September 19, 2007
No Safe Port In This Storm

I've never been keen on wine "futures," the practice of paying for a wine months or years before it is bottled and delivered. I can see doing it if I've been smitten vintage after vintage by a particular wine, have confidence in the continuity of the vineyard and the stewardship of the winery, and want to be assured of a steady supply, especially if the wine is rising in stature and popularity. But, for the most part, I don't want to put out money for a wine I haven't tasted, or if I've only tasted a barrel sample that may or may not represent the final blend.

Now a reader has sent me an e-mail that gives me another reason to avoid wine futures, and provides wine enthusiasts generally with a cautionary tale. According to the reader, she and her husband a year ago paid for a case of California "port." When they recently picked up the wine they expected it to be in 750-milliliter bottles, the standard for table wines and often but not always used for dessert wines like port. The buyers say they based this belief on the size of the bottle the winery customarily used for its port.

When they took delivery of the port, however, they discovered it was bottled in 375-milliliter bottles, a fairly common size for ports. They say that when they paid for the port a year ago they were assured it would be in 750-milliliter bottles, but they concede they have nothing in writing concerning the size of the bottles.

What happened here? An honest misunderstanding? A lack of communication? A winemaker who belatedly realized the popularity of his port and subsequently stretched supply by reducing the size of the bottle?

The buyers acknowledge that the vintner offered to buy back the port for the price they paid, and indicated that if he sold it at a higher price he'd donate the difference to charity, but they balked because they wanted the wine and they wanted it in 750-milliliter bottles.

I'm not sure what their recourse is at this point, other than to enjoy the wine and to remember the incident the next time they are tempted to buy futures. It isn't always possible to envision every contingency in a business deal, but any wine enthusiast investing in a style of wine frequently bottled in more than one format henceforth will want to get the size specified in the contract.

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