in distribution, a limited edition wine perhaps sold only through the tasting room and now down to just a small amount left, or even an experimental wine that never went into full production and release. They also have in common that advertising is limited and local, you get to taste the wines before you buy, and it is strictly a carry-away sale — no shipping arrangements are offered.
The first such sale Marty and I attended was years ago at Kendall Jackson's tasting room on Fulton Road near Santa Rosa, CA. "Tasting room" understates the opulence of this impressive facility that also hosts Sonoma County's annual Heirloom Tomato Festival. For the cellar sale, the tasting room just inside the main entrance was operating as usual with oenophiles lined up at the marble bar enjoying the daily flights. Meanwhile, we had read the Cellar Sale announcement in the local Santa Rosa Press Democrat, so we bypassed the tasting bar. A banquet room in the back was set up with long tables around the outside draped with white tablecloths. Open bottles lined the tables and friendly KJ hospitality staffers were waiting behind them. At the door, we picked up wine glasses and we were given a list of wines available — more than 40 of them — and a stubby little golf pencil to mark how many cases we wanted of each. As with some other cellar sales, that one was "by the case" only. We went around the room, tasting various wines that would fit well with what we already had in the cellar at home. Since some of the choices were a bit older than current release vintages, we took into account how fast we might go through a case and how well the wine was holding up to its age. Prices were on the list, also, most hovering in the range of wholesale — about half the usual retail price.
We marked our list, then went out the back door to the tent set up on tasting room patio. In the tent, pallets of wine stood everywhere and more KJ staffers were available to help. We paid for our order of four or five cases, the cashier gave the list to an attendant with a dolly to round it up, and Marty went to bring the car around. In minutes, we were outside the door of the tent and loading our purchases into the car. An enjoyable and efficient cellar trip — and no tasting fee!
It was at another KJ cellar sale that we found our first "experimental" wine. They had tried a pilot project of using a somewhat oaky barrel-fermented Chardonnay to produce a "method traditionnelle" sparkling wine. Marty and I found it unusual, but delicious. Even though it was just a pilot program, it had been fully labeled and capsuled and was legal for sale. KJ had decided not to go through with the project and they were selling the wine off for $60 per case. We bought two cases for our own cellar and another for my brother. It was one of the best bargains I have ever seen on a sparkling wine.
A couple of summers ago while our daughter Charlotte was home from college I happened to see an email announcement of a cellar sale at Mazzocco Winery near Healdsburg. We took Charlotte along to her first cellar sale on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Once again, inside the tasting room was business as usual. But outside on the patio and lawns, tables were set up with two or three wines and a hospitality staffer at each. Once again, sales were by the case only and prices were very good. The experience was further enhanced with some tasty gourmet food bites at each table prepared to show well with the wines in that group. We nibbled, tasted wine, and discussed. One of the wines was a 2008 Mendocino County Zinfandel and it had a faint note of smoke in the aroma, as was the case with a number of Mendocino wines that year due to widespread wildfires during the growing season. In this wine, it was a pleasant background note and in no way detracted from the excellent Zinfandel profile — but it may have influenced the producer's decision to offer the wine at a cellar sale. We took them up on the offer, buying a case of that wine and two others.
Our most recent cellar sale was last Sunday. The ad to the left appeared (again) in the Press Democrat. The Boisset Collection, a group of California wineries owned by the Boisset family of France, was putting on cellar sales at three of their local properties. For us, living in Petaluma, the historic Buena Vista Winery was closest. Besides that, we have long enjoyed visiting the legendary place that played such an important part in the early history of California wine after it was founded by "Count" Agoston Haraszthy in 1857. Owned since 2012 by the Boisset's, it has undergone extensive — and beautiful — renovation. As you can see from the ad, the sales started at 11:00 both days. I work every Saturday, so we realized some bargains might be sold out by the time we arrived on Sunday. We arrived soon after the opening time of 11:00 AM and found lots of choices still available. As usual for such sales, we bypassed the tasting room and went directly to the cellar sale — in this case, inside an actual cellar! Tables were set up among the tanks and barrels in the dimly-lit and atmospheric cellar. A friendly winery worker handed us each a glass and in we went.
At this sale, individual bottles were available, in addition to case sales. As noted in the ad, no shipping was available, so the appeal was mostly to us locals. On tables outside the cellar, they were also offering closeout bargains on some tasting room souvenirs like clothing and decanters, along with a few large-format (1.5 L and 3 L) bottles of wine. Inside, the sale wines were offered on tables arranged by price. There was a $15 table, a $10 table, and even a $5 table! All the wines were offered for tasting with helpful staffers at hand to provide additional information about vineyards and blends. We enjoyed everything we tried, ultimately buying a case of the lovely 2011 Sauvignon Blanc at $5 a bottle and mixed case of $10 reds, half of the case Merlot and the other half a Merlot-Syrah blend.
As we exited the cellar to pay for our collection, Tasting Room Lead Ali Madrid and her co-worker Staci posed with one of the 3-liter bottles that were being offered that day. It's not often that I have occasion to open the equivalent of four bottles of wine at once, so I passed on that one, but we were delighted with the 750s that we did buy. Another helpful winery staffer drove us and our cases back out to the parking lot in an electric tram and even loaded the cases into the car for me. Bargain hunting for wine couldn't be easier!
If there's a take-away message in this, it's "read the local paper." If you don't have the good fortune of living in wine country like us, but you like to vacation there, keep the local factor in mind. Find out what newspaper the locals rely on, buy it off the newsrack, and maybe you'll strike gold: An ad for a winery Cellar Sale!