Last week I had the pleasure of attending my very first Wine Spectator event. Having been a fan of the publication for several decades I thought it would be fun to experience an event put on by a group who many wine enthusiasts consider the best at reviewing wines. Their publication not only receives more wines submitted for review than any other single entity in the world they also manage to accurately albeit quite hastily review the wines submitted. Nowhere does the statement so many wines, so little time have such a crystal clear meaning. I know some will question why I would make a statement about the accuracy of their wine reviews, but with so many wine writers, wine marketers and wine makers adamantly opposed to the 100-point system, I would like to make a case for why we should support it. First and foremost, if it is good enough for our school system it should be good enough for fermented juice.
Furthermore, without the 100-point system, the Wine Spectator would have to come up with a different theme for their most popular annual edition, ‘The Top 100 list’. If you are not familiar with the Wine Spectator’s annual issue announcing their list of the best one-hundred wines they reviewed that year, it is probably their best selling issue annually. Most wineries who have submitted wines wait, holding their breath in fidgety suspense prior to releasing the list. The list showcases one-hundred wines that their tasting panel has assessed to be the best one-hundred wines submitted for review that year. The wine that scores the highest point score does not necessarily mean they will award it the coveted number one spot.
The methodology is much more complex than that. Often if there were any wines that were awarded 100 points that year they would be in the top ten but not usually first. For the last few years, the number one wine only scored 94-98 points. Rarely do I ever hear anyone who has tasted most of the wines on the list disagree with the outcome of the placements. If you have tasted even half the wines on their annual list, you should consider yourself in an elite group of very privileged wine connoisseurs. Nowhere else other than this Grand Tour event would you ever have the opportunity to taste so many wines that have obtained a spot on the Top 100 list; not a restaurant, not a retail shop, absolutely nowhere are all these wines offered under one roof.
The Wine Spectators Grand Tour chose three cities for the tour this year; New York, Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas. We were fortunate to attend the one that took place at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. With over 200 wineries, pouring only one wine per table, it was probably the most organized, well-planned wine event I have ever been to and we probably attend fifty wine events a year so I have seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I would advise anyone whose career involves producing wine events, marketing wine events, catering to wine events or wine sales of any kind, attend this event at least once. Also if you are an enophile that keeps searching for the most memorable wine experience of a lifetime, this event is a must attend but if you fit that last description you probably already know about Wine Spectators Grand Tour events.
There was a spark of crackling energy flowing on the strip on this particular Saturday evening as it so often does there. Maybe it was the Floyd Mayweather fight. It could have also been the Supercross races. Carlos Santana was also there this weekend rocking the House of Blues; just a few of the happenings that may have contributed to the overall good vibe going on. Vegas in May and the temperature was less than 90 degrees, not too much wind, a great night to be out and enjoying life.
As we entered the Mirage Hotel and headed for the conference area, it was easy to tell there were two distinctively different groups moving towards the same general location. The staff at the Mirage were fantastic from the start. They seemed to be able to separate those heading to the close circuit television viewing of the Mayweather fight and those who were heading to Wine Spectator’s Grand tour event. From about forty paces out, the folks working the door would make eye contact and if that subtle hint did not register they became less subtle with a verbal nudge by saying “Wine Spectator event?” or “Mayweather fight?” depending on where they thought you were going. This sort of fascinated me and we hung back to observe for a few moments and it was almost like the attendees for the two separate events had an invisible sign that told the door people who belonged where. Management and Human Resources at the Mirage are doing a great job, because finding people who have those skills is just as hard as teaching those skills if not harder.
If you have ever attended a wine event executed in a less than an ideal manner, it very well could be the promoters relied too heavily on the venues staff to know what they were doing. More often than not when a producer/promoter of a wine event contracts with a venue, two teams are responsible for the experience the guests endure while attending. The venues staff usually does all set-up, controls crowd flow, and maintains the operational aspects such as the emptying of spit buckets, waste management and temperature control of the environment.
That last one is very important and the downfall of many event managers. I suspect the Mirage staff realizes that when a room suddenly fills with hundreds, maybe even thousands of people who are moving around a room in a hurry consuming alcoholic beverages, the temperature will rise considerably. Even if your event is held in the dead of winter, the room should be uncomfortably cold at the start of the event. Hotels in Las Vegas because of the volume of conferences held there and the desert location they have the experience to always be on top of the temperature. In the three decades I’ve been frequenting Las Vegas hotels and casinos I have never walked out because a room was too cold or too hot.
The list of participants pouring wine at this event was a virtual who’s who of the current serious players in the international wine arena. One of the current themes you will hear from big money marketing consultants who sell their services to wineries is “Your competition is no longer the wineries from your AVA who produce similar wines at similar price points, your competition is wineries from all over the world”.
As I entered the room this event took place in, that statement was echoing in the back of my head and rightly so because nowhere else would it have carried as much weight. The offerings were as diverse as they were international and no matter what you were pouring there was probably someone from another part of the world a long way away from your winery pouring a wine that you compete with on retailers’ shelves and restaurant’s wine lists. If you live in a state that makes it hard for you to get to experience this kind of international diversity on a regular basis with the wines you purchase to consume at your dinner table on a regular basis you need to attend this event next year. The big decision would be which city holds the allure of other destination events that will seal the deal. The nation’s capital has attributes that might trump Las Vegas for some and of course, New York will also have a draw that appeals to some people over that of Washington D.C. or Las Vegas. Just pick one and go would be my advice. You will not be disappointed. For the price of a good dinner and a bottle of wine for two (for us that’s usually $200) you can attend the Wine Spectators Grand Tour, when put into that context it’s a bargain.
This is one of the few events you can attend where only wine is present. It makes it a lot easier to move from one winery to another while staying focused. No spirits, beer, balloon rides, wine accessories, travel agents, car manufacturers, or dog and pony shows, just wine. Not having any other vendor distractions was priceless. The food provided by the Mirage Hotel’s banquet kitchen was tasty, substantial and well prepared and lasted until the end of the event a feat not often accomplished at large wine shows.
One of the most memorable wines we tasted we had to wait in line and although the line seemed very long it was only a five minutes wait, another example of how well everything flowed. It was amusing when one of the Mirage security officers asked me discretely what the line was for—when I replied, “Chateau Margaux “he quickly asked, “what vintage?” I replied, 1999. The nod and raised eyebrow response accompanied with a resounding wow, confirmed my feelings of privilege to have been able to attend. We continued our pilgrimage, tasting some of the finest wines in the world.
My trip to the Douro last fall made all of those Portuguese wineries a must stop to say hello and the Quinto Do Crasto 2008 rocked my world once again. Our local wineries from the Willamette Valley had a significant representation and the Pinot noir from Lachini was a familiar respite in a sea of diversity. The Bordeaux offered made the price of the ticket worth it even if that was the only thing you tasted all night not to mention the Champagne, Burgundy and top-flight Napa Valley wines.
A couple of notable wines from designations that might be flying under your radar was the high end Chilean red from Vina Errazuriz “Don Maximiano” and the South African winery Glen Carlou that is part of the Hess Collection. There were actually a couple of dozen wines we felt rose to a level of distinction that set them apart from the others and you will be able to read reviews of those wines soon here at Enobytes.
If you are a serious enophile or just want to build your wine knowledge, keep your eye out for the announcement and locations of next year’s Grand Tour and make plans to attend. I know we will be there because we always Eat well, Drink well, and Live well!