Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Rockaway Cab, Rodney Strong, and Allocations

A few weeks ago, Jeff Lefevere over at The Good Grape and the good folks at Rodney Strong set up an online experiment. What would happen if a house known for their top quality northern California Cabernets wanted to release a new, allocation-only brand and got it to bloggers first? Quite a few of us around the US will be writing about Rockaway this week, and while I've tasted the bottle they sent (which was excllent, dark, rich, fine to drink now, but will *really* shine with a few years on it) and gone through the press materials, I thought some of you might be interested in how allocations work.

For those familiar with Rodney Strong, you'll know they have some of the best vineyards in Alexander Valley as well as a strong team including Rick Sayre, Gary Patzwald and David Ramey. Rockaway is their "winery-within-a-winery" focusing on small-lot, artisinal winemaking. (They've produced 1500 cases of their first release, the Rockaway 2005 Cabernet.) Their ultimate focus is on terroir crafting the best expression of the land into the wine. The PR and commercial release of the first vintage will begin in September. Estimated retail price is approximately $75.

But what does this mean to us in Indiana? Winelovers are hearing more today than ever about allocation lists especially when it comes to hard-to-find cult pinots and cabs. (And more and more wineries are using the allocation-list model for high-end wine releases.) In theory, it's a way for a winery to set a fair price, getting wine to those customers who want -- and are willing to pay for -- it. For those of you already on allocation lists, you're currently mulling over the sticker shock on this year's Williams Selyem, Rochioli, Turley and others. In practice, an allocation release can be a sound marketing strategy both getting the wines to collectors who will let it age and shine as well as key accounts -- primarily restaurants -- where they'll pick up some name recognition.

Depending on the amount of wine produced (1500 cases is not overly small), winemakers have varying strategies when it comes to how much of a list they push to distributors as opposed to individual consumers directly, even with an allocation-only wine. Rodney Strong will release a small amount of Rockway to their Indiana distributor (NWS) with an emphasis on "key on-premise" accounts, says Robert Larsen, Rodney Strong's PR director.

Getting your brand on a restaurant wine list goes a long way to putting it in front of consumers' eyes. On the other hand, for wines that need a little age to really shine, like the Rockaway, it might not be the best showing of the juice. (I liked the Rockaway very much, but would certainly expect more from a bottle at $125 or more on a list.) Restaurants and distributors won't hold on to the juice to let it age. Consumers will. If the wine is popular, wineries will often limit allocation purchases to anywhere from a few cases to even a few bottles per customer so everyone gets a chance.

All of that said, allocation lists can be a great way for wine consumers themselves to build cellars and start learning how to store, inventory, track, and really enjoy aging wines. With top-notch collector cabs, you can taste as the wine ages to see how it improves. Thinking allocations might be for you? Here are a few basics:

1) How to get on allocations lists? Think of wine allocations lists like stock options. You are getting a first invitation to buy a vineyard's wine. There's a whole science to getting on allocation lists and it's a little bit of a game for collectors and marketers alike. Most commonly, you can call a winery to find out the list status and ask to be added. It can take years to make some active lists or the option to buy more than just a few bottles. But what if you're just starting out? Getting on a new list like Rockaway's can be one way to go. Consider it getting in on the ground floor. With the team and grapes from Rodney Strong, it's a much better than average bet. To get on the Rockaway allocation list, visit the Rockaway website and hit the “acquire” link. The list is currently open and accepting new customers.

2) Shipping: Everyone in Indiana knows we have these ridiculous shipping laws limiting shipments from wineries. (Recently made crazier by the overturned court decision. More later this week.) So, where does that leave you when it comes to wine? Ultimately, the winery just can't ship to you directly. However, most Indiana collectors have systems relying on friends, collegues, or even paid hires to pick up and reship their purchases directly. Rumor has it there are a few services in Northern California that can help you out. (The Napa Pak-n-Ship store gets very popular in September.) I've been sworn to secrecy about specifics since every wine lover has their own private source to protect, but with a little sleuthing, you'll be able to find your own solution.

3) Sticker Shock: If you're ready to play the allocation game, be prepared to pay for the privelege. Allocations are not a way to get a bargain on wine that's readily available in retail. They are the best ways to get first crack at buying hard-to-find cult and collector wines. You're going to be looking at wines that run from $60-125 per bottle on average. The good news is that you'll be the envy of your friends as you arrive with a perfectly aged, well-reviewed, but impossible to find Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Just be ready to pay for the privilege. Buying now and laying down for 5 years is still cheaper than what that aged wine would cost even if you could find it.

4) Case and bottle buys: Be prepared that some allocations list may require you to purchase wines by the case. Others may limit you to as little as six bottles per person per year.

Whether or not you decide to go the allocation route, the important thing to remember is to drink and savor. A pricy bottle brings you no joy if you're too worried to open it. And having a case of wine gives you the chance to try a bottle or two each year to see how the aging is progressing. Collect, learn, make notes, and most importantly, enjoy!

More on Rockaway with Arthur Black's review at The Good Grape.


Jennifer said...

How'd you bloggers procure/learn about the goods? Pretty cool ... Seems like these high-end wine makers are equating social mediagoers with expensive taste. Provocative observation/marketing strategy.

braingirl said...

Jeff has more over at Good Grape about how this got started, and I take it there was some internal disucssion at R/S about how successful blog buzz could be. So, like all things, it's a bit of an experiment.

In the wine world, it's really about getting the word out -- to sellers, to collectors, to people who talk about it, teach it etc. Most of the other blogs included are straight up wine blogs. However, I do, ahem, have a few wine readers who are just the sort who jockey for position on allocations lists, so I suspect that's why I made the list.

And, yes, I suspect your entirely correct about their marketing observations.