Booth babes. Row upon row of free alcohol to sample, some of it top notch. Hobnobbing with local wine celebs (e.g., Marnie Old).
Man, the lengths I will go to give me readers a decent story!
I was recently (in Q4 2007) asked by a local restaurant / wine bar to help them out an industry tasting event, held in downtown Philadelphia (i.e., sample some wines, help determine what they should be serving up in the near future).
This particular event was hosted by Southern Wine & Spirits of Pennsylvania. SWS is one of the major suppliers of wine brands to the PA Liquor Control Board (the state-run monopoly that controls alcohol sales and distribution within PA). PA is the only state-controlled market in which SWS operates; that’s because when you’re a big supplier, you simply cannot argue with the billions of dollars at stake that are controlled by PA’s potentially unconstitutional monopoly.
So what’s it like to attend one of these events? Read on, dear reader, reader on…
First, these big portfolio tastings typically take place at a swanky location. In this case, it was the Crystal Tea Ballroom (which I’d just visited a few weeks prior for the Gravedigger’s Ball in support of the Laurel Hill Cemetery).
There are, literally, a dozen or more rows of tables, each hosted by a winery, distributor, or importer who have their portfolio available for tasting. Most of these tables are staffed by young salespeople (“booth babes”), and are visited by equally young and beautiful sales reps, occasionally punctuated by a local wine celeb., or a wine geek (such as the Dude here).
There is a lot of sipping. There is a lot of tasting. There is a lot of handshaking. There is a lot of note-taking, smiling, and photo-shooting.
What there is not a lot of, is spitting – despite the proliferation of buckets provided specifically for that purpose. And that means there is a lot of drunken buzz happening at the end of the evening. In no way am I picking on SWS here – I’m pretty sure that this scenario would play out at any similar industry event (isn’t that one of the reasons why people want to get into sales in the first place?).
Personally, Dude was doing very well – at first – and enjoying the excellent wines on display (particularly the Quintessa, as well as possibly the greatest array of Champagnes I’ve ever had the pleasure of comparing). Doing well, that is, until late in the event, when one of the booth babes grabbed our group and ushered us through the vodka section – where we capped off a series of rapid-fire tasting with shots of vodka that ran in excess of $200 a bottle.
I’m the 1WineDude, not the ‘ManyVodkasDude’. My party spent the latter part of the evening stumbling around City Hall, looking for bar food to quell our munchies, and trying to remember our names.
If you ever find yourself invited to one of these events, how best to survive the experience?
Get there early. The event will eventually get packed, and it’s probably going to be big. You will want to scope out the areas of most interest to you, and pace yourself based on the amount of time that you have to spend there.
Map out your plan of attack. This is the benefit of an early arrival – you can plan out exactly what booths you want to visit before the crowds arrive, start imbibing, and generally make the scene more confusing for you. I suggest dividing up the booths into categories such as “Must See”, “B Priority”, and “Will Check Out If Time Permits.” That way, you try the things you and/or your employer are most interested in, and save the rest for a more relaxed run-through afterwards.
Don’t Ignore the Little Guys. You will find wine brands that you’d not known about before, and you will like some of them. You should expect a handful of “ah-ha!” moments with some of the lesser-known producers – and they may be exactly what you’re looking for to pair with your restaurant’s newest dish, etc.
Take quick tasting notes, but not too many. You will NOT have time to write lengthy tasting notes. Recording some details is essential, but I’d recommend planning on writing one sentence (or less) on each wine you taste. Stick to the basics and record just enough info. that you will be able to make sense of it the next day.
Remember that Sex Sells. All salespeople and advertisers worth their salt know this. You will be bombarded by beautiful people. Remember, you’re there to taste wine, not award your or your company’s money to the distributor that has the best-looking staff.
Don’t Forget to Spit. Well… duh! I’m not saying don’t enjoy a full glass of a killer cab on display. But I am saying that if you don’t spit, you will get hammered – probably not the best way to make an impression at an industry event.
If possible, carpool. Even when you spit, you absorb some alcohol through the tops and sides of your mouth. Eventually, it’s going to impair your tasting judgment, especially at an event where there is so much tasting to be performed. This is why you should hit your highest priority / must-see booths first, take quick notes, and probably try to carpool (or take public transportation) when your tasting event is over. Safety first, as they say.