Wine festivals have become big business. So big that the Wall Street Journal publishes a guide to upcoming festivals in each Friday’s edition. Click here to see their online August festival listing.There are lots of different wine events, but I’m not talking about charity wine walkabouts here, where you make a small donation, get a few drink tickets and visit tables where random bottles of donated wine are poured. The modern wine festival is a lot more focused and sophisticated and designed to engage wine enthusiasts on a different level.
International Pinot Noir Celebration
The International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) in McMinnville, Oregon is a good example of the state of the art in wine festivals today. Sue and I attended the grand tasting last Sunday (a chance to sample dozens of Pinot Noir in a beautiful but hot outdoor setting), but the real deal for serious Pinot lovers is the full three day festival. For a fee of about $900 per person (not including lodging) you spend your days in tastings, seminars and vineyard tours and your nights under the stars at grand dinners.
The festival attracted winemakers from Oregon, California, Washington, Canada, France, Austria, Australia and New Zealand — quite an international lineup in a recession year.
I’m told that about 400 people attend the big festival — many of them come back year after year — and I would guess that another 300 or so came to the grand tasting on Sunday, so the festival’s total budget must approach a half-million dollars. More than enough to pay the expenses of wine critics and celebrities (like Jancis Robinson above).
What’s In It For Me?
It is interesting to consider what brings all these people together? Yes, yes, I know that it must ultimately be about buying and selling wine, but that doesn’t fully explain it. No wine typically changes hands at events like this and there are probably more cost effective ways to market wine, from the supplier standpoint, and cheaper ways for consumers to fill their glasses, too. So what’s really going on?
One reason winemakers travel so far to attend these festivals is to communicate with other producers and to taste and compare their wines. Although I still don’t fully understand it, I have observed a subtle kind of dialogue when winemakers taste together. Information about taste, technique and status are all transmitted in the glass. Professors go to conferences and communicate by reading papers. Winemakers go to festivals and taste each others’ wines. It is easy to see who has the more sensible approach to intra-industry communication.
I suspect that there was a lot of producer dialogue at the Pinot festival because the wines that we tasted did not have much in common except the genetic pedigree of the grapes used to make them. Although the world wine market is moving to a lingua franca based upon grape varietal labeling (Chardonnay not Chablis, Pinot Noir not Burgundy) it is very clear that wines made from Pinot Noir grapes can have extraordinarily different textures, flavors and aromas. depending upon who makes them, how and where.
The Old World naming system (based on place not varietal) sure has its merits in the wineglass where terroir is actually experienced — too bad it works so poorly in the cluttered supermarket aisle when wines are bought and sold.
I met more than one winemaker who told me basically that she came to Oregon to prove something — to prove that good Pinot Noir could be made in X where X = Oregon, Austria, California, Australia — fill in the place — only Burgundy has nothing to prove.
A good deal of business gets done whenever producers come together, as you might expect. Partnerships, consulting services, distribution agreements and so forth are frequently arranged. The McCrone vineyard wines made by Ken Wright Cellars and Ata Rangi are a good case study of the sort of connections that probably could only happen in face-to-face meetings at a wine festival.
Don McCrone is a distinguished retired politics professor turned distinguished active winegrower. His vineyard outside of Carlton, Oregon produces amazing fruit, which winemaker Ken Wright turns into a wonderful single-vineyard bottling. Don and Carole McCrone met the winemakers from New Zealand’s famous Ata Rangi winery at IPNC a few years ago and were encouraged by them (while tasting each others’ wines, no doubt) to scout out vineyard properties in Martinborough.
Now the McCrones spend half of the year in each hemisphere supplying grapes to both Ken Wright and Ata Rangi for “McCrone Vineyard” wines. Are there any other winegrowers with vineyard designated wines in both hemispheres? It is an extreme example of the sort of cross-fertilization that can happen behind the scenes at major wine festivals.
Relationships not Transactions
I think that the most important function of wine festivals is to establish and build relationships. I always say that wine is good, but wine and a story is better. Wine and a relationship (even a superficial one with the grower, the winemaker, or other wine enthusiasts) is best of all. Doug Tunnell, winemaker at Oregon’s Brick House, explained to me that he brings his wines to IPNC every year to maintain contact with the people who attend. I got the impression that it isn’t so much about selling wine as honoring relationships. I think elite makers recognize that investing in relationships with customers (and with wine critics and journalists and all the others who attend these events) pays dividends down the road. Winemaking and relationship-building both require a long-term perspective.
The fact that many people come back to IPNC year after year suggests that they value the relationships, too, both with the producers and with each other. I have written that wine always tastes best when it is shared with others who enjoy and appreciate it. This may be especially true with festivals like IPNC, which tend to attract participants who are especially focused on a particular wine or region.
What I Think I Have Learned
So here is what I think I have learned from my fieldwork at wine festivals so far, both at IPNC and elsewhere, on both sides of the table, both pouring and receiving wine.
Wine festivals aren’t really about the wine, they are about the people, the conversations and the relationships. The role of the wine is to bring the people together and to give them something to share in a way that is impossible to recreate electronically.
Wine, or really the sharing of wine, is a personal relational experience in an otherwise increasingly impersonal transactional world. That people seem to appreciate this sort of experience (and seek it out, even at high monetary cost and even in a deep recession) suggests something about its scarcity, don’t you think?