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Here’s to our beautiful wine consumers! Salud!

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We in the wine industry often speak of “the consumer” as some sort of entity upon whom we rely to buy wine, but who is little more than a source of money. The industry panders to consumers, certainly; without them it would be nothing, but there’s a sense of using the consumer, without necessarily respecting her, that’s reminiscent of drunken college frat boys at parties consorting with certain young coeds.

Maybe that’s because most members of the industry don’t really get to see consumers in their natural habitat, as it were. Marketing and P.R. types study consumer behavior in the wine aisle, as if they [consumers] were laboratory monkeys being passed through mazes and treadmills. Winery employees see consumers as the tourists they are when they visit the property, an unnatural setting in which consumers’ behavior isn’t always at its best. We writers rarely encounter “normal consumers,” except insofar as our friends and relatives are wine consumers, but even those relationships are distorted by the fact that our friends and family members see us as “the experts.”

Speaking from the point of view of the writer, it’s really important to see consumers as they really are, and there’s no better way to do that than at a grand public tasting. I don’t mean a zoo, like some massive public tastings turn out to be, where people get drunk and there’s a high level of amateurism. Nor do I mean very small, ultra-chic tastings, the kind that only members of the trade and uber-collectors get invited to. The kind of tasting I have in mind was exemplified for me last night, in San Francisco, at Wine Enthusiast’s Toast of the Town.

I praise it not because I work at Wine Enthusiast but because it truly is a magnificent event. It’s crowded, but doesn’t feel claustrophobic because the space (San Francisco City Hall) is so capacious. The quality of people it attracts is very high, and by that, I mean this is a smart, wine- and food-savvy crowd. They’re well behaved; nobody gets drunk. They dress well (most of them come after work), are good looking (which doesn’t hurt), and everybody exudes friendliness. Every large gathering has a personality of its own: it can be frenetic, or grouchy, or angry, or confused and frightened, or just generally indifferent (think of the environment on a crowded subway platform during rush hour). The atmosphere last night at City Hall was happy. Beyond happy: thrilled. San Francisco City Hall is such a regal setting, the most beautiful City Hall in America, the scene of countless movies about District Attorneys pursuing handsome men or beautiful women for murder (and often getting involved with them), endless weddings (including same-sex ones) and assassinations. Even if they didn’t know anything of San Francisco’s history, last night’s guests sensed, on some level, the ghosts of important personages, passing silently and unseen through the Beaux Arts building’s marbled hallways, where every fixture and doorknob, every chandelier and bannister, seems clad in shining gold.

Behind the scenes, for those of us who assisted in coordinating the set-up details, there was the normal confusion; but the important thing in such affairs is that the guests never see you sweat, that they never experience any discomfort, because in the end, it’s all about them. And they didn’t. I think everyone was truly stunned. The wines, spirits and beers were excellent and varied, the food was absolutely killer, supplied by some of the best restaurants in the City. The jazz music wasn’t too loud, the pourers (many of them the winemakers) poured with aplomb, the catering staff hired to whisk away used glasses and plates did their thing invisibly and conscientiously. If I were rating TOTT-SF, I’d give it 99 points.

My job at TOTT is to circulate, to see and be seen, to welcome the Californian producers in particular, whether they’re people I know or people I don’t know. But I also take pleasure in running into consumers, with whom it’s always nice to chat and learn who they are, where they’re from, why they’re there. Putting on a necktie isn’t my favorite thing, but TOTT is one of the few times a year I don’t mind doing so. The Livermore Valley people even asked me to be included in their official group photograph, something I was happy to do: there were smiles all around. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll understand the significance of that.) The one and only M. Jean-Charles Boisset was there, demonstrating his new kickboxing skills, to which I had to reply with a quick knuckled strike to the nose, a dirty (but effective) move I learned during my karate days. Of the wines,a J. Schram (2003? I can’t remember) was awesome. A Sam Adams IPA rocked. I drank it with Lauren Buzzeo, Wine Enthusiast’s assistant tasting director and quite a beer authority in her own right, who instructed me in its details. We both commiserated that life’s too short to master beer, wine and spirits. Too bad, because there are glories in all three.

It was a very cold and windy night. I walked back to BART, the subway, for the journey home to Oakland with Chuck, my intern, and his girlfriend, Anna, and was glad I’d brought my scarf. The way you feel after an evening like that, when humankind seems harmonious as it rarely does, your belly’s full and your heart’s warmed with spirituous beverages, is the way we should all feel, all the time.

  1. Nice writing on the respecting the humanity of wine drinkers. Your last sentence was a knockout. Cheers!

  2. GREAT point about engaging consumers with respect – ties in to what Gary V., me, and a lot of other people were saying at this symposium in Napa this week. Instead of treating people who buy wine like a necessary evil, how about actually talking to them and giving them incentive to have a real relationship with you? It’s good old-fashioned relationship-building and the only difficult thing about it is that it takes time (and real caring!).

  3. Sounds like it was an awesome event, Steve!

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