6 Steps to Navigating your First Wine Convention
A few days after returning from my first wine convention at VINEXPO 2018 in New York City, I was left with mixed emotions: it was thrilling to meet producers and be solely around wine professionals who were equally or more passionate about wine as I am but on the other hand, it was terrifying being around esteemed professionals who seemed to go to these things on a yearly basis. All of these things mixed with the intimidation factor on New York City itself makes for an experience that can be daunting for first-timers like myself. With the lessons I learned however, I created a brief guide to not looking like a newb at your first wine (or any beverage related) convention!
1. COME PREPARED
As true in almost every aspect in life, those who are prepared usually fare the best. Before attending the convention, the VINEXPO site offers plenty of information of who's attending, classes offered and even the ability to setup one-on-one meetings with producers, distributors and importers. Although this is good, it also overwhelming when you start to sift through the seemingly hundreds of entities that are attending over the two days. I recognized some of the producers on the list but most of them were completely unrecognizable. Once I arrived I did stop by the booths of some producers I did recognize and tasted some great wines but for the majority I wandered aimlessly looking for someone to give me attention (I will say that the producers from the Rhone Valley were pretty welcoming). I wish I would've and created a better itinerary and done more research into some of the producers that were in attendance to not feel like so much of an outsider, which brings me to my next point...
2. SPEAK ANOTHER LANGUAGE
Being from the United States, you quickly forget that not everyone outside of this country speaks English or speaks it well for matter. One of the best ways to connect with someone is by simply speaking their language and in the world of wine, that really means speaking French or at the very least, pronouncing French wine terms correctly. I usually have no problem saying French wine terms and regions around Americans but around native speakers, I sounded like my tongue was too big for my mouth which produced odd looks from certain producers. Even hearing German terms being spoken by native speakers made it hard to understand at first. Now being that they're in New York City, every producer there sent representatives that speak a decent amount of English but it would've been cooler to talk about wine in their language. This wasn't too much of a barrier, although trying to properly pronounce Trockenbeerenauslese in front of an Austrian can completely zap your confidence!
3. DON'T DRINK THE WINE!
Not because it's frowned upon but simply because you'll get drunk pretty damn fast without any food around to save you. There were over 400 booths with each producer having a minimum of 5-6 wines each and if you're swallowing wine, you're not going to last past the first 45 minutes of the convention. Luckily, each booth had a spit bucket for you to pour and spit obviously, but I didn't realize this until after my first booth and let's just say that drinking six-straight 2oz pours of Northern Rhone wine in ten minutes had me feeling quite good (buzzed). Mind you, I'm 6'2 210lbs so I can only imagine the effect on an average sized person. Getting a small buzz is acceptable (you're at a wine convention after all) but getting drunk is completely unprofessional and negates the reason why you attend in the first place. Also, make sure that when you do spit it all makes it into the bucket. This may seem like a 'duh' moment, but spitting into a shallow bucket with an opening built for a piggy bank, takes a bit of finesse. (yet another reason not to get drunk)
4. CONVENTIONS ARE ABOUT BUSINESS
Soon after arriving, I realized that this event was mainly about making deals. Distributors and importers were looking for the new hot thing while small producers were looking for people to import their product or to get their wines on a list at an award-winning restaurant. Everywhere I looked, there were booths hopping with activity as they took meeting after meeting while the producer next to them just sat twiddling their thumbs. So when a no-name like me waltzed up to a booth, I usually was met with a bit of skepticism until I mentioned that I had their wines on my list or by name-dropping the distributors in my region. Even though there is an educational component to VINEXPO, it is mainly about moving product so you have to approach each booth from the perspective of a buyer and not just a fan.
5. DIVERSITY (HAHA)
See, the world of wine is a funny one because it's so dependent upon geography and place. Grapes don't choose what climates they like and it just happens to be that they grow very well in most western European regions, which admittedly haven't been the most ethnically diverse areas for the past couple of hundred years. This has led to an old world (and new world also) tradition of wine cultures being determined mainly by white men and this was very evident at the convention. Being a 6'2 black man, I definitely stuck out in a sea of practical homogeneity. This is not to say that producers weren't welcoming, because everyone I spoke with was nothing but extremely polite and eager to please, however, this fact might startle some first-time minority attendees. Women, saw a better representation but it didn't change the fact that this was a show being run by the men, something that'll probably change over the next few years.
6. RELAX, IT'S JUST WINE
This is one of the hardest things to do when you first enter the world of wine because everything about it seems so foreign and prestigious. Some of it is, but even the good stuff is created just to make people happy. That's it really and this concept was reinforced at every booth visit. It truly felt like walking into someone's house and being offered a glass of wine; a feeling that made the entire experience completely unforgettable.
My first wine convention went similarly to a first date, clunky at first but quickly improved after a few glasses of wine. It showed me that these are serious events where millions of dollars can be gained and reputations founded or strengthened but also, a chance to talk to the people that make wine in regions that you only read about in books or online. It was humbling, frightening and downright fun and I'd put it on anyone's list that works in the food/beverage industry with a goal of truly immersing yourself in the world of wine.