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The trouble with Taste of Oakville (and other big tastings)


I went to Taste of Oakville a few days ago, the once-a-year big trade tasting where Everybody Who’s Anybody comes and schleps along their Cabernets for us to drink. And an issue has arisen that I want to discuss here.

I was one of the first ones in, and the line was long, but by the time I got to the Screaming Eagle table, there was no more wine left. It didn’t particularly bother me, because I’ve had Screaming Eagle before, and while it’s a good wine it’s not the best in Napa, not even close. Screaming Eagle is all about hype, and since I don’t particularly like hype, I don’t care if I taste it or not.

But that’s not the issue. The real issue arose from something I wrote on my Facebook page. I wrote: “Question: Why does Screaming Eagle even bother [to come], when they run out of wine in the first 30 mins? Memo to SE owner: Bring enough to serve everybody, or don’t come!”

Well, that was just me, ranting. But the followup comments were fascinating. One person wrote that SE running out of wine so fast “Creates a sense of rarity and exclusivity.” True, that. But then an interlocutor (I’ll call him “Ted”) rose up to defend SE. In his first comment, he wrote, “The Screaming Eagle non- issue has been debated before… What is the difference if you taste it or not? Others ran out too or didn’t show, where is the outrage?” I replied, “Outrage is maybe too strong a word. But if you’re going to present at a tasting that lasts from “x” to “y” hour, you should bring enough wine to last to the end.” To which he replied, “That just won’t work, Steve. If you have 400 people and they all want to taste the same wine you could bring 2 cases and it wouldn’t be enough. As a portion of their production they brought a lot more than Groth (for instance) On the other hand, I’m sure there were other tables that wished people had stopped by so they COULD pour what they had brought. There were several tables that got no attention (from me as well as others).”

And this is what I want to blog about today, the whole concept of these big tastings. First of all, I understand their necessity. The trade (restaurateurs, distributors, merchants, ink-stained wretches like me, corporate wine educators) wants to taste these rare and expensive wines. I don’t suppose that any of us are in a position to buy them, though (I’m certainly not). Do you think anybody is going to go to Taste of Oakville to making buying decisions? I don’t, at least not at the Screaming Eagle, Harlan, BOND level. I can’t imagine distributor “X” is going to taste Screaming Eagle and then decide, “Wow, that’s so good, I’ll buy 50 cases.” Doesn’t work that way.

Then why does the trade go to events like Taste of Oakville? These are not good venues to properly evaluate wine. As I’ve written before, none of these gigantic tastings are appropriate for that. They’re too crowded, too loud, too jostly. There’s no place to sit and concentrate, much less write. So I don’t think the trade goes to T.O.O. to evaluate wine at all.

The reason they go, I think (besides tasting the wines), is because there’s a sense of exclusivity being invited. The public can’t possibly go. You must be asked in, like the Bohemian Club or something like that. And there’s a certain satisfaction at being important enough to be invited. This is, I’m sure, well understood by the Oakville winegrowers, who cater to it, and who perhaps feel that, after all, it doesn’t hurt to be nice to the people who buy and sell their region’s wine.

On the other hand, it’s difficult for me to think that most of the people who pour find much pleasure in doing so. There they are, proud of their wines and all the hard work that went into making them, and here come the thirsty multitudes, chugging it down like they’re at a county fair beer stand, either not saying a word or else asking some question about toast levels. I saw winemakers pouring who looked totally bored, like they would much rather have been back at the winery than pouring. And I don’t blame them.

“Ted’s” point seems to be that lots of wineries bring only a little wine. They know they’re going to run out, and we — the attendees — just have to accept it. But that’s not fair to people who don’t show up in the first 30 minutes, and who want to taste as eagerly as do the early arrivers. Can’t the authorities who run these tastings tell wineries they have to be prepared to pour for (whatever the number of expected guests is), otherwise they needn’t bother coming? That way, the wineries can make up their own minds if it’s worth it to come, or not. Maybe each guest could get a ticket with the names of the wineries, and when they tasted a wine, the pourer would mark the ticket so they couldn’t come back again for a second or third taste.

As for those wineries (in “Ted’s” words) “that wished people had stopped by so they COULD pour,” he’s right about that. You see that at every big tasting, whether it’s for trade or the public. My heart always goes out to the lonely ones whom nobody wants to taste. I know rejection; I don’t like it, and I empathize with people who suffer its bitterness. Believe me, there were tables at T.O.O. that had not much traffic. It’s sad that so many people bee-lined to Screaming Eagle “just because,” while some wonderful wines were shunned.

  1. While I have yet to attend TOO, I’ve been to WAY too many trade and industry shows over the last 20+ years, in the wine and other businesses. TOO sounds like a typical industry/trade show, where the players feel they must make an appearance to maintain visibility and help promote their products, maybe even generate a bit of buzz about new goodies. A lot of what goes on has little to do with the product itself and more about the relationships and people ITB (“in the biz”). Putting faces with names, talking to the person who made what you’re going to try and sell or write about, and generally just getting a feel for what’s going on in your industry — all valid reasons for attending.

    Hey, if nothing else — you got a topic for another day’s posting, right? 😉

  2. Sherman: Right!

  3. Memo to Steve: Thanks for reminding me why I don’t like to to to these types of tastings if I can possibly avoid them.

  4. I’d be fine with these tastings requiring a certain number of total cases of all wines be brought by each winery – no more, no less. That way, if a popular winery pours out, at least they complied with the rules. It would help newbie wineries in knowing what to bring, since they almost always bring either way too much or way too few bottles the first time out.

    I don’t think any winery should have to serve a taste of wine to the entire crowd at a huge tasting, like ZAP, for example.

    Also, for those bored winemakers, not getting any attention, nowadays you’ve got to make people come to your booth, through signage, video, out-and-out shilling, whatever it takes. My feeling as a customer or writer upon seeing a yawning winemaker is that the wines must be equally exciting.

  5. Memo to Steve: Thanks for reminding me why I don’t like to go to these types of tastings if I can possibly avoid them.

  6. I stopped going to those tastings, either as a producer or consumer, about 5-6 years ago. I don’t find them fun or productive. After doing them for 20 years I realized I was seeing the same people at every one – not in a generic sense but the same actual faces. By every metric the big tastings did not increase my sales or brand equity.

    Now I only do little venues where we are the only winery, or one of no more than five. Hotel lobbies, winemaker dinners, private tastings are really good for us. Now, if I have a distributor or broker who is doing well for us (these days? – well, um…) I will show up at any event they ask, no matter what size, to support them.

  7. I went to the TOO last year and didn’t have this problem at all. I didn’t show up particularly early and I still got to taste the SE as well as the Bond and Harlan wines. I found that my favorites of the day happened to be mostly the less famous and more affordable wines (perhaps some that “Ted” didn’t pay any attention to). Still, I appreciated getting the chance to try the unattainables.

    The funny thing is the ’06 Screaming Eagle wasn’t at all memorable. I had to go back and look at my tasting notes to remember what I thought. Not a good sign for a $1200 wine. Probably a good reason why they should not pour at all and ride the hype as long as they can.

  8. Steve, I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said re: this sort of tasting. They often don’t even have decent stemware, and the noise and crowd smells make it impossible to taste much of anything anyway. But perhaps there is a kinder motive involved with wineries such as Screaming Eagle and Harlan. They know if they show up that it will bring in people who might otherwise not bother, and perhaps some of the lesser-known wineries will benefit from the exposure. There will always be crowd favorites, cult wines, etc. so forget about some idealized tasting where everyone brings xx bottles and they are all magically finished just as the doors close. Despite all my years writing and reviewing wines, I have never tasted Screaming Beagle nor many of the other California cult wines. But it would certainly be interesting, and might even help me transcend my disdain for some of the monster wines I have tasted.

  9. Paul, you make some good points. Hey, come on down next year and we’ll do TOO together!

  10. Steve,
    400 one ounce tastes = 16 bottles
    Why bother if you can’t bring 16 bottles to an event?

  11. Tom, makes sense to me, but then, how much does Screaming Eagle cost? Maybe they’ve priced themselves out of these tastings.

  12. Well we all know the issues of Screaming Eagle. We were all told to bring a certain amount of wine to pour for this event. In most cases it is more than is needed. They do this to make sure the big name myths stay there for a while. But we all know S E won’t. it is part of their “mystery”. Also it isn’t good for business if they hang around and people legitimately compare it with the many fine wines that the others (often smaller producers) bring. In most years the S E is a fine wine. I thought this years event showed a good amount of excellent wines from the 2006 and 2007 vintages. It is the premiere Cabernet pouring, with some other nice varieties poured also. it should be pointed out that almost everyone else was there pouring to the end (or very near the end) of the session.
    I poured three wines whose cases combined are less wine than the big namers single wine. There were others there doing the same. Part of the myth is that it barely exists. The 60 acre vineyard has been under a replanting program after it sold for somehwere between $20-30 Million. I wouldn’t let one winery skipping out ruin what was a wonderful tasting that is also enjoyed by many of the producers themselves!

  13. Any press is good press…

  14. George Parkinson says:

    Are the wineries, cult or otherwise, really touching their end user in these events? With social networking and DTC efforts aren’t these events becoming obsolete? For all the trade events I have attended, on either side of the table, One would think there must be a more effective way to get in front of the consumer or critic or sommelier than what amounts to a cattle call.

  15. George: Good questions. See today’s blog for some insight.

  16. I heard that the original owner of SE was a real estate agent dealing with huge properties in Napa. Apparently, she would knock a % or 2 of commission down if the client say bought one of her btls for $1,000 and the folk around town simply heard she was getting 1000 bucks for her wine. False hype. People buying that stuff should be sold bridges or something.

  17. lori narlock says:

    As someone who both participates in and attends wine tasting events, I can offer this insight: When we are asked as a company to bring a highly allocated wine we do. But, we still must stay within our budget or have to work with a small inventory and while it might be a disappointment to run out, the winery’s participation is important for exposure. I do believe that tasting organizers often want “cult” or rare wines to be on the billing even if the wines will run out because it adds more allure to the event itself.
    With SE I don’t think they need to build brand recognition and they do a disservice by not having enough wine. More people would be likely to talk about tasting it than those who didn’t get a chance creating a general feel-good environment. And in today’s wine world, when even those once-unattainable wineclubs are looking for new customers everyone should play nice.

  18. Lori: Today’s cult, tomorrow’s competition. It’s an old saying.

  19. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Stever, how long have you been covering the wine industry, and just now, you are getting wise to the sales pitch?

    Claude Rains.

    It is too bad that wine writers don’t seem to have much background in marketing and advertising.

  20. I dont think you have thought this all the way through.I went to the tasting this year and it was unbelivabale.Screaming eagle was there and ,ton your surprise brought about 6 to 8 bottles this time .boy are you wrong it is amazing.Now in your defense yes it is a cult wine,and probably not worth the price. However there are alot of wines that taste as good as screaming eagle for way less.If you have a chance taste the OAKVILLE EAST EXPOSURE. It’s amazing and the owner elloit stern is a great guy.So to sum up i’m kinda with you and not

  21. Cab Lover says:

    Did anyone try the Spoto Wine that was right next to Screaming Eagle?

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