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California Wine Futures : Robert Mondavi moves to join the makers of elite French vintages by pre-selling two premium Cabernets that won't be available for drinking until May, 1989

March 19, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The futures have arrived in the Napa Valley. Or, more precisely, the prestigious process of pre-selling premium wines long before their actual availability is under way.

The Robert Mondavi Winery last week formally unveiled a program for accepting advance payment on yet-to-be-released vintages of its reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Under the offer, buyers may save as much as 30% off the highly regarded red wine's anticipated retail price.

The pre-sale concept is known to the wine world as futures, but the practice has been employed mostly for the finest French wines, primarily those of the Bordeaux region.

Mondavi, discussing the program while in Los Angeles, said his Oakville, Calif., winery has demonstrated the sort of consistent quality that merits inclusion in any such elite grouping.

"We were never in the same class as (Europe's) fine wines," he said. "We were laughed at in the past. But not anymore. Now we can make wine more consistently than any other (grape-growing) area."

Successful futures trading apparently awards a formal recognition of the overall market's respect for a wine. Restaurants, stores and consumers make a financial commitment with the belief that a winery's performance record will continue unblemished. The decision is made without any tasting.

"The reason for offering futures is to signal that we belong in the company of the truly fine wineries of the world," Mondavi said. "I've been in this business for a long time, and we back up whatever we do. Actually, we would be remiss to California and the Napa Valley if we did not make one of the world's truly fine wines. . . . I'll put my neck out on this."

Under the program, precedent-setting in its scope, the winery is offering its super-premium Cabernet Sauvignon from 1985 and 1986. The sale will be available in those states where the process is permitted and will extend to the 20 or so countries where Mondavi wines are sold.

Orders with payment must be placed at selected retailers by the end of next month. Delivery of both vintages is expected by May, 1989. In some areas, a commitment to purchase the wines upon release, without an up-front payment, may also be possible.

One benefit of buying Mondavi futures, in addition to the potential savings, is to guarantee access to the winery's limited production of this wine. Buyers will receive their shipments six months before the wines become available to the general public.

Further explaining the futures decision, Mondavi said his winery has been making dramatically improved wines during the past four or five years. One technique responsible for the change is crowding vines closer together in order to lower the harvest yield and to intensify the grapes' flavor.

"I can assure you of one thing: Wines can be, should be, in balance, gentle, harmonious, elegant," he said. "But you must first understand the soil and what qualities you are looking for. Before, we made distinctive wines, but we didn't necessarily make good wines."

Several industry consultants who are familiar with the plan anticipate that the Mondavi offering will sell out quickly due to the enthusiasm generated by the plan. In fact, no more than 7,000 cases of wine will be sold in the initial offering, a figure equivalent to 30% of the total production for both vintages.

"We think it's fantastic," said Eileen Fredrikson, a wine analyst in the San Francisco firm of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Assn. "This is something that is a long time in coming and is probably the strongest indication we have that California wines have truly come of age in the hearts and minds of consumers. . . . It is the ultimate recognition of status and place among peers."

The futures program also surfaces at a time when sales of California's premium wines are estimated to have increased 20% during 1986.

"The premium segment of the California market is really in a growth mode," she said.

The winery is urging that those retail outlets offering the futures use restraint in pricing the wine, according to one Mondavi representative. Even so, consumers considering a move will have to commit between $17 and $25 a bottle for either vintage. Projecting a retail price for 1989 is mostly guesswork at this time, but the winery anticipates that upon general release the two wines will retail for $30 to $40 a bottle. By comparison, the 1982 Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon now on the market sells at a suggested price of $30 a bottle.

"All the major retail accounts that have cachet or that aspire to it will have the Mondavi futures program," said Paul Gillette, a wine newsletter publisher. "It will be a fairly glamorous thing, and the restaurants will make a point of getting involved."

The 21-year-old Robert Mondavi Winery is responsible for several previous industry innovations, among them the state's first Fume Blanc, the heralded Opus One joint venture with France's Chateau Mouton Rothschild, and a recently opened sales office in London aimed at the European market.

"You have to be in the forefront in the wine business," Mondavi said. "If you don't change, then others will come along and take over your position. I have always looked at the competition to see what is happening in the world of wine. . . . We want to be on the cutting edge."

Mondavi's competitors in the California wine industry are more than likely studying his new futures program. By wine analyst Fredrikson's estimate, as many as 20 other such ventures could be imminent.

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