Wholesaler Portfolio Tastings

(Originally published April 2000)

Hanes had the privilege of attending some wholesaler portfolio tastings this past month and thought his loyal followers would enjoy an "insider's report" on what goes on during these tastings and how they have an impact on what you buy in retail stores and restaurants.

Every importer/wholesaler has a portfolio tasting once or twice a year during which they present their entire inventory for free sampling. Attendees include wine store managers, professional sommeliers, industry writers, other wholesalers, and sundry booze hounds. The events last about four hours and usually occur during the afternoon at a hotel ballroom, restaurant private room or similar place. The decision to purchase or not purchase wines are quite often made during these portfolio tastings.

During a given event, hundreds of wines are served in crystal glasses in very small amounts (a little bit more than what you would get at a free in-store tasting). A professional who is deciding what wines to purchase for their store or restaurant will thus move from table to table trying, for instance, Champagnes, then white Burgundies, then Rhône reds, then Californian Chardonnays, next Spanish Riojas, etc. The time spent analyzing each wine is very brief because of the sheer number that must be gone through. Most people swirl the wine around their glass, smell it, swirl it around inside their mouth and then spit it out into buckets. People crowd and jostle each other around the fanciest or most expensive wines and the din of conversation becomes pronounced as the room fills. To run the full gamut usually requires a couple of hours, including schmoozing time.

What Hanes found interesting about the manner of presenting wines is how effortless most participants make the decision-making process seem. At first gloss, it appears all but impossible to gain a full impression of a specific wine because, first, the amount poured is quite small. And, second, after a certain point tasting "fatigue" sets in and it becomes difficult to remember which wine tasted like what, etc. And no matter how much water one drinks or crackers one eats, residue remains in one's mouth from one wine to the next, blurring the effect. Further, there can be no denying that -- even for those who spit all the wine out -- you get drunker and drunker as you go! Yet, everyone seems to feel that their years of experience allows them to discern quality from schlock in a matter of seconds.

Now, Hanes is just a neophyte gadfly, so take his words with a grain of salt. But he wonders just how much of this is truth and how much bluster. This mode of presentation seems necessary and inevitable for both time and cost reasons, yet no doubt it remains flawed because "reverence" for wine has been all but distilled out of the process. It is a clinical and strategic operation. But defective. And Hanes thinks most wholesalers and retail professionals know this but would rather appeal to some sort of supernatural tasting abilities than admit that, in the end, it is closer in spirit to a crowded Turkish bazaar than a scientific analysis of the merits of a range of wines.

Why does all this matter to you? Because, in the end, you buy wine based off of the decisions made at these tastings. As consumers, we should all hope that nothing but the optimal selection process brings wines into our homes and gullets. Alas, this process falls short. Now, undoubtedly, similar selection processes occur in a variety of industries and, yes, these are seasoned pros out there rummaging among the bottles. But Hanes cannot but help feel sad that the pros really feel that they have tasted wine on which they only spent seconds. Yeah, this is just Hanes bemoaning a necessary evil but still. It is somewhat Janus-faced for someone to whip through 300 wines in two hours and then rhapsodize to a wine tasting group on the sensual delights of wine. One of the results is when you're in a store or restaurant and you ask someone if they've tried the wine, technically, they can say yes but in the true spirit of wine enjoyment they dissed the wine big time by never really "tasting" it. Maybe there just ain't no better way, and certainly some of the wines in the final analysis may not deserve better, but there's a big old *sigh* inside Hanes where wine should be.