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When wine events go bad

22 comments

I used to go to a lot more wine events than I do now. There are some I still go to and wouldn’t miss for anything, but there are others I wouldn’t attend if you paid me, and some of you would. The latter category mainly consists of the gigantic public venues that have become more like drunken circuses than serious places to taste and talk about wine.

Take ZAP, for example (and apologies to my longstanding P.R. friend, Julie Ann Kodmur, whose firm handles ZAP’s publicity. Julie does a Herculean job at managing something that’s becoming unmanageable). The last time I went was about ten years ago. On that occasion, as I recall, they had 20,000 people (about the population of Lafayette, California, a San Francisco suberb) all jammed into a couple buildings at Fort Mason. Not only was the crowd inebriated, it was so mobbed, you couldn’t even walk, and you certainly couldn’t get near some of the more famous winery tables, because people were packed 3 deep in front of them. I always wished that whoever was doing the pouring would keep the lines moving so those of us patiently waiting our turn could belly up to the bar, but no! If I was pouring and saw a bunch of frustrated folks standing out of range, holding their empty wine glasses aloft, with pleading looks on their faces, I’d move the crowd along, you bet.

And then the toilets broke! Yes, every one of them overflowed. Men were relieving themselves into San Francisco Bay, and don’t even ask me what the women did, because I don’t know. To make matters worse (if they could conceivably have been any worse), parking had been impossible. My car was about a mile away, deep in the Marina District. That’s when I said to myself, “Self, no more ZAP for you!”

Maybe ZAP’s better these days, I don’t know. I hear through the grapevine it’s not. But there are a good many other events like it that I won’t go to anymore, for similar reasons. I understand why wineries pour at these taste-athons: they’re part of the marketing/P.R. push you need to get your brand out in front of fickle consumers. But sometimes, less is more. And one of these days the cops are going to figure out how they can raise cash for hard-pressed cities, counties and districts: just lie in wait for all those drunken drivers and then cite them for DUI. I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more than it does.

I understand that the smaller a wine event is, the more it has to cost people to go. I’m not sure what the answer is. Meanwhile, I’m off to just about my favorite wine event of the year, World of Pinot Noir. It’s pricy, and my expenses are covered. I realize there’s a conflict between me criticizing ZAP and going for free to an upscale thing. My defenses are two: I’m being transparant, and this experience will make me a better wine reporter. I invite and look forward to your comments.

  1. Good on you Steve for being transparent.

    This whole ethical thing that rears its head three times a year in the wine blogosphere is more about disclosure than cozying up.

    We’re all adults, consumers of marketing and information and judicious enough to know when we’re being snowed and when we’re genuinely engaged with something for its own merits.

    Please keep this in mind as or if other people engage with wine brands on the Internet in ways that haven’t necessarily been done before.

    As long as you say, “hey, this is the deal” and that you’ll try to be objective based on your own base of knowledge and wisdom, then their shouldn’t be any problems.

    All the best and have fun,

    Jeff

  2. You are obviously entitled to your opinion, and it does sound like your ZAP experience stunk, but would it not make some sense to ask someone else who has gone recently if it has gotten better?

    I used to trash the Boston Expo for simliar reasons – too crowded, rowdy and not conducive to tasting/talking. THen someone told me it has become more manageable.

    The ZAP event must have enough redeeming qualities for producers to continue to pour, and for Zin lovers to continue to go. Perhaps someone rading your blog can offer an update from this year?…

  3. Sean Thorniley says:

    Steve,
    I used to attend the SF Rhone Rangers every year in its early days. I was fortunate to get in as an industry person with my wife (I worked at a nice Healdsburg place & my wife is a CPA with many winery clients). It used to be a great event, there were a few hundred of us (it to was/is at Fort Mason) all looking for something new and/or renew old ties. We would usually be done visiting who we wanted to by the time they let the general public in so it was fine. After about four years though with it getting bigger every year, well it was too much with too many drunk (industry folks too).
    I also will only be doing one day of the Wineroad’s Barrel tasting Weekend(s) this year and that is only for some friends’ benefit. Living in Sonoma County makes this easy to “miss” now that it is soo huge and much more expensive ($30). It used to be lovely since it was mainly a safe enjoyable “party” atmosphere, but it has become less “learn and explore” type of fun and now much more “how much can be drink for $30”. I don’t think most wineries should not participate, but it is a tough call. You get tons of exposure, but also “tons of exposure” that you may not be able to afford let alone want. As I often say, Marketing might be the toughest part of this business.
    My wife and I are also Comic Con International veterans of 15 years. It is in San Diego at the Convention Center every July (this is the 40th year) and it takes the whole place for four days. It had 33k attendees our first year in 1994 and we thought it huge! Last year there were 133k. This event is loosing much of its appeal due in large part to the “Hollywood” influence, but again, if you are in the entertainment business it is tough to pass up that many potential customers to make contact with.

  4. vinorojo says:

    Steve,

    It’s exactly the same reason I refuse to participate in this weekends Russian River Barrel Tasting. Before I even went the first time I was skeptical. Why would you want to taste wine that has barely finished ML and has been in barrel for about 4 or 5 months? If it was ready to drink it would be in the bottle. It became obvious that the whole event is not designed for serious wine drinking/talking it’s just for fun, and that’s fine, but I can have drunken wine parties at home where we all get trashed and no one talks about wine. I don’t see the point in paying, driving, waiting all that much to taste wine that I can taste any time of year during normal tasting room hours.

    But I went anyway, remember, just for fun. Big Mistake. First of all, I feel sorry for the people pouring at these events (I used to be one), they have no chance to make any type of connection or hold a conversation with any patrons due to the sheer volume of them (therefore no opportunity to really sell some wine), secondly, I felt kind of like an idiot being a local, standing in line for the outhouse at one of those “big wineries” where people stagger about and just want “something red” in their glass. Again, I paid, I waited, I tasted wine that wasn’t ready, where’s my incentive to participate again?

  5. Yeah, I’ve got your update.

    I went upstairs to the ZAP press area, which has in recent years been a civilized, uncrowded area where you can pour the wine yourself! And take notes at your leisure. But some people feel that it’s their drunken circus, too. Separated for a few minutes from my friend while I tasted, I didn’t notice when some boorish drunk came in and accosted her, promising to impress her with his wine knowledge while trying to get his tongue in her ear, she told me. Later we left – I didn’t want a rumble in the press zone necessarily; but that’s probably not in the zin spirit, on second thought. Is this what happens when you let the bloggers in?

    So, anecdotally, yes, the atmosphere is pervasively party although I think it was generally more restrained out on the floor than 8 years ago. It’s a fun event for most people who give a darn about taking notes or asking about the vintage weather or what have you, and are being introduced to a lot of Zin for the first time.

    (With apologies to the other bloggers, kidding, mostly; and to Julie Ann, who’s very nice.)

  6. I meant: “It’s a fun event for most people who DON’T give a darn about taking notes…”

  7. Steve:

    While I concur that the ZAP tasting can be a madhouse, maybe you should focus less on the medication (zinfandel) than the patients (consumers). I missed ZAP this year for one of the few times since its inception, and I regret that. It is the most consumer-savvy wine gathering going, and if you step back from the tasting table to talk with the very varied clientele it attracts, you can learn much about what motivates today’s wine buyer, regardless of age, gender, income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or whatever. As wine writers, we naturally gravitate more toward the wine than to our fellow tasters, but ZAP not only offers a prime opportunity to sample some terrific wines but to get in touch with today’s ever-shifting wine culture. As a wine writer, you will gain much by attending World of Pinot Noir, but what you learn will be mostly about the wine and the winemakers, not who is drinking pinot noir, and why. Have fun. If things work out, I hope to see you at ZAP next year.

  8. Corey Miller says:

    Steve,

    I agree that most of the “mega-events” are pretty tough to get much out of these days. I wish I could say that I started attending back when things were different but I can’t. As a spry young 28 year old these events have pretty much always been overwhelming since I started attendeding several years ago (even during the trade portion). Another great example would be Family Winemakers. I waited for 15 minutes just to utter a “hello, what are you pouring?” to one especially noted female winemaker.

    Alder always pushes these events as the, “best way to learn and educate your palate”. In theory, I agree wholeheartedly. But the unfortunate reality is that at most of these tastings there isn’t much room for standing let alone learning.

    While higher priced events are less crowded and taken more seriously, my concern is that they tend to attract a more pretentious crowd (those who can afford them and want to avoid the riffraff), which isn’t necessarily conducive to exploration or open dialog either. However, in the end, I can’t deny that smaller crowds and more focused wine drinkers almost always make for a better experience. I just wish I could find it without paying an arm and a leg.

  9. Steve,

    Another good and timely topic – as we’re getting to ‘that season’. Though I’ve never attended ZAP, I’ve poured at Rhone Rangers for the past few years. And though there certainly are some ‘overly inebriated’ folks, they are truly the exception, NOT the rule. The event is large enough and spread out enough that you really do have an opportunity to try a lot of stuff – from ‘tried and true’ producers to up and comers. Yes, the most sought after producers will be quite busy . . . and yes, they will probably pour out of what they’ve brought within the first 2 hours of a 3-4 hour tasting . . . but that just gives you the opportunity to scout out others . . .

    I too enjoy WOPN, but I found the Saturday tasting to be quite crowded . . . the venue is certainly more ‘intimate’ than Fort Mason, but crowded is crowded . . . That is why I’ll be pouring there on Friday this year instead of Saturday . . .

    I really enjoy Hospice du Rhone as well, having attended for the past three years. Same story here with the highly sought after producers’ tables at the grand tasting . . . but if you stay for the weekend, you get PLENTY of chances to hang out / talk with ANY leading rhone variety producer as they all hang out at the seminars, tastings, etc.

    What am I trying to say here? Not sure . . . . oh yeah, I remember . . . . I think you can find a ‘silver lining’ in any of these tastings – some easier than others. Just don’t set your sights too high, sit back like Mike suggested and talk/observe others, and don’t fret over long lines – you’ll get up there eventually!!!

    And if any of you are attending WOPN on Friday, stop by and say hi!

    Cheers!

  10. [on behalf of Bruce Walker]
    Steve,

    For someone who has long enjoyed and admired your writing I was disappointed by your blog on the Zinfandel Festival from an experience you had ten years ago. While criticism of any event may be appropriate, surely it would have been more considerate to have written about a more recent experience of what is one of the most dynamic wine events in the world with multiple events that occur over a four day period every January in San Francisco. We at ZAP have worked hard over the years to make the Festival a quality and affordable experience for all of the attendees, including the media.

    Some facts about the Festival which should be considered include the following;

    – The Festival kicks off with Flights on Wednesday at City College in San Francisco, which is an educational oriented event. This year, Zinfandel winemakers discussed the role of other varietals that are commonly found in older Zinfandel vineyards and the trend towards using these varietals on a standalone basis in creating bottlings of Zinfandel from mainly younger Zinfandel vineyards. The participants also had the opportunity to create a Zinfandel blend using these varietals. The event culminated in a tasting of rare Zinfandels.

    – On Thursday, we produce Good Eats and Zinfandel at the Herbst Pavilion at Fort Mason. This event pairs over 50 restaurants with wineries in a walk around tasting that showcases not only the diversity of Zinfandel, but the wide variety of food pairings that have been a hallmark of the versatility of Zinfandel since the varietal was first planted in California in the 1850’s.

    – On Friday, we move to the St. Francis Hotel for Evening With the Winemakers. This is the major fundraising event for us and includes a reception, both a silent and live auction as well as a sit down dinner where over 250 attendees have the opportunity to sit at a ten person table hosted by a winemaker. Over the years, the proceeds from this event have funded scholarships, educational programs, various charitable causes as well as our ongoing efforts to maintain and preserve old vine Zinfandel selections gathered from throughout California.

    – On Saturday, we hold the Grand Tasting at Fort Mason. Eight years ago we expanded the venue to include both the Herbst and Festival Pavilions to accommodate what has become the largest single varietal wine tasting on the planet. We allow trade and media from 10AM to 1PM. ZAP members are allowed in at 1PM And the public at 2PM. With about 10,000 attendees (not 20,000). It is the culmination of 12 months of hard work by our dedicated staff and hundreds of volunteers. The Zinfandel community is diverse and while a few people may not behave as appropriately as the overwhelming majority of attendees, all in all it is a great wine and cultural event. Yes, it can get crowded in the afternoon, but with over 250 wineries pouring over 700 Zinfandels I am never anything but impressed with how smoothly the event is produced. While the size of the crowd can seem overwhelming to some, it owes to the growing popularity of Zinfandel and if it is too much for some, the other events are smaller and I would recommend them. The Grand Tasting has grown over the years and I can’t help be reminded of that old Yogi Berra quote, “It’s so popular that nobody goes there anymore”.

    I have a couple of other comments about your blog. I too have an issue at every wine tasting no matter the size where people tend to treat a tasting table as a bar and don’t make room for those people behind them. Like other tastings this is an issue, particularly with the better known wineries. The ZAP membership is largely made up of small producers, many of which make under 1,000 cases a year. I started attending the tasting as a consumer many years ago and one of the things I continue to appreciate is the opportunity to try wines from these small and largely unheard of wineries that the media typically ignores. Perhaps you would be better served as I was by discovering these great wineries and the winemakers behind them. There is seldom the three deep issue and frankly, wouldn’t the media be doing a greater service to its readers by focusing on these underreported wineries rather than ground that has already been plowed?

    I want to particularly thank Mike Dunne for his thoughtful comments. The Grand Tasting is a cultural experience and while you can be solely focused on the wine, I love the opportunity to interact with the people attending. The Zinfandel community is diverse in every sense of the word and I have always learned things by simply talking with the people there in what is a great casual and fun atmosphere. These are the people drinking Zinfandel and at the end of the day, they are what has always made this varietal my favorite wine for every occasion.

    While we may not always have appeal of those that prefer the high price and upmarket profile of Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel is still the leader for quality and value, which is especially attractive during these difficult economic times. Perhaps more thoughtful coverage of Zinfandel and the Zinfandel Festival would be of greater value to your readers. In that regard, I would like to personally invite you to attend next year’s Festival events. I would be more than happy to escort you to the events and introduce you to the many winemakers and consumers who make Zinfandel the great wine that it is.

    I’ll look forward to seeing you at next year’s Festival and hopefully reading a more balanced and thoughtful blog.

    Best,

    Bruce Walker

    President

    Zinfandel Advocates and Producers

    Bruce Walker

    Starry Night Winery

    55 Frosty Lane

    Novato, CA 94949

    Tel: 415-884-9866

    Fax: 415-884-9836

  11. Thomas James says:

    Steve I agree with your comments about ZAP. I have a been a regular attendee of ZAP for about the last 10 years. I arrive before the opening and make sure i get through as many wines as I can before the general public is admitted and then spent an hour or so in the media are and get out. after the public arrive it turns from a “tasting” to a “drinking” event.

    Yes, the media area upstairs is a nice relief, but very inadequate. Would a few chairs hurt? Lots of space, but you have to sit on the bar! also the food quality at ZAP needs to be upgraded.

    As for WOPN, I stopped attending a couple of years ago due to price. I try and support trade groups rather than those simply trying to line their pockets for personal gain.

  12. spell check.

  13. Steve, I love wine festivals, but there are some I won’t go to for the reasons you state (not sure I’ve been to any as bad as the way you depict ZAP). I’ve been to the Blowing Rock NC fest twice in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains–the first year was charming; the second it was a zoo. One that’s divine on the east coast: Saratoga, NY. They limit attendance, charge high prices, the tents are never over-crowded, and there is even an abundance of gourmet fare. That’s the kind of fest for me. Cheers, Diane

  14. PS I Love You/Dark and Delicious is about the right scale. Rhone Rangers is way more civilized that Family Winemakers, ZAP or the Chronicle competition. And RR, like D&D, has a number of restaurants and caterers providing excellent appetizers.

    TOM

  15. Rebecca Hopkins says:

    Hi Steve

    You raise some interesting points around the choices associated with wine events, and demonstrated by the active participation in 2009 of over 350 wineries; clearly there is a perceived benefit of involvement in this varietal specific, consumer event.

    However just as much responsibility must be taken by those wineries who choose to exhibit. As the decision maker for a portfolio of brands at numerous consumer activities across the country, the most vital question is, “what is the objective of our involvement?”

    Too often, events are considered a relatively inexpensive opportunity to “reach the targeted consumer”, however reasoning must go beyond convenience and budget spend, and into understanding the attendee demographic, competitive environment, and desired messaging for the brand.

    Although there is a proliferation of new events, I believe good events understand not only their consumer, but also the exhibitor fit and potential benefits for those participants beyond filling glasses. So the onus is also on exhibitors to be strategic and create unique experiences for existing and new consumers to interact with their wines and wineries.
    ideally creating memory that will live beyond the anthocyanin stain on a new white shirt “donated” by a too close, ebullient, imbiber.

  16. ZAP isn’t a bad experience if you show up in a suit made of bubble wrap and come equipped with a helmet and waterproof boots!

  17. Steve,

    Timing is everything in life. I am on the fence about driving up to Healdsburg for the Russian River Wine Road experience. Just read you blog, it’s true, many of these events have become drunk fests. I think I will go for a bike ride instead NOT on Dry Creek Road.

    Shawn

    PS Enjoy World of Pinot…I hope Cambria winery is pouring its 2007

  18. Well, Steve, you were transparent, and invited comments, to which Mr. Walker , among others, responded. The only thing you didn’t add before closing was, “Fire away”. In truth, your point is incredibly on target. Here locally, I have passed on certain events, because of not being able to get to the wineries I wanted to, not being able to get to more than 10% of the wineries period, and quite frankly, I don’t particularly care for sloppy drunks.

    Honestly, if you could make these affairs more for people who really like and care about wine, it would, indeed, be better. I still don’t understand why somebody who drinks to excess doesn’t just take that $75 or whatever, and go buy 35 bottles of 2 Buck Chuck. Yet, they don’t, and they routinely camp out in front of some wineries, thus frustrating those pouring also. What’s the answer? Ah, heck, who knows. But your comment of higher price venues is probably the answer, altho that is not a great solution either. Maybe multiple days, cutting attendance into 1/3 per day is an answer. Problem there tho is that the wineries would balk, and they would have a point. It would be interesting to see a poll of attendees who leave a comment on “how to improve this venue”, on their way out.

    Bloggers have registered their comments here, but not much in the line of “how to fix it.”

  19. I may have the luxury and burden of having been at ZAP for more years than I can count. I love it for the opportunity it presents, and I leave it when the crowd gets out of hand. In the meantime, and admittedly, I get in early, I get to meet producers I have not previously seen and to say hello to old friends.

    One rule that ought to be understood and followed by everybody is to choose what you want to taste and not try to taste everything or expect winemakers to chat you up when they are busy.

    I agree with the comments about the press zone, but they also miss the point. No matter how much time one can spend in that private space, there is no good way to taste 350 wines. Try for 50 or so and then go home.

    I don’t see the point in complaining about the general public or even the trade concentrating their attentions on Ridge and Ravenswood. They make great Zin, and if you want to know what they have coming up, you get to them first and save your visits to new places you want to try later on.

    ZAP is not a private sit down tasting. It is a public tasting. One can get a lot out of it with a little preparation, a willingness to accept that it is tasting on the fly and probably cannot produce decent notes for publication and that its limits are real.

    And if you don’t like it. Don’t go. I go. I go to Rhone Rangers most years. I go to UGC, another madhouse even though it is only for the trade. Would I prefer to be seated with a half dozen glasses in front of me and the wines being delivered in flights? Sure, but these big public events are not like that. For the general public, there probably are very few better alternatives at the price.

    Neither ZAP nor any other of these events is perfect. And I do have a suggestion for Steve and anyone else who wants to taste Zin in a somewhat less croweded setting. The Thursday night event called Good Eats, offered only about 75 wineries or so this year and has a restaurant paired with each one. The crowds are smaller, and frankly, unless one is on a mission to taste hundreds of wines without stopping, having access to even 75 wineries is more than enough.

  20. Just a comment re: higher price venues as a potential fix for current overcrowding at tasting events. There is a totally unrelated activity, but the problem is the same: too many attendees for the amount of “x” product.

    I have hunted my entire life, begining at age 5. There are some 20 million hunters in the US, and it seems that most reside here in California, but other states are in the same fix. The problem is there is only so much land on which to hunt, and for out-of-staters , only so many non resident hunting permits. Solution? Hunting grounds, licenses, and permits are very expensive, especially if you want to hunt some type of particular game. So anyone CAN hunt, but for those who really want to do so, they must pick the venue(or site) that they want to go to most. I used to hunt all over; now I pick and choose VERY carefully, because hunting has just gotten so painfully expensive.

    Result? Well, there sure isn’t the hunting pressure as in the good old days, and now if I hunt, I certainly make sure it is more important to me than doing something else equally expensive and enjoyable. In effect, I choose what I can afford and then go do that. With the economic crunch, who ISN’T doing that? With higher priced ZAPs, or other pouring and tasting festivals, I suspect the same result would occur. If someone really has a venue they want to take in…well, then they should go, but they have to factor that into the budget and may have to eliminate some other leisure activity(or wine event). Supply and demand…it works, and would seem to be one logical answer to the problem.

  21. Ok, I’ve gone to packed rock concerts and loved them despite fact (or because) everybody was smokin’ and dancin’ and everything else. But I could hear the band (more or less) from wherever I was.
    That is the problem. I can’t “hear” the wine I want to taste unless I am within shaking hands distance of the person pouring. So obviously these events need to rethink the way they pour. And with money sliding, I can imagine all such venues in 09 will be overstuffed.
    Multiple options, as Julie Ann mentioned, are good. Rank yourself according to how “serious” you are. That’s the $$$ issue.
    But that still leaves us with lots of people on the day of the big event. (and this isn’t limited to San Francisco. the Cincinnati wine festival this weekend is exactly the same. As is Bordeaux’s weekend in May. And the public tasting at VinItaly in April (though the booths are big and in several buildings by region).
    While I understand for the producers that costs are critical, the VinItaly concept almost works. Each building houses a different region. There is outside space to pick a fight in.
    So where could that be done? Well, there are a lot of old military bases in the San Francisco area. Bases have a lot of buildings. Presidio? (but now owned by natl park service-alcohol issues?) Mare Island, Treasure Island?
    Or the same venue the same day in south bay, sf and east bay? And divide the wineries by their relative location (north, east, south wineries).
    Sure, you cant do them all but this year one, next year another.
    Of course, there is also simply a need to register and buy the ticket. and keep the numbers under control.
    In any case, why not put “check out line barriers” between the table and the person, requiring that you move along (we could always ask airport security to help).
    What I would be curious about is whether the winery participants are happy with the results of such shows.
    I think, Steve, you should have gone more recently, though this is certainly interesting. And Julie Ann, hello.

  22. I’ll go next year!

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