On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the state of drinks festivals and events like Bar Convent Brooklyn and Tales of the Cocktail compared to before Covid-19. Have these events changed their models after a two-year hiatus? How do in-person tastings and experiences compare to those on Zoom, and what does that mean for the future of trade tastings? Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Do you guys have anything to say to me? Anything?
Z: I know what this is about.
J: Happy belated birthday?
A: Yeah, it was yesterday. Thanks so much. I really appreciate it. So awesome. God, that was so nice of you guys. Anyone out there in radioland, the address is 244 Fifth Avenue, 11th floor. I accept any gifts you’d like to send, but specifically magnums of wine. If you would like to send them, it would be more than appreciated. It’s been a hell of a year. Anyways, I appreciate that. Do you guys like your birthday as much as I like mine?
J: I don’t think so.
Z: Yeah. I don’t think it’s possible for a grown-up to enjoy their birthday as much as you do.
A: Oh, no. As I just learned from my colleague, Oset, it’s called big Cancer energy. We both have it; Oset’s birthday is four days after mine. And she also loves her birthday. Yeah, it’s a thing.
J: I feel like people have mixed feelings about Scorpios, so I kind of keep it to myself, you know? Keep my mouth shut.
Z: I don’t know what feelings people have about Capricorns, but I enjoy my birthday. But I don’t make a big deal out of it.
A: Oh, I do.
A: Naomi told me that she’s just happy that we got my birthday down to a week instead of a month.
J: Oh. One of those.
A: It wasn’t really, but, you know. It sort of was.
Z: Even on this podcast, the moment the calendar flips to June and you’re like, “All right, it’s my time.”
A: Every month. Anyways, what have you both been drinking?
J: I’ll jump in. So the most outstanding thing I had recently was when I went to a bar in Brooklyn called Bar Goto Niban, which was a recommendation from Adam. OK, I’m giving you credit. It’s a great bar.
A: That’s also where I went this week, but now it won’t be my cocktail content.
A: That is the best one. That’s what I had.
A: Also it’s a really pretty space.
J: Beautiful. They do a really great job. Actually, I had another cocktail with shochu in it.
A: It’s kind of making the rounds, a little bit. Did you drink anything else, Joanna?
J: No, I feel like that was the highlight of this week?
A: That was the highlight, yeah. What about you, Zach?
Z: The highlight for me was actually apropos of today’s conversation. I went to an Italian wine trade tasting this past week featuring a lot of producers, including a number of them that don’t currently have distribution in Washington State. They’re looking for people who are interested in their wines. I drank a lot of things, but a few other sparkling wines really stood out to me. I had some delightful Prosecco, of course. But probably the single most interesting thing I had was a traditional method of sparkling wine from Puglia called Edmond Dantes. It was a kind of Monte Cristo. And it was a blend of Vermentino and Chardonnay that was four years on lees, totally dry, no dosage, really interesting wine. It definitely had some of the characteristics you would associate with traditional-method wine, but the Vermentino gave it saltiness and a little bit of a different fruit profile than just a Chardonnay or other kind of more classic Champagne or sparkling wine varieties. And then the other thing I had that was super wild was a sparkling Cerasuolo, which is usually like a rosé/very light red wine. And this was made in a tank-fermented, so like a Prosecco style. Not super carbonated, not lees aged, but just effervescent and really good. It was very refreshing, very summery. So that was cool.
J: That sounds great.
Z: Yeah. How about you, Adam?
A: Besides going to Bar Goto Niban, earlier in the week to do a meet-up with Naomi and a few of her colleagues, we went to one of my favorite restaurants in Brooklyn called LaRina Pastificio. And I had a really cool wine from a Barolo producer that I had never heard of before called Umberto Fracassi Ratti Mentone. It was a Barolo from Montecito. And it was a 2014 and it was a really good approachable price point and absolutely delicious. I’d never heard of the producer, not really familiar with the commune that it was from, the little village it was from — nothing. But it was really delicious. So that was definitely the highlight for me of the week. And then over the weekend, I also had my first Daiquiris of the summer that I made.
J: So you do have a summer drink?
Z: Which one did you use?
A: I really like 10 to 1 and that’s what I normally use. But I had another bottle open 10 to 1 and it was still sealed and I was like, “I’m not going to open this one too.” So I used Equiano, which is a nice rum as well. I also like Plantation 3 Stars. It’s a great one. I’m not one of these people that likes to split the rums, you know? One’s enough already. So I just had one rum.
Z: You saying it’s enough already is an interesting take.
A: I like Rhum Agricole, but people keep it on hand just for Daiquiris and I didn’t have one, so I’m not going to get one just to do that. Anyways, this week’s episode is a little bit about looking at what’s happening in the world post-Covid with a prediction that happened during Covid that Zach and I had chatted about almost two years ago now. When Covid first happened, I think a lot of people felt like the future was going to mean that when we came out of Covid, we were going to wave goodbye to these huge wine and spirits festivals, things like BCB or the trade tasting you went to, Vinitaly, things like that. We were going to say hello to the opportunity for there to be these intimate tastings happening between producers and either trade or consumers over Zoom. The way that the narrative went was, “Oh, it’s going to save so much on fuel price, flights, and all the travel.” And it’s gonna be so much easier for you to do more of them. The producers are going to get to just talk for 30 to 45 minutes, and it’s going to be great. They don’t have to leave their home and you don’t leave your home. This is going to be the future and this is how people are going to get to know new spirits, wines, and beers post-Covid. We’re not going to see as much attendance at these festivals. That was the thinking that some people had even in the run-up to Bar Convent Brooklyn. I was hearing from a lot of people in New York, “Oh, we don’t know who’s going to attend. We’re wondering what it’s going to look like.” And what we’ve seen is actually that we just have snapped immediately back like a rubber band to what everything looked like prior to Covid. BCB was packed. They’re saying they did record numbers. You’re seeing a massive run-up to Tales of the Cocktail. Vinitaly apparently was insane this year, an expo tons of people attended in Europe. All the planning is happening for everything else that’s to come. Zach, you’re seeing trade tastings happening in Seattle, New York, etc. Everything has gone back to the way it was. I think what we want to try to always say is, is that a good thing? Is that a bad thing? Why did it go back that quickly? You had so many people who were so eager to embrace this new future, including the people that were the producers of some of these things. It’s interesting that we’ve snapped back so quickly and so hard to the past. Why do we think that is? Is there a true point to these festivals? And if so, what is the point?
J: I think people were really trying to find the silver lining in all of it by saying that we’ll continue to do this. It’s a great opportunity for us. We can Zoom with so many more people. The commitment level is very low. You don’t have to go to Italy to learn about this. But I think ultimately, the desire is there for people to be back in person. And I think we’ve seen that very clearly. I also just think, well, people have serious Zoom fatigue.
J: And the other part is that we’ve, for the most part, gone back to everything else in our lives. We’re busy, and I think finding time to sit on Zoom for a few hours is just not happening. I’m too busy to do that. If you want my attention, I have to sit down with you or actually go to an event. Not to sound like a sh*thead or anything, but you know what I mean? You can have my attention a little bit better when I’m in person with you than sitting on a Zoom.
A: Yeah, I agree.
Z: Well, and I think that what we’ve also seen is the limitations of virtual conferences, virtual tastings, all those kinds of things. They have just become more acute over the two-plus years that they’ve been going on. And some of it is, I think, what you said, Joanna. It’s the fatigue. Some of it is the logistics. It’s a lot easier in a certain sense, whether it’s a trade organization, or any other festival, to say we know how to do this thing that we’ve done before. We know how to find a space, how to set up ticketing, how to have booths, all that kind of stuff. We’ve done it. This is what we have been founded around. And we’re not going to flounder in the virtual space as a lot of places did. For a lot of these expos and conferences and festivals that tried to move online, some had real success, and some struggled. It was a mixed bag, for sure. I also think that’s something that’s true in all this, and I think getting at what you were both saying is beyond just Zoom fatigue. I think that the industry itself is maybe not unique in this regard, but it is noteworthy that it’s an interpersonal industry that thrives on personal connections. The truth of it is, most of us are not going to feel as connected to someone that we’ve only ever looked at on a screen as opposed to someone that we’ve shaken hands with, talked to face to face, or been in a space with for some amount of time, had a meal with, etc. So many things in this industry are founded on interpersonal relationships, those connections. I can understand on all sides why returning face-to-face was so alluring. What I am surprised by, and to the point that you were making, Adam, is that nothing has changed. I find that most surprising that in my limited experience, I imagine in your experience to this point, everything you’ve done in the last six months has looked like it could have come out of 2019.
J: What would you have expected would have changed?
Z: I think that’s a good question. I think I would have expected things to maybe be different scales, maybe smaller or more sectioned off, or maybe just focused in a way. I think one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this is that I’ve always found a lot of these events to be so big and so sprawling as to be — not useless — but limited in their utility. A thing that was nice about this Italian trade tasting I was mentioning is that there were probably 100 wines in the room. I certainly didn’t taste all of them. But I’ve been to others that have 500 wines, 1,000 wines. I mean, certainly, some of the really big trade shows have maybe tens of thousands of wines. I’m not really sure.
Z: You’re going to get lost if you’re a producer and you’re not a really well-known one. And if you’re a tradesperson, a member of the media, etc., you can barely scratch the surface. I can say I went to this event and I tried some wines, and they’re good for the thing I described. They’re good for socializing, they’re good for making connections. The dirty secret of mine is that they’re really sh*tty for tasting wine or spirits. They’re really bad for getting a handle on these things because at least for me as a buyer and things like that, I always relied solely or almost exclusively on tastings where I was sitting down and I could taste a dozen wines at a time at most. I wasn’t getting wasted. I wasn’t getting palate fatigued. I wasn’t trying to juggle a bunch of other things. And these shows are just, I guess, for show. It’s surprising to me that everyone wants to dump the money that they have been dumping into these just because it’s what we’ve always done.
A: So first of all, the reason that we have gone back to these in such a strong way is that, as we know from psychology, humans are just very social animals. And I think there was just no way to truly feel social on Zoom. It’s why we published a piece recently about people going back to in-person dating and how dating feels better to a lot of people now than it did during the pandemic. Some people were actually trying to date over Zoom. But I think what you’re saying, Zach, is really interesting. Why it’s so interesting is because there seems to be this loop that we can’t escape. I don’t want to speak as much about the portfolio tastings. So for those of us who are listening and may not have as much familiarity, especially with wine, there are two different events that seem to happen, especially for trade. You have these larger trade festivals, you could almost call them. BCB and Tales almost feel like festivals. They’re huge behemoth trade shows. And then you have these portfolio tastings that are either put on by a region or an importer or whatever that are supposedly more focused. It’s the Italian Trade Association and it’s only Italian producers from different provinces or regions or whatever. They are also big, but they’re different, right? I think for the trade shows, those exist solely as a bartender or somm appreciation.
J: Yeah, I think they’re most valuable for networking opportunities.
A: And no one is going there to discover something new. The problem is that everyone is there to see their friends, and the people who shine the most are the big brands that can wine and dine the people the best.
J: And they invest a lot of money in their booths.
A: In their booths, in their parties afterward. And in those cases, I would say if you are a really small brand, I would think twice about it. Maybe you do make that one great connection and there’s someone there. But for the most part, it is hard to compete against the large producers. It’s hard to go to Vinitaly and compete against a very well-known sparkling producer who has the largest fucking bottle of sparkling wine known to man pouring out of a machine they’ve built in order to pour into a glass. No one is there looking for the diamond in the rough. Maybe one person is, I don’t want to say no one. But most people are there because it is a meetup where you see all your friends and you reconnect and you’re going to go see the producers that you already love and you already know, because you don’t have enough time. You go and you get to meet up with them and you share a glass with them and you say “hi” and you do your thing, and that’s your connection. And I think for that reason, that is why you did see festivals like Raw Wine come into existence. Because there were people that were like, “OK, well how do we stand out? We’re not going to go to these places. OK, well then let’s define ourselves as being a natural producer, and let’s go.” But now those have gotten huge and you hear people saying the same thing about these, and now it’s too many producers. And I don’t know how you truly fix it, because the trade show is always going on to make as much money as possible.
A: This is capitalism. It’s the system we have. And so they’re not going to turn down those small producers from coming. If the small producers hear that everyone goes to the next show or everyone goes to BCB or everyone goes to Tales and they think they fit into that category and that the demographic people they want to sell to be known by, etc., is going to be there, then they’re going to say, “Well, we want to be there too.” So it just gets bigger. And they get bigger and bigger and bigger. And then the only way I think you stand out if you’re a small producer, is you’ve got to go really big then. You have to build a really nice booth. You’ve got to blow the budget. I felt so bad for some of these producers at BCB that had the small tables. They clearly paid what they could afford to be there. And I watched everyone walk right by them because they were just at the tiny table. And again, I’m sure there are some producers that will say, “I had a few meaningful conversations and I feel good about it.” And that’s great. I don’t mean to say you get nothing out of it that way, but it is really hard to get overshadowed. You look at that when you come to consumer festivals, you see these huge food festivals where the bigger wine regions or wine companies or spirits companies have the huge boosts in the main tasting area. And then there’s the wine and spirits tent, and it’s all the small producers with little tables where people don’t even care. They’re like, “Can you put it in my glass, please? Can you put this in my glass please?” And they’re shoving their glass in your face and they’re not remembering anything. Again, I don’t know how you solve that, because every brand will then measure success differently. Well, we still tasted 3,000 people. Those things are so hard to track. Every festival will try to say, “We’ll come up with a new system where there’s a barcode you can scan, and you can follow up with them and yada, yada, yada.” But it’s really, really difficult. The problem is, and why there will never be a solution to this, is what Joanna said at the beginning of the podcast. She’s too busy, and she doesn’t have a lot of time to sit on Zoom. If you’re going to get her attention, you need to be in person. And guess what? Joanna is not able to go to every single small, intimate tasting every night of the week. So if there are a few that are big, those are the ones that she can go to.
Z: The Louis XIII one, for example.
J: I made an exception.
A: That’s the other problem and we talk about this all the time on this podcast. There’s just so much liquid in the world and there are so many brands that are trying to be found and want to be known and need a specific audience they’re going for. And it just is hard.
Z: I think you make a really good series of points there, both of you. Everyone, whether they’re a wine buyer or a beverage director for a restaurant company, editor-in-chief at a publication, etc., their time is precious. You’re never going to get to taste everything. You’re never going to get face-to-face with everyone. Things that might get you in the door, people are going to gravitate towards those kinds of things, even if they don’t provide a great return on investment potential or a very hard-to-measure return on investment. But the thing that is interesting to me and that I guess I’m curious about is almost what we were just talking about. I will say that on the occasions where I have been invited to smaller events, I’ve been to a number here in Seattle that are 15 producers or 10 producers; it’s not as big a deal. You feel like you really get a chance. Part of it for me, too, is not even that I want to go taste the same wines over and over again. I always liked, to some extent, seeking out new things at trade tastings or big festivals. But even then, there’s just so much that it’s daunting, even as a professional, even if you don’t care about socializing, which they obviously do. My thing is, I thought we might see smaller tastings or, more frankly, more geographically diverse tastings. Because I thought that was another thing that is sad to lose out of the Zoom era. I certainly heard from lots of professionals and just interested consumers around the country, around the world who got to tune in on things, participate in things, and hear from producers that they would not ever have in their city or in their town. Because they’re not close to New York, they’re not close to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and even Seattle. It was nice to think that in that period of time, these producers, trade organizations, and regions were interested in speaking to interested professionals and consumers, wherever the f*ck they were. Because it didn’t matter on Zoom. And now all of a sudden it’s like, “OK, wait, but we’re back to the same markets, the same approach.” Frankly, we talked about it on the podcast a bunch, they really do ignore lots of potential customers.
A: Yeah, but can I ask you a question about these small tastings that you’ve been to?
Z: Of course.
A: Out of them, did you know any of the producers that were going to be there, or were you already somewhat familiar with the region or the importer, etc.?
Z: Sometimes, yeah. I mean, I don’t think I go into any of these things totally blind.
A: Because I think that that’s where the real problem lies. What makes some of these things so unwieldy is that there are a lot of small tastings that do happen like you’re talking about. They do get well attended. Let’s say, for example, there’s a 10-winery tasting of the wines of Abruzzo and everyone knows that Pepe is going to be there. It gets a good turnout. And then the other nine wines just get a little love because everyone wants to go for them. But they keep it intimate. Where it gets really hard is when it’s 10 wineries you’ve never heard of from Georgia. Well, like, am I going to like these? Am I not going to like them? Not really sure. Is this a waste of my night? And that’s when those wineries then say, “Well, then screw it, we have to go to ProWein.” It gets so big and just overwhelming for everyone. I don’t know what the solution is, but I have seen some creative things happening this summer that I think have been very smart that I wish other producers would do. One of the things I’ve seen that one PR firm did, which was brilliant, is they put out an email to everyone on their list and basically said, “If you are in France, Italy, or Spain this summer for your own vacation, these are our producers. They would love to host you for lunch, dinner, or a night at their property.”.
J: That’s nice.
A: They would love to. They will host as many of you as they can, given availability. That is really f*cking smart because you’re probably already there for your vacation. If you’re in our profession, you probably like to do this stuff anyway. They’re letting you know that here are their clients. If you want to hang out at a producer for the day, have dinner with them and stay the night, they’d be more than happy to host you. It’s costing them nothing besides the dinner and a room in their home, probably. They didn’t pay for you to get over there. It would be cool if you saw more producers do that. Look, we understand — especially during the really busy time travel times of the year — we know that people in the industry are going to be traveling. You happen to be in our country of Croatia, Georgia, Greece, etc., and we are happy to host you. I think that will be one thing. And then the other thing I’ve seen a few producers do that I thought was smart is, “Hey, we are on the list at X restaurant for the next month. If you go into that restaurant, we would love to cover your bill. As long as you have our product, we’ll send you information, and then just send us the receipt.” I think that’s also really smart.
J: It’s something you’re already doing, right?
A: You’re ready to go out to dinner, so fine. I’ll make a reservation for two. And again, it’s within reason. It’s asking people to be smart about things, right? So they’re not going to cover the $1,000 bill at a restaurant. But if you go and you have their bottle of wine or their cocktail and some appetizers or whatever, that’s an easy thing and they send you some literature and you actually appreciate their drink. I thought that was also something that was really creative. I think those are the things that hopefully people will do more of post-Covid. They also realize that then they could just jump on Zoom with you for 15 minutes. We’re asking you to go eat at this restaurant where our liquid is on the menu. And then all we’re asking is in order to cover your bill, we’re going to go on a Zoom with you for 15 minutes and talk to you really quickly about the wine or about the spirit or whatever. That’s super smart. That stuff can stay. What no one wants to stay from Covid and what we’re all sick of are those Zooms where we were told, “Hey, will you join this tasting?” And we were promised only an hour and then it’s three hours long. No one has time to open the seven bottles of wine that were sent to them. What are they doing? Are they dumping those wines? It’s so much waste. And I feel like that’s where people are just like, “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to do it anymore.” It’s too much.
J: You mentioned this earlier, Adam, these things make too much money, too.
Z: Oh, yeah.
J: For the people who host them to not do them anymore full-scale.
A: The best experience out of all the big wine festivals was Vinitaly. I mean, the amount of money that’s made for the city of Verona during the week it happens in Italy is just too impressive to not continue to do. The number of high-end dinners that are hosted, hotels that are booked, parties that are thrown, car services that are used. It’s a massive support to the city. The same thing happens in Dusseldorf. That’s where ProWein is, right? Yeah. I’ve never been a ProWein, although I heard it’s really good.
Z: Invite us, please.
A: I would love to go to ProWein. I’m so curious. Everyone says it’s the best because it’s extremely organized. This is Germany. The reason that Tales exists in the time that it does is that Tales get support from the tourism board of New Orleans. Because late July is when no one wants to go to New Orleans since it’s God-awfully hot, but every bartender goes. And so the city gets filled with people who are then spending money and going out. So it’s hard to stop these things. They’re large moneymakers for everybody. The thing that’s worth remembering, though, for the small producers is that the large producers are always going to participate because the bartender and somms are always going to go because it’s a networking session. But if you’re a really small producer, that’s where I would start questioning, “Is it worth it?”
J: But isn’t it your best shot? Isn’t that what we’re saying?
A: Yeah, it might be. Then you better realize that that means lots of follow-ups. That means potentially doing the other thing, which is inviting the people to your place down the road, maybe hosting them for a dinner, but trying to make that connection and really following up. I guess the thing that I see that gets assumed too much by a lot of producers is that all they have to do is pour the liquid into your glass. And I wonder if you’ve seen that, too, Zach. But I feel like that happens all the time where they think that all they have to do is pour the liquid, and then you will follow up. I give my card to every person who asks for it, and it’s very rare that I ever get a follow-up.
A: That’s the game. The whole game is the follow-up. And if you follow up then, yeah, do these because you will talk to the 3,000 people. But then you have to actually go and talk to them again. Naomi tells me she sees this all the time in publishing, too. She’s been in publishing her entire career. There are a lot of writers who think, “I wrote the book. I got it published. Now, it’s going to sell itself.” Naomi’s like, “No, no, no, no, no. That’s not how it works.” You wrote the book, it went to a publisher, and now you need to tour the book. You need to be on Twitter, you need to be on Instagram. You need to be doing live readings, and Zoom readings, you need to promote this book for a good full calendar year if you actually want to sell it to get a second book deal. And so many writers don’t because they think that they’ve done the work. I think that does happen a lot in alcohol, too, especially with the producers we love to romanticize. Many producers are like, “I harvested the grapes, I crushed them, vinified them, I f*cking aged this thing. I bottled it, I did it all and I’m done and I poured it in your glass, and you’re now supposed to come to me; you’re supposed to love it that much.” No, you gotta keep chasing because there are too many other people who are also pouring this liquid in the glass of that same somm, bartender, or restauranteur. And they are going to go to people to keep following up with them.
Z: Yeah, very true.
A: Well, this was really interesting. Thanks again, guys, for my happy birthday wishes.
Z: We look forward to dedicating the entire podcast to what your birthday was like next time.
A: Oh, that’s going to be next week, right? How about we just do a podcast in honor of Adam?
Z: You didn’t die…
J: Whatever you want, Adam.
A: Someone’s going to leave a comment on iTunes being like, “I really love the ‘VinePair Podcast,’ but Adam is so annoying and he’s obsessed with his birthday.” And you know what, hater, bring it. Anyways, I have had a great conversation with you guys, as always. Talk to you Friday.
J: Talk to you Friday.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.