by Tim Atkin

Who needs generic wine tastings?

Hands up who watched, let alone attended, any of the party conferences this autumn? Yup, I thought so. You have to be a serious political wonk (or a paid lobbyist or journalist) to take more than a passing interest in these boring, outmoded, stage-managed events. And as the rows of empty seats in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool made all too clear, there aren’t enough of those to go round any more. Would you pay £700 to listen to Nick Clegg, David Cameron or Ed Miliband?

Writing in The Guardian, the columnist Martin Kettle called for change. Modern party conferences, he argued, are “a waste of time, a waste of space and a waste of money”. Apart from Ken Clarke and Theresa May’s disagreement about an immigrant’s pet cat it’s hard to remember a single memorable thing that happened during the autumn conference season.

The wine trade’s equivalent of the party conferences are its generic tastings. These are spread out over the year from January (Australia and New Zealand) to October (South Africa), via March (California, Spain and France), April (Portugal), June (Italy) and September (Chile and Argentina). To misquote T S Eliot’s Alfred J Prufrock, I have measured out my life in generic spittoons.

Why do I attend? For three reasons: to show support for the country concerned, to say hello to friends and acquaintances and, obviously, to taste. And yet the third activity is arguably the least important. It’s often difficult to assess wines in crowded conditions, taking notes in catalogues that don’t leave you enough space while you’re jostling for your own elbow room.

That’s why central tables are so popular with buyers, sommeliers and the press. They enable us to taste a larger range of wines, quickly and in comparative comfort. It’s also why central tables are so unpopular with importers and producers, who want what Americans call some face time, having paid £5000 or more to run their stand. Otherwise, what’s the point of them being there?

Another problem with generic tastings — and it’s part of the territory — is their very size. Even if you have a solid constitution, it’s tough to sniff and spit your way through more than 100 samples, which may represent a mere 10 to 20% of what’s on offer. I find it annoying that I only get one opportunity a year to taste, say, a large range of Californian or Portuguese wines.

I’m not the only person who questions the future of generic tastings, at least in their current guise. David Gleave MW of Liberty Wines says that “we’ve pulled out of pretty well all the generic tastings because we’ve decided that our energies are better directed at more targeted events.”

Gleave says that he sees “very few” key buyers and journalists at most generics and, when he does, “everyone wants a piece of them”. The opportunity cost is significant, too. “If I take a sales person off the road, he or she could have been to see six customers in the same amount of time.” Admittedly, the price is insignificant when compared with the £60,000 it costs Liberty to man a stand at the London International Wine Fair, but Gleave is still reluctant to pay it.

If an annual tasting is only a part of what a generic body does then this doesn’t necessarily matter. But if it’s the main focus of its activities it seems dangerously shortsighted to me. Back in the days when Hazel Murphy created the Australia Day tastings at Lord’s in the late 1980s, generic tastings were exciting, bringing producers and lots of wines together under one roof. Now, if most of us are honest, they’ve become rather tedious.

How could they be improved? Apart from holding them once every two years, as South Africa now does, some of the solutions are already in place: more buzz, master classes, seminars and smaller, focused stands and tastings. Make it easier for people to assess a relevant range of wines and they are more likely to turn up. Leave them to wander around a giant aircraft hanger and they have every excuse to remember an urgent appointment with their sock drawer.

Even when they are well done, generic tastings are less and less relevant to the modern world. These days, it is surely more useful to have a series of targeted events (dedicated to individual regions, grape varieties, vintages, styles or whatever) than one large one in London. We are all so busy that few of us can afford the time to devote a whole day to tasting wines from one country any more. It means more work for generic bodies, some of which have a very cushy time of it, but it’s the only alternative. Like party political conferences, they have to change or die.

Originally published in Off Licence News

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