The Unified Wine and Grape Symposium is a big deal for the city of Sacramento. Parking rates go up from $8/day to $40/day, and wine lovers from across California and the world descend on the capital city’s massive convention center.
But the Symposium’s attendees are a different type of wine enthusiast. They are not chic sommeliers or smooth-talking sales reps. Guests of honor at Unified are instead Carhart-clad grape growers, pump mechanics, chemists, and enology professors from the country’s premier viticulture colleges. In short, it’s a geek fest.
It’s also the most important wine geek-fest of the year. This is the place where winemakers decide which chemicals and additives are paramount, or what new equipment warrants massive investment. The Unified Symposium showcases the myriad of ways to turn grapes into wines. It also presents the critical choice for wineries between building a steel barn or a luxe underground cave for a tasting room.
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As a devout drinker, I was excited to discover this alternate wine universe, filled with harvesters instead of Riedel glassware, though the reality of Unified was stranger than my wildest dreams. For perspective, I armed myself with a civilian and a winemaker, grabbed a trusty notebook and waltzed inside.
Unlike most sales-driven wine events, this one didn’t begin with a flute of sparkling wine and lots of introductions. Nor did it commence with passed hors d’ouvres, and a powerpoint of bucolic vineyard imagery. This was not a press lunch.
Atop fuchsia carpeting was a sea of exhibits — gigantic wooden barrels, massive steel tanks, bubbling towers of water, and plaid as far as the eye could see. The exhibitor list was heavier than the free copies of Wine Business Monthly volunteers handed out at the door.
“This is both fascinating, and completely boring,” my civilian, Shawn, noted within minutes of entering the seemingly unending exhibits maze. Between booths for Enartis–a major producer of aroma-enhancing chemicals–and the Seguin-Moreau Cooperage, we wondered quite loudly, “Where is all the wine?”
And then we saw the sign: “Absolutely no pouring until 4pm.” Another contradiction to sommelier-styled events, it turns out viticulturalists and wine production staff don’t start drinking early. Bummer.
Determined to explore with a buzz in a winemakers mindset, we set out for lunch, where we discovered Unified name tags — massive half-sheets of paper with size 20 font — were worn like badges of honor across jam-packed wine bars in downtown Sacramento. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones spurred outside by the “No Pouring until 4PM” rule. An hour later, energized and inspired, we took on the convention center again.
It turns out tractors are far from simple machines. At Garton, I slipped between the models standing idly by tractors to climb aboard the company’s flagship $500,000 machine. The printer-scanner-copier of wine, this massive tractor picks, destems, and sorts grapes all while driving above rows of vines.
We discovered there’s more to wine bottles than the color of their glass. Do you want a bottle that sits sideways? Can do. A pink fiasco? No problem. Glass with your initials or a Bible verse etched onto the bottom? The possibilities are infinite, and there are nearly a dozen vendors to prove it. We also learned there are no shortage of pump salesmen in the wine biz. Apparently moving wine from tank A to Tank B takes a lot of coordination. Hoses are another critical, and oft-overlooked tool.
Finally, we found out where all the wine was hiding, and it turns out nobody descends on free wine and snacks like hungry, farm-loving grape growers — the crudité platters were gone before we could say “Cheers!”
Wines from Missouri, Arizona, and obscure appellations across California mysteriously appeared to fill waiting glasses, courtesy of the behemoth glass producer Saxco, but the real excitement of Unified is the after-party.
With enthusiastic thanks to the Cal Poly enology and viticulture departments, this was when my notes went from pristine to illegible. And the party seems to be the true purpose of Unified, far beyond expensive machinery or contracts for new grape vines. This is a reunion.
I wasn’t the only non-alum at the Cal Poly mixer, but I was the only one who didn’t recognize ten faces while waiting for wine or crossing the floor of the Sheraton Grand Hotel. It was the same way over dinner, and at the Scott Labs after-party at a nearby bar. Symposium, we discovered, is like a mullet: Business in the front, party in the back.
Beyond the party, or the exhibits, Unified is a meeting place. This is where connections are made, and handshake contracts entered (over wine or scotch, depending on the party.) For a cellar rat, Unified could mean a new job, or just new boots from the Tingley booth. Beyond keynote speeches from famed vintners like Fred Franzia or expensive seminars, ridiculous name tags or bizarre gadgets this convention is where wine gets made, and forges its path to stores and bars everywhere. It may be filled with more work boots than stilettos, and sub farmers for hipsters, but even to a sommelier this geek-fest beats comparing Soave to Pinot Grigio. Because at Unified wine doesn’t just get drunk, it gets made.