Money alone can’t buy you everything in the wine world. Not, for example, access to Napa winery Ovid’s latest rich-textured white, Experiment No. W.6.9, or to savory Variazioni di Rosso from great Italian estate Ornellaia, or to SGC Medoc, a plush red from a secret plot of vines in Bordeaux.
To get your hands on those and some other unusual bottles and historic vintages, you have to make a pilgrimage to the winery or join a membership group or mailing list. In one case, you need to be a nice person and give off really good vibes.
Think of such exclusive wines as rewards for intrepid loyalists and wine adventurers willing to go beyond retail.
Let’s start with Ovid’s delicious “Experiments,” whose bottles sport labels that look like the handwritten tags you tie to flasks in a laboratory.
Every winemaker experiments—trying out different grape varieties, ways of growing vines, types of barrels or amphora for aging.
Unlike many of them, Ovid winemaker Austin Peterson has been bottling his one-off trials—in every year since 2005. He calls them “a front-row seat to concepts about winemaking,” and some have helped him refine the four terrific “official” reds for which the winery is known.
His latest batch includes 2019 Experiment No. W.6.9, which is a round, ripe, polished, and totally satisfying blend of eight white varieties such as vermentino and picpoul blanc that serves as Peterson’s answer to what a California white wine can be. (If you join the mailing list or get to the Napa tasting room, you may be able to buy it for $95.)
The better one, of the two reds ($165 each, same process) from this vintage, is the violet-scented, dark, intense, almost exotic 2018 Experiment No. R.9.8, the result of his investigation into how vine row orientation affects grapes and the wines that result.
The two reds go for half the price of the rich, inky yet silky main Ovid bottling, or its siblings—intense Hexameter, a savory Syrah, and big, opulent Loc. Cit—and are not quite as complex or refined. The white is the most fascinating of the three experiments; really unique, it’s worth hunting down.
The current editions can be had 1,500 feet up, on the winery’s rocky, windswept Pritchard Hill. You get an offer to buy them by signing up for Ovid’s exclusive mailing list on the website and opening an account. (Earlier vintages of other experiments are occasionally available on the secondary market, at about $100 for whites and $180 and up for reds.)
You might be surprised by the number of limited-edition bottles offered only at winery tasting rooms or via their wine clubs. Many aren’t even mentioned on winery websites. They range from one-off experiments such as Ovid’s to cuvées from tiny plots, rare grapes like Matthiasson’s Schioppettino, and no-longer-available vintages you can pluck directly from a winery cellar. In Italy, many tasting rooms are the only places you’ll find the wineries’ own grappa.
Here are nine additional super interesting picks:
2020 Macari Tocai Friulano
Macari Vineyards on Long Island’s North Fork made 100 cases worth of this bright, tangy white from organic grapes. To be bottled in April, it’s one of the small-batch wines available only in the tasting room and via the wine club.
2018 Matthiasson Schioppettino
This light, tart, fruity and herbal red with 11 % alcohol comes from two rows (!) of vines in Matthiasson’s organic vineyard in Napa’s Oak Knoll district, which has one of the only plantings of this northern Italian grape in California. It’s offered only to the wine club—and for $49 in the tasting room, if there’s enough to go around.
2016 Variazioni di Rosso dell’Ornellaia
The annual one-off from Super Tuscan estate Ornellaia is a €50 ($59) exclusive at the tasting room near the Tuscan coast. In one year, Variazioni (“variations”) will highlight a single vineyard plot; in another, it might be a grape variety that shone as brightly as merlot did in 2016.
2019 Brand White Wine
Napa’s Brand winery, noted for cabernets, also makes this aromatic, very sophisticated white blend from a 1.5-acre parcel of Italian white varieties rarely seen in the valley—ribolla gialla, fiano, arneis, and coda di volpe. It costs $85 in the tasting room, and mailing list members get a crack. If you plan to visit, Brand partner NetJets is offering customers a one-time round trip flight at the same rate that NetJets Owners receive.
Ridge Vineyards Advanced Tasting Program
The legendary Monte Bello cabernet is the star at this California winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, but Ridge also produces brilliant old-vine, single vineyard zinfandels and Rhône varietals. Many are available only to members of the Advanced Tasting Program. (There are three shipments a year, starting at $196, with three different wines in each; you can choose 2, 4, 6, or 12 bottles of each release, with an average bottle price of $32.) The program is ideal for zin fans, but every wine is worth tasting. Included in this spring’s release are the vibrant, spicy Rockpile Zinfandel and savory Gonsalves Carignane.
Old vintages of Chateau Montelena
If you dream of helping yourself to historic vintages while roaming an iconic Napa winery’s cellar, you’re in luck. Head for ivy-covered, stone castle-style Chateau Montelena in Napa. (Sorry, its 1973 chardonnay, one of the 1976 Paris Tasting winners, is out of bounds—and probably over-the-hill, anyway.) Still, the library stash includes almost every vintage of its reds and whites, back to the 1970s. Access comes through curated tastings in a new concierge program, starting at $250.
2012 Penultimate ($375)
Promontory is the most recent Napa project from Harlan Estate. An appointment-only visit to the 840-acre property in the Mayacamas foothills lets you buy this vintage of experimental red blend Penultimate, made from vineyard spots that are almost, but not yet ready to be included in the expensive main wine. Also available there is the 2008 vintage of Promontory ($1,050), which was never released for sale.
2016 Barrica de Reserva Especial de CVNE
Spanish winery CVNE in Rioja has long offered barrels of this special cuvée to family and friends for $9,000 a barrel. Each holds the equivalent of 300 bottles; CVNE puts the wine in formats clients choose. About 150 barrels are released every two years; according to Chief Executive Officer Victor Urrutia, some go to a second generation that has inherited the right to buy. The barrels are part of CVNE’s Club Tolono.
Former financier Arnaud Christiaens is challenging Bordeaux’s famous châteaux by making wines from tiny top plots of vines adjacent to big-name estates, with the help of a soil scientist and some top Bordeaux winemaking consultants. SGC (Le Secret des Grands Crus) produces three standout cuvées—a Medoc, St-Emilion, and Pomerol—but to get them, you have to be a member of its Le Cercle club and approved by the board. According to Christiaens, only “nice people,” (meaning convivial, enthusiastic drinkers, not boring wine speculators) make the cut. The hefty annual fee of £19,920 pounds ($27,700) covers 16 bottles of each cuvée as well as club events, but if you have to ask . . .