Nick Ryan Came Away from Millesime Alsace’s Thinking There’s Got to Be a Better Way to Taste Wine

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When Jancis Robinson snarls at you like a cornered Staffy for laying a hand on her spittoon, you know things are starting to get a little heated.

The reaction might be out of character, but it isn’t surprising. That’s what happens when you’re expected to work in a scrum. This particular encounter was in Alsace, but it could’ve been anywhere the wine industry gathers to throw tablecloths on trestles and pearls before swine.

We’ve all been to those large-scale tastings where winemakers, or their representatives, stand politely behind a trestle table, their bottles lined up on one side and a glass-thrusting horde on the other.

They’re the universally accredited standard for getting small splashes of wine into large numbers of glasses and the format is the same all over the world. And short of setting up a bar at an AA meeting, I reckon they are the least effective, most frustrating and poorest return on investment method of showcasing wine I can imagine.

This is an opinion developed over twenty-odd years of going to these things, but it hardened a couple of weeks ago in Alsace.

I’d been invited by the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins d’Alsace to attend Milliseme Alsace 2016, the second incarnation of a biannual event designed to immerse international trade and media in Alsatian wine.

It’s a really good event with some valuable vineyard and winery visits, some tightly focused tastings and some really good opportunities to spend time with the people behind the wines.

I came away from the trip with a deeper understanding of Alsatian wine, a truer sense of how the landscape sculpts the wines and a nagging worry that I hadn’t eaten anywhere near enough choucroute.

But none of that was garnered from Millesime Alsace’s keystone event.

Before the vineyard visits, before the cleverly constructed tastings focusing on individual Grand Crus, before the Munster-heavy lunches with winemakers, 50 international media were bussed to an exposition complex on the outskirts of Colmar and herded into a cavernous space with about as much atmosphere as a eunuch orgy.

My heart sank.

At least a hundred producers aligned in militarily-precise rows, some with the pleading “please come and taste my wine” look, others with the “come any closer and I’ll bite your face off” scowl.

Gangs of French wine trade dudes patrolled the floor, forming Gitanes-scented scrums in front of certain producers, thereby rendering them off limits until such time as the mob moved on.

Michel Bettane, the French Halliday, stood in the centre of the room waiting for admirers to make their hesitant approach with gifts of Gris, frankincense and myrrh.

All around the room journalists performed the contortionist act of balancing glass, notebook and pen that always results in illegible notes, stained shirts and cramp.

On several occasions someone leaning into a spittoon was hit by a stream coming from another direction.

Then there was Jancis.

She had commandeered one of those high tables that get scattered around function spaces like this, the ones with the artfully-fanned napkins on them, set up her laptop and spittoon on it and was dragging it down each row and parking in front of each producer, getting two glasses poured at a time then retreating to write her notes before shuffling along to the next one.

People kept putting their empty glasses on her table when her back was turned and her reaction to my attempt to borrow her spittoon has already been noted.

And that’s when I started thinking there’s got to be a better way.

If I was a winemaker with the opportunity to put my wine in front of the woman who is arguably the world’s most respected wine writer, I’d want that to happen under more sympathetic conditions than this.

Events like Rootstock and the zeitgeist-stroking extravaganzas staged by the guys at Bottleshop Concepts show that this kind of thing can work really well for punters, but for those of us there to work, they just suck.

When I compared notes with Huon Hooke at the end of the day, he’d seen 15 producers and I’d tapped out at 13. That means 85 percent of the producers were missed and that can’t be a good return for the people who had paid good money to get us there.

I’m not entirely sure what the answer is, but there are some alternative ideas that may be worth exploring.

Nebbiolo Prima is an event in Piedmont where journalists have individual tasting stations and the wines are brought to them five at a time for assessment. I’ve not been, but apparently it works well.

Or perhaps the journos could be parked in a separate space where each producer could rotate through at regular intervals, have their wines poured, be given the opportunity to speak to those wines and answer any questions they might provoke.

Some will read this as a pampered hack wanting to be stroked, but it’s actually driven by wanting the best for those whose labours are not getting due respect.

There’s got to be a better way. We just have to work out what that better way might be.

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