Once a year (and sometimes more than that and sometimes much more than that but on a smaller scale), distributors have a tasting for folks in the industry. A grand unveiling of the up-and-coming vintages, new brands, old brands re-branded and the old guard that will never leave the list but stand available to be sniffed, tasted and spat out against the up-and-comers. It’s democratic—the trade show. Restaurant managers, wine shop owners, servers, chefs, valued patrons—they all gather together, like Immortals at a Gathering in Highlander, to assess as many wines as possible. “There can be only one,” goes the show’s tagline. With these trade shows, it’s usually more like, “There can only be two or three. Okay, maybe five.”
These events are like jumping into a pile of Christmas morning. Hundreds of wines with hundreds of people, all operating under a wink-wink-nod-nod firmament normalizing all that takes place. So much spitting, note taking, squinting eyes, huddling masses and then, drunk. At least for some. Mostly, it’s hard decision making as to what wines are enchanting, value-priced and would be compelling to your clientele, and altogether, warranting placement on a wine list or shelf. Once you’ve made those decisions, the euphoria sets in with all the tastes and smells from all over the world, all stuffed up into one ginormous room.
You can imagine the strategery. Worthy of a paragraph or two in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink,” the first waves of attendees quickly assessing what to spit out, what to swallow, what table to go to first and then last. I remember one story from a rep who attended a smaller trade show featuring what was new in the Italian portfolio for one of the country’s largest wine distributors. Usually, each vineyard will send a vineyard rep, but not this show. “Each guy had a pinky ring, and you got the feeling that making wine was a hobby for them, not a business.”
This weekend, such an event will be open to the public at the Great Hall at Union Station. Not the mafia version of a trade show but a typical large annual trade show. Except it’s not that typical. Yes, there will be hundreds of wines, perhaps thousands of people, and not nearly as much spitting. But there will be classes and temporary tattoos and informational materials and even the layout will be as much about come hither as it will be about come to learn. It is called Wine Riot. It started in Boston, it’s spread across the country, and it’s happening this weekend in Chicago.
It’s origin story begins with frustration. A man named Tyler Balliet was working part-time at a wine shop. It was here that he kept experiencing, over and over, a disconnect between what wine writers and the industry in general were putting out and what the people, especially younger people, were needing. Among all snobs out there, it is the wine snob that is the snobbiest of all snobs. That has to do with things like holding your pinky up in the air when drinking and feelings of inadequacy that spur on the impulse to lorde your information in a bullying sort of way. Actually, hand placement is something the snobs can snob out about. Holding the bowl of a glass is considered taboo. And so, there’s snobbery with holding just the stem or to really snob out, holding the glass by the base. There is utility in this last approach to glassware as it makes it much easier to hand someone a glass. Still, I’ve been privvy to some nasty snobbery on just how to hold a glass. Oy.
Mostly, though, it all has to do with the complexity of wine itself. There’s a lot to learn about wine. After all, the Greeks thought wine was such a fuss that they felt the need to invent a god–Dionysus (or Bacchus, a name the Romans used)–to explain how grape juice could smell and taste so complex, it seemed to be not of this world. With so much to know, it’s easy to forget how to be a human being about it all. You can read more details in a lovely article written about Tyler and Morgan First, the other mind behind Wine Riot, here.
From this realization crystallized a magazine called Second Glass and eventually, Wine Riot. Recently, I attended Wine Riot in Boston. My temporary tattoo, while fraying at the edges, is still brandished on my right forearm. A tangible reminder of what I thought might be truculent hedonism, and instead, turned out to be jovial hedonism, grounded by classes that went by names such as “White Wines that you’ve never heard of that are totally f*cking awesome” and “The Case for Riesling.”
In addition to classes, Boston’s Wine Riot also involved foods, including local New England cheese makers such as Jasper Hills Farm. I didn’t realize how important food is to tasting wine until Master Sommelier Randa Warren, in a course she was teaching, announced to all of us that “food always changes the way wine tastes and not the other way around.” Up until then, I had never had someone with authority speak so boldly about wine. It sanctioned for me a new approach to tasting wine. Specifically, that I use food as a tool and not just something the wine is helping to wash down.
There were other foods served during the Riot as well. Definitely enough foods to taste all sorts of things in the wines as well as enough food to literally fill you up. Cheese plates went for about $5, raw oysters were $2.75 each, and fancy sandwiches were served throughout the space.
Wine Riot also has an app. This will come in handy for not only remembering what wines you liked or didn’t, but it will also allow you to vote. And that’s always fascinating to see who comes out on top during each session. The top ten wines included Madria Sangria, Farnum Hill Ciders Dooryard (yes, an amazing cider from the largest apple orchard in the country), Travessia Pinot Noir Rose (vinted at a winery in downtown New Bedford, Mass), Zonin Prosecco, Freixenet Cava, Freixenet Rosada, Travessia Riesling, 14 Hands Cab Sauv, another Madria Sangria and Mumm Brut Prestige. I’ll be curious to see who comes out on top in Chicago. For Boston, some of the locals did very well, and sweet is still winning the day. Perhaps Chicago will be different? Let us know! We’ll be there with ya, nerding out, rioting and taking diligent notes and photos. You can read about it next week.
Photo Credit: Wine Riot