Sometimes you win 'em. Nowadays, we consumers are going to the payout pretty regularly. From France, the benefits of the strong dollar are arriving by the container load. And from California come frequent reports of quality wine being sold on the surplus market. As forecast, growers and producers are finding themselves with more wine in their cellars than they can handle. So the surplus is bought at favorable prices by other wineries or marketing companies, which bottle and distribute it under their own labels. The idea is that the cost savings are passed right down the line to us.
Now, even every low-priced overflow chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon is going to be a consumer's dream come true. That depends on the quality of the original material and, of course, on the quality of the "negociant." Russ Woodbury is a trusty name, for one.
Better known as the producer of some of California's best ports, he's a man of several vinous roles. The newest of them is vice president of Coastal Wines, a firm in the "negociant" business. It blends, bottles and markets a range of varietals and generics (chablis, burgundy, etc.) called Signature Selection. The wines will be in the Washington area this summer.
These are unsettling times for California wineries, times which Woodbury expects to continue for at least five years. How can a winery not only survive, but prosper? Coastal Wines believes the answer is to balance sound quality with volume, and with that in mind, it's putting some of its money -- and wine -- into the box.
The bag-in-the-box hasn't been the national success in the United States that it is in Australia or South Africa. The trouble is not the collapsible, airtight bag, nor the outer box, designed for storing in the fridge, but the inferior quality of the wine inside. Woodbury is confident that there is a future for the box in America, and hopes to prove it by putting exactly the same blends into both box and bottle for the Signature Selection.
Vinos de Argentina: If you think that California prices are dropping, take another look at the Argentinians. They've plummeted. Never expensive, they've become really good buys in the year of economic crisis since the Falklands war. For picnics and cookouts, try the Andean '81 Chardonnay and '76 Cabernet Sauvignon, both at $3. With more depth, yet still in the easy-drinking, uncomplicated class, try the same company's Fond de Cave '81 Chardonnay and '76 Cabernet Sauvignon, both at $5.
Mobile Bottling: Another of Russ Woodbury's wine interests is in mobile bottling. I've seen a unit in operation in Bordeaux. The equipment was loaded onto the back of a truck, covered with tarpaulin and parked outside the "chai," the wine cellar. It didn't look too efficient. Woodbury's unit is a custom-designed 40-foot moving van. Inside, there's a sterile filter, bottling line, corking machine, labeling machine -- everything that a permanent line would have. Business is so brisk that he and his partners have ordered a second unit.
The mobile bottling line can handle 1,500 cases a day. At $1.60 a case, it's a practical proposition for a small winery.The alternative, an in-house bottling line, would cost at least $150,000 and then, for any winery producing less than 50,000 cases a year, would stand idle for 10 or 11 working months.