On the Trail

Mon Prémier Bordeaux En Primeur

David Driscoll

When it comes to buying wine from Spain, Italy, Champagne, or even here in California, the process is pretty simple. We identify the wines we want to purchase, contact the winery, and place an order directly with the producer or the producer's appointed distributor. Within a few days the wine is delivered to one of our stores and put onto the shelves for you the customer to purchase. Not so complicated, right? When it comes to buying wine from Bordeaux, however; the same cannot be said. It's a delicate dance when it comes to negotiating for the king of wines and it requires a keen understanding of social politics. For hundreds of years, the great châteaux of Bordeaux have sold their wines en primeur, or as futures, meaning the wines are tasted, reviewed, and sold while still in the barrel, years before they'll actually be bottled and released to the public. There's a huge advantage to securing capital while your wines are still being prepared for bottling, obviously, but the greater advantage lies in waiting for the reviews before actually naming one's price. Standing between the châteaux and the merchants like K&L is a system of negociants or brokers who act as middlemen in the transaction, agreeing to purchase large quantities of each harvest in exchange for a cut of the action. Once the wine has been secured, each negociant then has the freedom to negotiate with retailers and restaurants as they see fit. While it may seem like a cushy job to some, the negociants are in a tricky position actually because their access to the wines requires loyalty—in good years and in bad. Think you can simply cherry pick the low-hanging fruit? Think again, and don't be surprised when your calls go unreturned during next year's bounty. The Bordeaux business is a tricky one. You've gotta take both the wheat and the chaff to survive.

Here at K&L where we covet our claret and beam over Bordeaux, I've long followed the ups and downs of the annual Bordelais cycle. I remember the sensational boom of the 2005 campaign when the fever spread globally, as well as the unwelcome hangover that hit when the 2007 vintage report came in. I recall the gentle optimism of 2008, followed by the rapid resurgence of the back-to-back home runs that were 2009 and 10. 2011 was a wash, but then 2012 was completely overlooked and underrated, sandwiched in between another forgetful crop in 2013.  2014 was much like 2008, but now we're hearing the hype over 2015: perhaps the savior harvest the château owners have been waiting for. Lucky me, I guess. After almost a decade under my belt in the wine business, I'll be making my first trip with the K&L Bordeaux team to taste the wines en primeur, and from what I've heard this year is going to be quite a stunner. The reviews from the critical cognoscenti are already leaking out. Big points, big press, and big prices are already bubbling on everyone's mind. What's interesting to me as a fan of the genre, yet a relative outsider to the process, is how the world's most prominent reviewers are currently competing over whose report will be first to market. In order to be first to press, you've got to be the first to taste. But the earlier you taste the wines, the more difficult it is to make an effective evaluation. Eventually it's like trying to psychologically evaluate a child while it's still in the womb. How can you truly know the eventual personality before it's even had a chance to develop? Again, it's tricky.

But that's just one of the questions I hope to find an answer to on this upcoming journey. I'm pretty jacked up, to tell you the truth—not just because of the opportunity to sample the wines, but because of the chance to participate in a serious cultural phenomenon. Like Derby Week in Kentucky, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, tasting en primeur in Bordeaux is as much a celebration of show as it is an actual event. In between my daily development will be a cavalcade of power tastings, gluttonous dinners, and persuasive politicking, followed by relationship building, lots of handshaking, and more Bordelais buffets. When the K&L team heads to Bordeaux next weekend to taste the new 2015 vintage, we'll assess the quality of the cuvées as best we can then do our best to secure futures for our favorite selections. Eventually those futures will be sold as contracts to our customers, and—voila!—the pre-arrival campaign will begin. But in between those decisions lies a veritable treasure trove of experiences, observations, and tales from the road. It's for that reason that K&L asked me to participate in this year's trip. Someone has to report on all this madness, and people watching is my all-time favorite activity.

So I'm gearing up. I'm training my body each day, getting into peak fighting shape, and doing my morning stretches in preparation. Get ready for ten solid days of Bordeaux en primeur beginning next weekend! If you're a seasoned veteran of the process, then hopefully I can find a few interesting tidbits to share with you about this the 2015 vintage. If you're new to the scene, however, my goal is to enlighten, entertain, and enthrall you. Bordeaux is such a magical liquid with an incredible heritage—one that at times can be quite confusing in its convolution. But much like you hire a lawyer to help you navigate the legal system, you've come to depend on our experts at K&L to help guide you towards Bordeaux excellence year after year. This time, however, we're hoping to bring you all along for the ride. 

Stay tuned!

-David Driscoll