Ever wonder what it’s like at an international wine fair? Here’s an honest BTS overview:
For people who have been in the industry a long time, trade shows can often feel a bit like a high school reunion, except 90% of your class is a middle-aged white man, wearing pressed wool suits and Italian-made loafers.
Even though this was my first time attending Wine Paris (aka Vinexpo), I ran into all sorts of people with whom I’ve crossed paths over the past 20 years. Blame it on my career history; Vinexpo is a hugely commercial event and having worked with huge brands – it was only natural I should encounter familiar faces.
In fact, the first person I made eye contact with was a former boss who now lives in Barcelona who now works in wine-related NFT technology. (If you needed any further proof that wine is just another fast-moving consumer good…) Next, I noticed a Toronto-based influencer, the kind who actually works as a salesperson for an agency but doesn’t really disclose the conflict of interest with her real job. It’s a little unusual to see social media talking heads take part in wine fairs but our world is quickly changing.
In the public washrooms, I saw a Master of Wine former colleague that I’d worked with in Vancouver. In a corridor of Italian wineries, I spotted the president of the last big company I worked for.
Fortunately, the expansive layout (imagine multiple football fields’ worth of exhibits and stands) and typically jam-packed schedules are a welcome respite from needing to engage in too much idle chit-chat with your LinkedIn network. Trade shows like Wine Paris / Vinexpo, ProWein and Vinitaly are far too massive to explore without locking in every single desired appointment. (For the hopeful tourists reading this, you may wish to consider travelling with an importer or winery friend, though please be aware that it will be a non-stop schedule!)
On the wine side, what you can expect to see are massive brand installments and product showcases designed to visually dazzle and attract the biggest buyers. The bigger the brands, the bigger the booth. It’s truly a display of capitalism and generational wealth.
I had mentally prepared myself for all of this, knowing that (a) I’d stick out like a sore thumb as a woman of colour (I did, no surprise there), and (b) I wouldn’t be interacting with any overly-large exhibits (I didn’t, thankfully). What I didn’t realize, however, and not until I spoke with one of my Bordeaux producers after the fact, was the favoritism the organizers showed the large commercial players over small wineries.
In 2019, Wine Paris had built a program within the event called WOW – World of Organic Wine. Wineries could participate with a stand under the WOW banner as long as they held some certification, such as EcoCert, AgriBio or Demeter. WOW was a huge success and attracted a record number of attendees.
Apparently, the big brands were upset by this and made their wrath known to Vinexpo’s organizers. This year, sustainable wines and the entire Demeter-certified group of producers was relegated to the smallest exhibition hall with no wayfinding signage or mention in the booklet whatsoever. My Demeter-certified winery partner sadly saw far fewer attendees than in previous years, and those who were looking for them apparently got lost in between halls, not knowing where to find their booth. I was honestly disappointed to hear about this after the event, and it soured my experience of what I’d considered a well organized show.
As progressive as the global wine business might be to try and embrace sustainable principles or increase the representation of women and new markets – the old guard of historic producers and wine conglomerates still retain a lot of power. These barriers make my job more challenging, but I feel as emboldened as ever to vouch for myself, and for the good people and great quality in my portfolio – no matter the size of winery. I hope you stick around to taste our discoveries as we hit the road and unearth them one by one.
Next time – adventures in Alsace: pork paradise.