Monster tasting events – Good or Bad?

This weekend Kelly and I went to Rhone Rangers tasting event in San Francisco. The Rhone Rangers is a group of wine enthusiasts that organized and created a mission which, according to their site, is:

The Rhone Rangers is a non-profit, educational organization, established to advance the public’s knowledge of the Rhone varietal wine grapes grown in America and the production and enjoyment of these wines with emphasis on integration into our daily lives.

This is great. A basic marketing engine organized and run by anyone with an interest, business or otherwise, in Rhone varietal wines. They have all sorts of events and you can check their sitefor more detail. Plus, they also usually have a charity component to their events, so thats a positive point.

The wine tasting event itself took place this weekend and featured 130+ wine makers showcasing their Rhone varietals. We made some notes of 20 some-odd wines that we tasted but I think I want to focus a bit on what an event like this is like in terms of its part in the wine lifestyle. How do you optimize your fun at one of these monster tasting events?

First and foremost, take it for what its worth. There are 130+ wineries and wine makers show casing 2 to 4 wines a piece. Thats over 500 wines to choose from. It costs the average person $45-55 to get in to the tasting and for an extra $20 you can get into a seminar on Rhone varietals. So basically this is a HUGE warehouse with each winery at a single, picnic sized table. You walk around with glass that you use over and over again for every wine. If you don’t have a good way to clean your glass (see our WineHacker tip), one small taste will blend into the next or, worse, the water will affect your tastes. Its an impersonal, cold environment designed for tasting a bunch of different wines from different vendors with the common thread of, in this case, Rhone varietals. But its a pretty generic format.

So what is it worth? This part of the wine lifestyle can actually be pretty fun. Gather up your closest wine drinking buddies, grab an extra $45 bucks, fire up the hired driver (ideally you get half a dozen to a dozen people and a Limo), and get ready to tie one on for the afternoon. Unless your a wine professional who’s job it is to taste wines (and even then, doing a giant event isn’t the greatest idea – smaller ones with vendors and distributors are better) don’t expect to get any real wine values from these events. You’ll taste some great wines, some mediocre wines, and some really awful wines. You’ll get a general idea if the direction of the latest releases – in this case its safe to say that there is a pretty strong Petit Sirah crop coming up but the whites are lacking. But its really difficult to discover nice little wines that are buried in there unless you plan on tasting a couple hundred wines.

So rather than going and trying to taste the subtle nuances and complexities of the latest Rhones and expecting to find the greatest single wine out there, take it for what its worth – a place to Enjoy the Wine Life. Drink the wines with friends as opposed to spitting them out, get an idea of whats going to be good because at best you’re going to getting an “average reading” of the market, meet and network with new and interesting wine industry insiders, and just have fun with it. Kelly and I had a GREAT time without going through 100+ wines. We have a few notes that we made about some interesting wines and their makers, but these wine tasting events sometimes get so big that they start to become less about enjoying the wine and more about enjoying the time spent with the people and friends…about enjoying the Wine Life!

If you disagree about this, I’d love to hear it. I don’t ever go into these wine tradeshows with very high expectations and I’m never disappointed. For me, its about the people there and the people I show up with.

Tasting Notes

Again, take these for what they’re worth. These giant event isn’t the best arena to get the full wine experience from. In general though, I will say that the Petite Sirah from Rosenblum and (quickly become a new favorite of ours) Ballentine were remarkably good – they would have to be to stand out in a big crowd of wines. And, in general, we didn’t run across any whites worth noting.

Bonny Doon isn’t going to win any prizes for their wine (at least not at this event), but, as can be expected, they did a great job of presenting their wines even at this event. The people were engaging, obviously having a good time with it (they all dressed in French-period costumes), and they served several different wines. We had:

2002 Old Telegram Mourvedre ($32) – Earthy, black pepper taste. Thin with a weak toast finish. pretty average.

2002 Le Cigar Volant, Red Blend ($32) – Coffee, leather taste. Fairly thin as well with a very short finish.

Next one to note was the CrushPad wines. CrushPad allows you to produce your own professional wine from the comfort of your home. We were VERY interested in trying these wines because we had thought about trying the service ourselves but were hesitant not knowing what quality we were committing to. And its a big commitment – minimum order is 1 barrel, i.e. 25 cases! So with great anticipation (from me anyway since it was my idea) we went over to their table…lets just say thankfully we’re not locked into 25 cases of their Syrah. We tasted their samples of Neutral Oak Syrah, 50/50 Oak, and New Oak. These were some seriously unremarkable wines. Thin, acidic, exaggerated oak flavors. I was whole-heartedly disappointed because I really want to try their system and get some Vivi’s Wines going. Alas, thats going to have to wait. Probably giving them a shot with a bit easier wine to make (Sauvignon Blanc or something to that effect) may be worth it.

The last two we’ll review here were from Rosenblum and Ballentine because these stood out.

2003 Petite Sirah, San Francisco Bay, Heritage Clones ($19)
If Rosenblum can continue to follow up those outstanding Zins with beauties like this I’m going to be a fan for a long long time. This wine was a deep deep purple color with an awesome dark chocolate and blackberry aroma. It was just the right alcohol level with a great toasty pepper taste. Appropriately they had some homemade dark chocolates to taste with the wine which brought out a really nice cherry flavor in it. Just another great specimen from a shooting star of a producer.

2002 Petite Sirah, Nichelini Vineyard, Napa ($24)
We just got through with our week of Ballentine tastings and we hadn’t tried this wine. Solid solid solid wine. Bravo to the Ballentines. Another dark purple wine which had a pleasant earthy, wood aroma. It was a sort of dark berry taste with a spicy, toast finish. Also becoming a fan of this vineyard. Long term consistency is the key and I haven’t tried their wines before this year so we’ll see how it goes in the long run but so far so good.

In general, a well run, generic giant wine tasting event. We tasted 15 to 20 wines (not swallowing all the sips of course, we had to drive home after all) and I think I made notes here on the memorable ones. We probably could’ve tasted more but I found the conversations with the wine makers and owners more interesting. For me, thats what its worth…

Here are some other random pictures that I took while there…

Author: Joel Vincent

Growth Hacker and wine lover

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