Wine Business 101: Exploring America’s Largest Wine Industry Trade Show

unifiedContributing editor Sue Veseth is fascinated by wine industry trade shows. She recently attended the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium trade show in Sacramento, California. Here is her report.

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Making wine is not very stuff-intensive, right? Some grapes, a vessel for fermentation, maybe a couple of barrels, some bottles or jugs, closures — voilà!

But modern winemaking, even for small wineries and those making natural wines, can be very stuff-intensive. A good place to start looking at or shopping for all of the stuff for winemaking is the trade show at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento, California. This is the largest trade show in North America for the wine and grape industry, attracting more than 600 vendors from around the world and more than 14,000 visitors. A lot of people in the industry use the trade show to connect with friends, colleagues, suppliers, and peers in the industry, in addition to shopping.

Some trade shows are focused on particular aspects of the industry. The SIMEI show we attended in Milan, Italy, in 2015, was all about machinery and technology. Smaller regional trade shows may combine winemaking and other agriculture industries. The January 2018 VinCO trade show in Grand Junction, Colorado, was about winemaking and fruit-based agriculture.

Soup-to-Nuts

In contrast, the Unified is a soup-to-nuts trade show: tractors, plants, fertilizers, trellises, bottling lines, hoses and fittings, flooring, waste and wastewater management, vessels and containers of all types and sizes, construction services, irrigation systems, cleaning equipment, chemicals, testing services, software to manage just about everything, bottles, closures, labels, packaging, marketing materials, financial services, transportation, industry publications — and the list goes on. Some vendors have been in the show for years; a few new vendors show up every year. Some vendors may wait several years before scoring a spot.

It seemed to me that the people staffing the booths this year were spending more time talking to customers and passers-by than staring at their cell phones — hooray! Conversely, fewer exhibitors this year insisted on scanning my visitor badge, probably easily realizing that I was looking not buying.

One vendor in particular especially impressed me. This vendor had a dozen staff members, including high-level executives, in a standard-sized, attractive-but-not-flashy booth. But few were actually in the booth. They were always working the floor, with both intense and casual conversations with customers and potential customers. You could tell that this vendor was focused on business.

The raptors are always one of the most popular exhibits. The falcons are used for pest control. It is easy to anthropomorphize and conclude that the birds’ beady stares may be sizing us up — perhaps as lunch?

I also enjoyed looking at the pruning equipment and vineyard supplies that could be useful to the home gardener.

Vegan Fertilizer?

So, is there anything new? Yes, to me anyway. Especially intriguing were two French vendors with vegan products and processes for winemaking. One was showing vegan fertilizer. I had hoped to bring home a sample to try, but the smell was very strong, very fertilizer-y, even packed in multiple layers of plastic zip bags. Alas, it did not make it into the suitcase. Another company offers a range of products for vegan winemaking.

I was not aware of vegan winemaking, but it turns out that many wines I know and enjoy are vegan, at least based on the Barnivore list (http://www.barnivore.com/), although they are not necessarily promoted as vegan. Another “who knew?” moment.

Costs and Benefits

The question always arises: Is it worth it? There were moments when the trade show was jammed (after the State of the Industry presentations, during lunch, and during the regional wine tasting, for example) and other times when the aisles were open and easy to navigate (such as the afternoon of the second and final day of the show). The busy times seemed as busy as in past years but the slow times seemed slower to me this year.

Participating in the show is not inexpensive, for both the vendors and those attending. A lot of people were looking, but how many were buying? Does the activity level reflect expectations about expansions, contractions, or no change at individual wineries and the industry in general? Is it an opportunity to see and be seen?

The answers probably depend on who you are, what you are selling, and what you are buying. But if you want to understand the scope of the wine industry, the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium trade show is a good place to start.

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New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov attend the Unified trade show for the first time in 2017. You might be interested in his reflections on the experience. Spoiler alert — he was also fascinated by falcon pest control.

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Many thanks to everyone who works to make the Unified Symposium and its trade show a success. Special thanks to John Aguirre and Jenny Devine and to photographer Ken Freeze for providing the image above.

 

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