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.