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How to Hold a World Class Wine Tasting Event

I go to a lot of big, public and trade-only wine tastings, some of which are great, and others of which are lousy. Some are bad because they don’t have good wines, others are bad because they’re poorly organized, which amazes me, because it doesn’t seem like it would be that hard to get right. But maybe no one has ever really defined what makes for a great public wine tasting event. Given that my “day job” is helping companies improve their customers’ experiences and my “night job” here at Vinography is blabbering about wine, perhaps it’s time for me to combine them.

So without further ado, here’s about $9,500 worth of free advice to every marketing agency, event coordinator, catering company, vineyard, and wine festival in the world on how to create the best possible wine tasting event for a large number of people. Note that these tips are from the perspective of people attending the tasting and I’m assuming it’s not a barrel tasting (which has its own special experience). If any of you readers want to create a similar list from the point of view of the winery which pours at such an event (which I have no experience with), have at it.

This list may seem simple, but I’ve never been to a single wine tasting that’s managed to nail them all.

Vinography’s 23 Rules for World Class Public Wine Tastings™

1. Have announcements about the event mailed to people, sent by e-mail, and also available on the Web. Tell people when the event is, how long it will last, and how much it costs. Inform guests as to whether food will be served, and what kind. When the announcements go out, there should already be a web site up and running that covers the background and details of the event and which allows people to register or purchase tickets online.

2. As part of the announcement and on the web site, provide a list, even if it is just preliminary, of the wineries that will be pouring wines and ideally, what wines they will be pouring, including vintage date, name, vineyard designation, and appellation.

3. Send out e-mail reminders to both trade/media and public attendees several days before the event. Include directions to the event and parking tips and a reminder of any fees due, identification required, etc. All this information should go on the web site as well.

4. Hold your event either right after breakfast or right after lunch, especially if you are not going to be providing any food. This will make it easier for people to taste a lot of wine without getting schnockered. You don’t want to deal with drunk guests.

5. Hold your event in one large room or event space if possible, and in a location with plenty of parking. Ideally the space should be extremely well lighted, but not have any direct sunlight streaming in during the hours of the tasting.

6. Have a separate trade and media tasting to allow members of the restaurant and wine trade as well as journalists to sample the wines without the crush of the public. Make sure that these folks are given adequate time to taste through the wines. Providing adequate time for this portion of the tasting increases the likelihood of good press, or any press at all, as well as the likelihood of orders by the trade.

7. Open the doors at the time you told everyone you would.

8. If people are able to or need to purchase tickets at the event make sure you have enough change to deal with cash purchases. Ideally, you should accept credit cards, too.

9. Provide the following to every attendee (trade/media and public) when they walk in the door:

— A pre-printed name tag with their name and if appropriate, their media or trade affiliations. Color code the name tags, one color for trade, one for media, one for volunteers, etc. The name tags should either be self-adhesive, or should come in holders with pins. Lariats around the neck are a no no, because they get in the way of spitting.

— A good sized glass. For pete’s sake, get glasses that are large enough to stick your nose in. They don’t have to be varietal specific, but please get big ones.

— A booklet for the tasting that provides an alphabetical listing of all the wineries pouring at the tasting, unless it makes more sense to group the wineries in some other fashion.

— This booklet should contain the following information about EACH winery:
their full name; the name of the owner; the name of the winemaker; their address and phone number and e-mail; their web site address; the list of wines that they will be pouring for the day specified by vintage date, name, varietal, and appellation; the varietal composition of any wines that are blends; the release date of any wine that is not yet released; the suggested retail cost of each wine; AND SPACE TO TAKE NOTES!

— This booklet should also contain the contact information for the event sponsor, including their web site address and information on how attendees can get more information about wines.

— If attendees are expected to or able to order wines at the tasting, they should also be given the option of picking up an order form.

10. Arrange the room so that the winery tables are in alphabetical order in a clockwise or counterclockwise progression, or if you have listed the wineries in a different order in your booklet, arrange the tables IN THE SAME ORDER as the booklet.

11. Label each winery’s table clearly with the name of the winery, as well as the page of the booklet on which this winery can be found. If you are expecting large crowds make sure the sign is at least 7 feet off the ground and readable from 20 feet away (black text on a light background, no fancy fonts). If you are a long-standing event with a predictable set of wineries, also indicate which participating wineries are new to the current event.

12. Provide a small spit/dump bucket on each winery’s table along with a large bottle of distilled water for rinsing. Have someone replace water bottles as necessary.

13. Provide large spit buckets and put them on a table AWAY from the winery tables by about 10 feet. This improves traffic flow to the winery tables. Instead of standing around a table waiting to use the spit bucket, attendees who don’t need to chat with the winery staff can get a pour of wine and step away from the table to taste it, and then can spit or pour out the remaining wine without getting in the way of new tasters.

14. Provide staff who will regularly dump spit buckets throughout the event and wipe up any spills. No bucket should ever get more than halfway full.

15. Provide some food, even if it is just slices of baguette and staff to replenish it. Make sure that there is enough so that it doesn’t run out until about an hour before the tasting will end. Provide napkins — not just for the food but also for people to wipe their hands which inevitably get wine on them.

16. Provide small bottles of water for attendees.

17. Ensure that the event room is a comfortable temperature, but if you have to err on one side, make it cooler rather than hotter.

18. Provide a coat and bag check.

19. If it is an event that lasts several hours, provide a small area with chairs and tables that people can sit to rest their feet.

20. Have a designated photographer for the event.

21. If you have a large number of wineries (e.g. more than 50), in several locations throughout the room, provide a large-ish map of the tasting room layout along with an alphabetized list of the wineries and their corresponding table number which attendees can locate on the maps.

22. No smoking.

23. Send e-mails thanking people for attending, and providing them with links and contact information where they can get more information, including photos of the event. Also provide an e-mail address and a web form for people to provide feedback on the event.

Ok, so that’s how you would run a standard tasting event. But, of course, it would also be possible to dial it up a notch.

24. When attendees register before the event, collect an e-mail address for them.
25. When attendees arrive at the tasting, give each of them a personal plastic card with a magnetic stripe on it keyed to their e-mail address.
26. Provide electronic card readers at each winery table that attendees (or winery staff) can pass cards through for more information about the winery and its wines. Swiping the card should result in an e-mail being sent to the attendee’s registered address with information about the winery, and information about how to order the wine (customized for whether they are a consumer/journalist or a member of the trade) and ideally a link to e-commerce functionality to place an order.

And then again, if you wanted to take it even further, you could do things like provide people the opportunity to score or vote on the wines electronically during the tasting. You could keep track of how many times people attend your tasting and what they request information on and what they order each year. You could then use this information to tune your event and market specifically to each of these individuals. etc. etc.

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