Boy, do I get tired of Wine Fair Whinging™.
There was a time when I felt that most people enjoyed a good wine fair. After all, what wine lover wouldn’t enjoy being in the exuberant company of like-minded individuals at an event where dozens – or even hundreds – of winemakers are pouring their wares for sampling? But then, those people were consumers, and the wine fairs were local events that were open to the general public.
Now I know better.
People working in the trade universally dislike consumer wine fairs. The main reasons? They’re loud, overcrowded, poorly-organised, nearly impossible to conduct business at, and full of people happy to pay the small price of admission for the opportunity to stroll around with a tasting glass and get drunk tasting dozens of different wines.
Working in the trade myself, I get that. I understand. With the exception of niche fairs such as Raw Wine, consumer wine fairs are a tough sell to professionals. But what about the major trade fairs like ProWein? VinExpo? Even Vinitaly?
Well, it turns out that they are generally disliked by professionals as well. Why? Some of the same reasons, such as overcrowding and poor organisation, but then some new ones as well: high ticket prices for attendees and exorbitant exhibitor prices, stratospheric accommodation prices in the city where the fair is held – and the party atmosphere that accompanies such large, important fairs, itself, is a burden to some who are focused on “business”.
But there is a far more important issue that keeps both smaller exhibitors and many prospective trade attendees at bay: discovery.
It’s a two-sided coin, of course, depending on which side of the tasting table you are standing.
Exhibitors: being a smaller or less-known winery and hoping to be “discovered” among thousands of potential competitors during the few days of a major international wine fair is a tall order. Lots of preliminary groundwork is necessary, luck is indispensable. For many, the sheer expense of participation is not worth the small return they expect to reap. I can understand their point of view and I won’t fault them for their decision.
Buyers and Journalists: the flip side of the coin is the perceived difficulty of “discovering” something worthwhile at the fair. Incredibly, there are quite a few people – particularly journalists – who avoid such fairs because they find it too difficult to find something truly interesting.
Wine fairs are positively dripping with fine producers literally waiting to be discovered. Well-organised fairs like ProWein (and yes, it IS well-organised, no matter what the nay-sayers might claim) even go to great lengths to give you the tools to discover them. If your main reason for not going to trade fairs is that you can’t discover anything worthwhile, then I feel you are likely going about things the wrong way.
How To Discover Something Interesting
Go in with a Plan
Wine Fairs always have a floorplan and a list of exhibitors, sometimes even including the wines that they will be showing. Don’t just rock up at the show and hope to stumble across something amazing while randomly sauntering up an aisle (although I have quite literally managed that once or twice), do a little research. Pick some things you are interested in, be it the viticulture, the grape variety or the region.
Pick a Theme
It always helps to narrow your focus for a while. Decide to concentrate on a particular area or grape variety for a few hours – or your entire day. Interested in Chenin Blanc? Go to the Loire area and taste through every producer of Savennières that is there. Then move on to Vouvray. Then head over to South Africa and see what they’ve got. Speed-taste through the producers until you find one that impresses, then taste the rest of what they have.
Personally, I love indigenous grapes. So if I want to get a good overview of a grape that I don’t have a lot of experience with, I’ll go to the stand for the region or appellation where that grape is found and try 8-12 different bottlings of it. If there are experts on hand, so much the better; I’ll ask them to pick representative bottles for me.
Keep Appointments to a Minimum
I have nothing against appointments, generally, except that they rob me of too much time and they bind me to a schedule, leaving little room for spontaneity.
Appointments with producers can be very important – particularly at Vinitaly – but they are most important for well-known, popular producers. You won’t be making any “discoveries” with those; that’s well-trodden ground. So free up your time: drop by and taste spontaneously. You may have to wait a few minutes to have a conversation, but it will still cost you less time overall than committing to a rigid schedule of appointments.
Taste Fewer Wines
If that producer you have approached has 10+ wines on offer (not uncommon with many producers, particularly from Germany, Austria and parts of France), do NOT plan to taste them all from the get-go. Ask the producer to show you two or three of the wines they think are their most interesting, or their best-value, or their favourites…whatever. But limit the selection. Pick your own, if you prefer, but I find the best idea is to let them decide what to show you. If the wines you try then really speak to you, try more of them! If they don’t, move on.
I hate to say it, but try to keep conversation to a minimum until you find the producers that have wines that really interest you. Almost everybody has a story and they will want to share it – but standing for a half an hour with a producer whose wines don’t speak to you is time poorly-spent.
Visit some Seminars and Tastings
The best ones are seminars offering a broad range of wines from a large number of producers: seminars focusing on a region, a country, a grape variety or other themes. You aren’t going to make any discoveries attending that presentation of vintage Dom Perignon, as delightful as that tasting might be.
The best part about such seminars is that they are usually led by people who are experts on the subject, who have picked wines that are of high quality, and generally from under-the-radar properties as well as bigger names. Once you have picked your favourites from the tasting, get out and visit the properties on the fair floor, if they are there!
Bonus: after the seminar has finished, talk to the presenter and ask them to recommend a few quality producers from the region that are not yet well-known.
Frequent the Regional or National Stands
There are a couple variations on this theme. If you are at an International fair like ProWein, you will find significant representation from countries like France, Spain, Italy and, of course, Germany. These countries will have stands from their regions and Appellations. Nations with a smaller presence at the fair, such as Canada or South Africa, will have national stands. Whatever the situation, head over to these stands and you will find dozens of wines available to taste from all over the region/country, usually one per producer. Sometimes you can pour for yourself and sometimes you will be able to talk to the sommelier or other staff present at the stand.
Option 1: pick a grape/style/region/appellation and speed-taste your way through as many wines as you can.
Option 2: talk to the staff and get them to pick representative/innovative bottles for you.
Whatever your methodology, when you find a wine that really speaks to you, go visit the producer at the fair.
Visit the Association Stands
Like the national, regional or appellation stands I just mentioned. In this case, these are stands set up by certifying bodies like Demeter (for biodynamic wines) and EcoVin (for organic wines), or producer associations like Germany’s VDP. It’s a quick way to get an international or national cross-section of wines with a particular focus.
Pick the Brains of the Experts On-Site
If you’ve gone to a regional, national or association stand, ask the people working there for their advice on areas of interest, like representative or innovative bottlings, up-and-comers, new producers and the like.
Even better: once you’ve found a producer that you really appreciate, ask them who THEY like, then visit some of their suggestions. This is a great way to find like-minded producers doing good work in a particular region and beyond.
The Last Word
If there is a common thread to my suggestions, it is to direct your focus and not waste time. Get out there and taste as much as possible, focusing on your interests – you will be rewarded. For me, if I find even one great, new (for me) producer per day at a tasting event, I consider it a success.