The line of people stretched out of the downstairs room, snaked up the stairs, and ultimately moved out of the building. This was a long line, the kind of line you might be compelled to join without even knowing where it led. This was the kind of line you wish you had arrived the night before to join. And Wine-Allergic Girlfriend and I were skipping that line.
The Boston Wine Expo, which is held every February at the Boston Seaport World Trade Center, might be the biggest, most heavily advertised wine tasting on the East Coast. Over the course of two days, nearly 20,000 people will swirl and slurp almost 2,000 different wines. Since I own a café that sells wine, I am allowed two trade passes to the BWE. My friend Rob, an Italian wine importer, shook his head when I told him I was going.
“It’s too big,” he told me. “It’s like an amusement park. I’ve had a table there in the past; I felt like a bartender more than a wine professional.”
“But I get to go for free,” I told him, though “free” didn’t really describe my desire. “Free” was more the symptom, the evidence of my new status as a “wine professional.” I wanted to take advantage of that status. Unlike a tasting where one goes to listen to a “wine professional” (what we called an “educational wine tasting” in our previous column), the Boston Wine Expo was a high-profile tasting where I would be tasting wines as a professional.
Which is why, on a sunny February afternoon, W.A.G. and I were walking past a bunch of people in line. Inside, we flashed our trade badges and were allowed in. The room where the tasting takes place was down a flight of stairs, so we got an aerial perspective before walking in.
“Oh my God,” W.A.G. sort of giggled through her hand. “It’s like a college fair.”
Tables were indeed laid out in a college-fair sort of way; and the view was almost IMAXian in scope. Above us, fluorescent globes buzzed like gym lights; below, people stood four deep at every blue-skirted booth. Large signs stuck up out of the crowds in various parts of the room: “France,” “Chile,” “Spain,” “California,” “Oregon.” On the far right of the room, I saw a sign a little lower than the rest that read “JetBlue.”
“Where do you want to go first?” W.A.G. asked, seemingly not as flustered as I was. “California looks most crowded.”
“I think we should maybe start with France,” I replied, gulping audibly, feeling as if I had flipped on the television and seen every single cable channel at once.
The BWE serves two communities—trade professionals, who arrive ready to meet and market other wine professionals; and individual consumers, who seemingly arrive ready to drink. This pairing of professionalism with drunkenness makes for a weird scene.
Down in the pit, W.A.G. and I struggled to choose a booth. The booths ranged in decor from church-bazaar minimal to highly extravagant little universes of brand marketing. Like a tourist in a foreign country, I broke down and went to something flashy and familiar: the overly marketed Red Bicyclette wine. The poor woman behind the table looked exhausted—an appearance that might, I admit, have been due to a lazy left eye. Then again, these folks literally talked all day, repeating the same wine talk over and over.
“This is our 2004 Merlot,” she told me, pouring a small amount into my glass. “It has nice hints of blackberry and leather. Its soft tannins make for a pleasing body and smooth finish.” She told me this while looking off into the distance; again, however, the lazy eye could probably be blamed for this. I nodded and sipped at the wine, not knowing what to say, not sure what she wanted from me or what I wanted from her. W.A.G. awkwardly asked me what I thought; I shot back a look like a terrified animal and coughed on my wine.
A woman who looked like she might hang out with my mom approached the table. Without asking for (or getting) the Red Bicyclette spiel, she held out her tasting glass: “May I try your Merlot.” Lazy Eye poured and we both watched as she took a sip and then quickly, efficiently, dumped the rest into the large plastic spit bucket on the table. “Vegetative,” she said before turning on her heel. I nodded and dumped my wine in the bucket as well.
W.A.G. and I wandered through the row of French tables. I waited for inspiration to strike. Following what I felt to be my successful breakthrough at my first wine tasting (see previous column), I assumed I would take the BWE by storm: jump from one table to the next, dictating my brilliant tasting notes to W.A.G.: “And this one reminds me of the snow-sled track we built in my backyard! And this one smells like the rope swing over the bayou!” and on and on until I had conquered the entirety of wine. Instead, I felt like I was at the mall or on a cruise ship.
“I’m going to count all the men wearing loafers without socks,” said W.A.G.
“I can’t believe it,” I said, “but I am actually bored.” We sat in the part of the room serving as the food court: plastic chairs and cafeteria tables incongruously occupied by really well-dressed people. A woman in a fur coat and gold everything else sat across from a man with Donald Trump hair. They shared a bag of Doritos.
“Have you seen those stickers?” asked W.A.G., pointing behind me. I turned and saw a guy in his 40s probably. Behind the ice cream in his hand, I could see a round white sticker that read “I (Heart) Jugs.”
“Is he actually wearing a fanny pack?” I asked.
“Lots of people are wearing those stickers.”
“Yeah … it’s probably for Three Thieves.” Three Thieves is about as close to indie hipsterdom as a winery can get. (Though they are now owned by a much, much larger wine company.)
“They put out jug wine sort of like Bonny Doon put out screw-cap wine. It’s very savvy and well marketed.”
“Well, a lot of people are wearing those stickers,” W.A.G. said.
It struck me, looking at Fanny Pack and his sticker, that the BWE served as a good metaphor for wine itself—a mixture of highbrow and lowbrow, or of refinement and drunkenness. The people wearing the fancy clothes did so because they were at a wine tasting, but that didn’t change the fact that, for most of the people here, sampling 20 different Syrahs led to run-of-the-mill drunkenness more than palate refinement. I tried to share these thoughts with W.A.G.—about how wine brought the people in the fur coats together with the guy with the fanny pack—but I tried too hard to sound smart, and when I do this she always just kind of looks away.
“I’ve seen five men with loafers and no socks and that’s just sitting here,” she said.
“Seventy percent of wine-drinking Americans drink jug wine, sweet-tooth wine.”
W.A.G. and I stood before a table in the Spanish region of the BWE. Of all the people we met that day, the Spanish seemed the most fired up.
“The American palette is raised on soda. Cottonmouth freaks them out.”
This from an American—a tall guy who sort of looked like Phil Hartman and who worked for a Spanish wine importer.
“You’ll hear all over this place about the Meritage blend—a superfruity, smooth blend of Cabernet and Merlot that is absolutely dominating wine production nowadays. It’s what Robert Parker likes, it’s what Americans want, and because of this, it’s what winemakers around the world are trying to make.”
He poured us a wine he imports made from the Tempranillo grape, a grape exclusive to Spain and Portugal. The “anti-American” wine, he called it. He went on to explain how wine making was moving away from a regionally specific product to something more global and market-driven.
“Even Rioja,” he said. “When you think of Spanish wines, you probably think of Rioja. Well, they’ve made a huge name for themselves by making American-friendly wine.” I did not tell him that I often ordered Rioja in restaurants.
At the last table in the Spanish row—the Rioja table—a young woman told W.A.G. and me the difference between crianza and reserva wine. She wore an “I (Heart) Jugs” sticker. (I wondered how the Phil Hartman guy would feel about that.) Unlike America, Spain, as with most European countries, has very specific, nearly Kafkaesque laws about aging and storing wine that determine how it is to be categorized. These laws are probably most akin to American consumer-safety standards set up by the government.
While explaining the aging difference (crianzas must be aged for two years; reservas for at least three), a man in a suit sort of staggered up to the table with tasting glass outstretched, asking—I am not kidding—for the Meritage blend. She politely told him she did not have any of that, but would he like to try this wine made from the Tempranillo grape? W.A.G. and I snickered knowingly.
“OK,” he replied. While she poured, he added, “You know, I also love jugs.”
“I’m sure you do,” she said, rolling her eyes. W.A.G.’s eyes widened. “Oh my God,” she mouthed.
There is no way around it: spitting out a mouthful of wine, while sensible in this setting, looks no different than throwing up wine.
The line at the bathroom was understandably long. We were probably two or three hours in at this point; enough 2-ounce pours had been consumed to make peeing necessary and sobriety scarce. Men chatted around me.
“Oh, we learned,” a man in a rumpled sports coat said to the guy behind him. “We got a hotel across the street this year. Stumbling distance.” Laughter.
Inside the bathroom, I realized I was going to have to either hold my tasting glass awkwardly under my arm while peeing or place it on top of the urinal itself. Both seemed pretty compromised. What did people in the stalls do with their glasses?
I was here as a wine professional, and yet I felt like a full-on wine amateur. I never looked anyone in the eye (approaching a table with tasting glass outstretched feels weirdly shameful); I kept forgetting to take notes; I lost track of my taste buds around wine number 20.
Commercial wine-tasting, it turns out, is really hard; and people who do it for a living require a sort of steely will against the lure of alcohol. One literally tastes hundreds of wines; and although this sounds fun, let me assure you, it is not. It is in these settings that wine jargon begins to make sense. These are people for whom the alcoholic properties of wine are secondary.
A note from the end of the night: W.A.G. had to stop me, and luckily did stop me, from participating in the smuggling of half-empty wine bottles off the premises, an operation led by a guy who I swear was wearing a mesh shirt.
By the time W.A.G. and I made it to the Three Thieves table, they were all out of “I (Heart) Jugs” stickers and I was absolutely wasted. (Seriously, there is a whole second act to this story in which I stumble around Boston in February completely lost. If you e-mail me, I’ll tell you about it.) The young guy behind the table had Eric Stoltz hair and good looks; he wore a cowboy shirt and a Three Thieves belt buckle.
“That’s cool,” I said to him, “they gave you a belt buckle.” Most of the people pouring wine behind the tables didn’t appear as well taken care of by their respective wineries.
“Well, considering I’m the owner, I sort of gave it to myself.” He turned to a person holding out a tasting glass and poured some wine out of something that looked like a soymilk box. His pours were huge.
“I really like the jug idea,” I told him. This guy immediately impressed me and I wanted him to like me. I told him about the café that W.A.G. and I own and sort of bumbled on about trying to cultivate a nonsnooty wine culture there. I was about to launch into, but luckily did not launch into, my theory about wine as a mix of refinement and drunkenness. He was superbusy; people were clamoring for his attention, asking whether he was sure he didn’t have more of those funny stickers.
“I just love those,” an older woman told him. He smiled at her and turned back to me.
“Yeah, jugs, boxes—these are the usual containers for wine,” he said. “In Italy, wine is sold in boxes on the shelf next to everything else—just another grocery item. Why can’t good wine be in jugs or boxes and treated like an everyday item?”
Which was as close, really, as anyone had gotten that day to a philosophy of wine that worked for me. For this guy, the conflict between refinement and drunkenness just wasn’t there. But he seemed like the only one for whom that was true. All around me, people either swirled their glass and commented on the vegetative qualities of Merlot or badgered the pour people about their jugs and got hotel rooms across the street. Many folks did both, including myself. We didn’t know how to act here. This guy seemed above all that.
And while I can be cynical about an American marketing machine—"I (Heart) Jugs"—promoting a European sensibility (why can’t good wine be in jugs and boxes?), I wasn’t cynical in that moment, under ruthless gym lights with all those wine professionals and consumers. Instead, I asked if I could take an empty box home.