Sunday, February 10, 2008

Boston Wine Expo: My Experience

With nearly 2000 wines available for tasting, where do you start? And is it worth paying almost twice the ticket price for entrance into the Grand Cru Wine Lounge? These are questions that arise every year when the Boston Wine Expo arrives.

Yesterday, I spent much of the day at the Boston Wine Expo. Overall, it was a mixed bag, with some highlights and some letdowns. Over the next week, I am going to post in more detail about some specific aspects of the show. But now I want to provide some general comments and insights.

With my press pass, I was able to enter the Grand Tasting during the trade hours. This was great as there were far fewer people wandering around and I had a better opportunity to speak at length with some of the exhibitors. But even then, the event is far too large to cover everything in only a couple hours. I had to make choices as to what to concentrate upon and what I had to ignore.

It is always worthwhile to wander the perimeter side aisles of the Grand Tasting. You will find food vendors there as well as other vendors selling wine-related products from magazines to wine storage solutions. You can pick up free copies of several wine magazines, as well as sample some intriguing foods. You can pick up free corkscrews and even a cheese knife. I'll mention a couple specific food vendors, and a couple other wine-paraphrenalia vendors, later this week. I also got to briefly meet Gary Vaynerchuk of WLTV (Wine Library TV) who had a booth promoting his online show.

The center of the hall is where all of the wine exhibitors are located, showcasing nearly 2000 bottles of wine. The tables are generally divided into geographic regions so you can seek out what country or U.S. state interests you. But it may not be easy to find the specific region you desire.

The souvenir book that guests receive when they enter the hall contains a floor plan map. But, it is not completely useful as it fails to label certain regional tables. For example, the map does not label the Greek wine section. You could consult the Wine Exhibitor List and check for the Greek wine importers but that generally requires you to know who they are. So, you basically will either stumble upon the Greek wines while wandering or have to ask someone where that section is located.

I chose to concentrate my efforts on Japanese Sake, and wines from South Africa, New York and Portugal. I will definitely talk more about those specific wines later this week. I found some impressive wines, as well as a few so-so wines. I chose these areas because I especially like their products and they are somewhat lesser known areas. I can taste plenty of California wines at other tasting events, but it is much harder to find New York wines at other events.

I spent about two hours at the Grand Tasting and then went on to the Grand Cru Wine Lounge, the pricier tasting event. I have been to the Grand Cru event a couple times before and very much enjoyed it. First, it is a much smaller event, only about a couple hundred people, so the waits to try a wine are much shorter. Second, you generally get a higher quality wine. Most of the wines retail for at least $50. This year's Grand Cru event though was a bit of a letdown.

There were about 60 wines available for tasting and there was much less diversity this year. Most of the wines were from California, France and Italy. There was not a single Spanish, South African, or New York wine though there had been such wines at prior Grand Cru events. There was a single German wine, a single Australian wine and two Ports from Portugal.

Why such less diversity this year? There are excellent, high-end wines all over the world and they deserve to be showcased as well. Do we really need six French Burgundies, 10% of the total number of wines available? Why couldn't we have only three French Burgundies and maybe a few Spanish wines such as from Priorat and La Rioja?

The Grand Cru was also run a bit differently this year. Though about 60 wines were to be tasted, you could not just taste any wine at any time. The wines were only released for tasting at specific times. The tastings were timed so that every 15 minutes, 4 new wines were permitted to be tasted. So, at 1pm, when the Grand Cru opened, you could only taste 4 wines. At 1:15pm, another four wines would become available. And so on.

This strange, staggered timing raised numerous complaints so that they eventually stopped the staggered timing and allowed any of the wines to be tasted at anytime. This was a misguided change and hopefully they won't repeat it next year.

One complaint that I have had at all of the Grand Crus is that they need a wider food selection. They generally only have some cheese, bread and fruit available. For the high ticket price, I think they should provide some better appetizers. You get far more food choices at the Grand Tasting. You would think they would provide more food at the Grand Cru, especially as the type of wines being tasted would often benefit from being paired with food. A higher-end Cabernet would certainly benefit from being accompanied by a small piece of beef.

After a few hours at the Grand Cru, I returned to the Grand Tasting. I wanted a bit more food and to check out a couple more wine tables. As expected, the Grand Tasting was packed with people, especially women. Certainly seems a good place for single men to go to meet women. I wandered a bit more and left, shortly before the event closed at 5pm.

I certainly had an enjoyable day, despite the shortcomings of the Grand Cru event. I will be a bit more wary next year about attending the Grand Cru event, especially if the diversity of available wines does not improve. I look forward to sharing with you with this week some of the wines and other products I found at the Expo.

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