Wine Festival Etiquette
June 02, 2008
No, I'm not going to write another piece on how you're supposed to spit rather than drinking when you attend a wine festival (hint: you are). Nor am I going to rant about perfumes and colognes that are likely to overpower the wine for you and the next dozen attendees unlucky enough to trail in behind you (hint: don't wear perfume to wine-related functions). No, this post is focused on the other side of the table.
More and more, I'm going to wine festivals where there are a handful of wineries who are intentionally bringing less wine than they need to last out the event. And doing so, I think, is disrespectful to the attendees, to the other wineries, and to the event itself.
I'm not talking about bringing as much wine as festivals suggest. Most festivals wildly overestimate the amount of wine you'll need to bring. As a general rule, I calculate based on a bottle of wine total per attendee. So, with 500 attendees and 40 wineries, if each winery brings 12 bottles of wine total, there's plenty of wine at the event. If you know, because of the demographics of the festival, you're likely to be busier than average, you round up. It may seem counterintuitive in this situation to bring just 4 bottles each of 3 wines, but the math works out.
(Incidentally, most festivals estimate based on each attendee being able to taste each wine. So, with this hypothetical festival, most suggest that each winery bring 500 tastes of each wine you show. At 20 tastes per bottle, that would suggest that each winery bring 24 bottles each, or if you're showing 3 wines, six cases total. You don't need to do a lot of complex math to understand that this all adds up to nearly every winery bringing lots of wine home at the end. This is not the least desirable outcome, as I'll explain, but it's inconvenient, particularly if the festival is not local, or if it's in a state where you have to order the wine from your distributor in advance and then can't return it.)
Still, what I see as the larger problem is what we've started to call the "cool kid" phenomenon. Because real scarcity is rare, wineries are in the business of creating perceived scarcity. One way to do this is to be sure you run out of wine early enough at an event that people will notice and make a mental note to come earlier next time. If you've got good wine, and your ploy is not too transparent, you can even get attendees to start planning which wineries they have to hit in the first few minutes of the event. This makes the strategy even more effective, as other attendees see the swarm around your table right at the beginning and, in true lemming fashion, squeeze in to find out what all the fuss is about. Then, you can run out even earlier.
Sauntering around the room tasting other wineries' wines after you've run out (with the implication that the rest of you are suckers for still being pouring) is just the coup de grace.
Of course, the net effect of this phenomenon is that other wineries either hate or envy you (mostly depending on whether they feel you've brought a reasonable amount of wine to start with). And consumers who weren't quick enough on the uptake or who didn't have the patience to wade through the scrum at the beginning are cheated of getting to try some of the hottest wines. But, the stakeholder who should be the most upset is the event, who get the benefit of their biggest-name attendees for only a portion of the event's time.
I have started to see some events threaten that if wineries run out of wine too early, they won't be invited back. But most events are all too happy to have the hottest wineries on their Web sites and in their promotional materials to help sell tickets, and so accept behavior they probably shouldn't.
I can only hope that in the long-term, consumers understand when they're being manipulated and push back. But I'm not holding my breath. Meanwhile, feel free to come by the Tablas Creek booth in the last half-hour of the the next festival in your town.