This article first ran in The Old Town Crier in May of 2011
By. Neil Williamson
We are well on our way into Virginia wine festival season. For those not familiar with wine festivals, these outdoor events feature music and wine tastings as well as wine sales. Some of the festivals include an educational seminar component as well. As I am now entering my tenth season participating on both sides of the table, the Old Town Crier thought it might be fun for me to share festival strategy.
Don’t go it alone I can’t think of a single festival that I have enjoyed going to alone. I strongly encourage you to bring a friend or a group of friends so that you can discuss the wines and enjoy the beauty that is the Virginia countryside.
Have a designated driver If one of your festival patrons will not volunteer, I have known friends to be bribed with wine purchase (usually a case) to serve as the designated driver for the group for the day. While the primary benefit of the designated driver is safety, ancillary benefits include a clear headed friend to keep your group out of any incidents at the festival itself (stuff happens).
Choose the right day Do you like crowds, excitement and generally more rocking music choose to go to the Saturday of a two day festival. If you prefer to have conversations with winemakers and shorter lines choose early Sunday.
Dress the part – shoes Most festivals feature a center tent and then winery and craft tents in a field. Shoes that work well in that environment are a must. Many wine folks can tell the tale of the high heels festival goers had to put in the trash after a surprise afternoon rain created a mud bog.
Dress the part – hat As we start the festival season, the sun can sneak up on you. I know I sound like your mother but a good hat (and sunscreen) are important to the enjoyment of the day.
Plan your attack – When I attend a festival, which are great opportunities to taste lesser known wineries, I always seek those out first. It never fails to amaze me the ppatrons who choose to go to their old standby’s first. In the industry there is a term known as palate fatigue – as you taste flavors (regardless of if you spit or not) your palate becomes increasingly less sensitive as you continue to taste. As I know my favorite’s flavor profiles I tend to taste those later in the day.
Eat – Fesitvals tend to have some of the best “fair” food in the state. I have been known to bring crabcake sandwiches home from festivals to rave reviews from the family. Eating is an important part of the festival experience, whether you bring your own picnic (check with each festival) or select from the multitude of food vendors. Both the break in tasting and the chance to sit down with friends and eat is a welcome respite.
Drink more than just wine (water) – Smart festival goers pack their own water into the event (usually permitted) beyond the potential heat, the tannins in the wine can deaden your scenes at the next winery you taste. In addition if you did not like the previous wineries last pour you have your own water to rinse that from the glass.
Don’t smoke in the tasting line – Far be it from Grapevine (who has been known to enjoy a fat cigar every now and again) to tell you not to smoke; but don’t smoke in line. This is a tasting event and if someone is blowing smoke rings from a nice thick Padron cigar, they people in front of them will have a tough time tasting the apricot undertones of the delightfully light Viognier.
Ask questions – When you are tasting with folks from the winery don’t accept the canned “it’s a full bodied red blend” ask questions. What’s it a blend of? Did this spend time in Oak? How was the vintage year compared with others? What would you serve with this? What’s your favorite wine? These folks are pouring wine because they love wine, learn from them what they know. And if they don’t know (or direct you to someone who does) – that says something too!
Wait your turn – You will never learn any of the fun stories if you are reaching over three other people to get served. If the line is too long either find a less crowded winery or buy a bottle and sit and listen to the music.
Buy wine – The festival is designed to showcase Virginia wine in a manner that you will buy some. While the wineries know you have paid to be there to taste wine, they have also paid to be there to pour wine. Unless they sell wine it is unlikely they will be back. Wineries often have festival specials that can’t be matched even at the winery tasting rooms seek them out along with six pack and case discounts.
Use will call/wine pick up – most of the larger festivals have a solid will call wine pick up service. When you buy your wine they haul it over to a spot where you can pick it up and (often) have it loaded in your car.
Attend the seminars, cooking demonstrations and tasting tents – The festival coordinators work to develop educational opportunities that are generally undersubscribed.
SHAMELESS SELF PROMOTION – I will also be serving as the host of the “Top Five” Tasting Tent at the thirtieth annual Vintage Virginia the first weekend in June at Bull Run. I will also be a part of the Wine 101 seminar at the Montpelier Wine Festival held in May in Orange County.
Whether you choose to be a part of the seminars or not, I strongly encourage you to attend a couple Virginia Vine Festivals and taste how Virginia wines have grown in variety and excellence. I do hope to see you along the Virginia Wine Trail.