TRAVERSE CITY — Meridith Lauzon turns a valve on a tank of 2013 Pinot Blanc at Left Foot Charley and draws a small sample.
The normally crystal-clear nectar still is pale yellow in the glass, a sign that it won’t be ready for several more months. But already the urban winery has sold several cases of the highly-anticipated wine to eager customers.
Buying and selling wine before it's bottled is a practice called wine futures. Traditionally it's a specialty of the Bordeaux wine market but it's increasingly used for wines from other regions, including California and northwestern Michigan.
“When we started we were the only ones doing it,” said Lauzon, operations manager for Left Foot Charley in Traverse City. The urban winery began offering wine futures of its Pinot Blanc and Longcore and Seventh Hill Farm Rieslings in 2010.
She said buying futures is a way for customers to make sure they get some of the “extra special” wine, which will be produced in limited quantities of about 170 cases each this year. It’s also a chance to buy more than the usual six-bottle limit, at a bigger discount.
For instance, the futures price on the winery’s 2013 Pinot Blanc is $20 per bottle, with a minimum order of six bottles. That price will increase to $25 per bottle when the wine is released in mid-June.
“Those three wines are usually popular and sell out very quickly and there are wine collectors out there that really want those wines," Lauzon said. "So we give them an opportunity to guarantee they have it for their cellars.”
Forty-Five North Vineyard and Winery has dabbled in wine futures for a few years but is formally jumping in this year with futures of its 2012 Cabernet Franc and 2012 100-percent estate-grown Merlot, said Channing Sutton, the winery's tasting room manager. That's because 2012 "was a blessing."
"It was the first year we were able to let the grapes hang on the vine until fully mature. Usually it’s too cold. But it stayed warm enough and dry to the end. It was the first time the wine could stand and be a reserve wine,” she said.
The system works like this: Wine from grapes picked in 2012 was bottled in the fall of 2013 and released in December of 2013. But two barrels of the wine were held in reserve to age in tight-grain French-oak barrels. That wine will be bottled this fall and released to futures buyers for $50 a bottle instead of the $70 a bottle it will sell for when released to the general public in the fall of 2015.
“At the very maximum we’ll do 50 cases of each. Hence the high price point,” Sutton said. “We want them to sell slowly. The grain is so tight on these barrels it takes longer for the barrel to put itself into the wine. Such small quantities are meant to hang on to. People know when that bottle comes they shouldn’t open it for another year or two.”
Spending $100 or more on wine before it’s even bottled could be a risky proposition. So both wineries offer wine dinners where potential customers can taste the wine pulled from tank samples.
“What you’re tasting is not necessarily what you’re going to get, but it’s a glimpse,” Lauzon said. “It’s a very early version. It’s like if you walked in and saw an artist’s sketch before it becomes a painting. It’s the sketch you’re tasting. You can feel and taste the structure and the different flavors coming out but it’s just not finished yet.”
Robin Usborne buys a case of Left Foot Charley Pinot Blanc as futures every year even though she can’t attend the dinners to taste the wine.
“I haven’t been disappointed,” said Usborne, a Lansing resident who bases her purchase solely on previous vintages and winemaker Bryan Ulbrich’s reputation. “You can taste the love in it, from how the vineyard is managed to the way he runs the winery to the way he feels about this industry. I think it’s some of the best wine I’ve ever had.”
James Lester, owner-wine grower at Wyncroft Winery in Buchanan, was the first to offer wine futures in Michigan. The year was 1991 and the wine was the estate's Pinot Noir and Bourdeaux blend.
“We made one barrel or 25 cases of wine and all of our customers wanted it,” said Lester, whose wines are among the few Midwestern wines served at top Chicago restaurants like Charlie Trotters and Sixteen in the Trump International Hotel and Tower. “We said, ‘As in Europe, we’ll sell on a pre-order basis.’ We sold it for $30, which at that time was outrageous, especially for a Michigan wine. We sold it for $25 on futures and we sold out before we ever got it in the bottle. A number of my customers still have it in their cellars.”
Selling certain wines as wine futures has become a sign of a winery’s prestige, particularly if the wine has won awards at prominent competitions, said Linda Jones, program manager for the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council.
“I do think it’s going to become more common as the wineries build their reputation,” Jones said. “The wineries in northwest Michigan have received some significant national attention in the last few years and I think that is fueling their ability to do that. Selling wine futures for some very popular wines is a sign of their success.”