Finding the best wines the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, unfolding today through Saturday, will offer is not the same as dominating Everest, nor is it on the scale of winning the World Series or any race at the Fair Grounds.
But correctly and efficiently “doing” NOWFE Grand Tastings, of which there are two, does have some substantial rewards, one of which is explaining (OK, so it’s bragging) to your friends early next week what great wines you tasted and how you were able to enjoy a famous chef’s dish, even though it was gone within 30 minutes of the doors opening – and so was he.
As in all pursuits, there are “others” who simply seem to be better at this than you and me. Personally, I like a leisurely pace, stopping frequently to sample wines, chatting with the person behind the table about what the beverage is about and seeing friends. I call it wine strolling, not really making a big deal out of tasting and concentrating – sort of a moving stoop-sitting experience. My wife calls it lolly-gagging and goes on her merry way in search of her own targets.
I do notice many fellow tasters who are in full sprint mode, hustling from table to table in pursuit of a particular label. I admire their battle plan, although I can’t help but wonder if they aren’t, in their haste and manic state, passing up some pretty good juice along the way. There’s a lot to choose from and every time a table laden with wine is bypassed, don’t they wonder what is there, literally at their fingertips at that moment, waiting to be discovered?
Let me share with you a reasonable and rational approach to the two Grand Tastings when you are confronted with a room full of well over 1,000 wines and a set amount of time in which to sample.
First some ground rules: No. 1: It is a wine tasting, not a wine drinking or a wine guzzling. Be happy with what is poured in your glass, even if it looks like just a tiny bit. At the end of the day, you are going to be drinking a lot of wine, so each pour is only a piece of the puzzle, not the sum game. No. 2: Do not try to get it all in on only one visit. The Grand Tastings occur on Friday evening and Saturday afternoon in the Convention Center, Hall J. Go to both. No kidding. While it’s always a good plan to leave a wine tasting wanting more, you will not be able to taste through the room in just one visit. And that means you will not get to some wines you really wanted to try. Don’t force the situation. Do this thing right. It only comes around once a year.
No. 3: To begin, planning is key. Take a page out of the Saints’ playbook. In every game, the Saints know what offensive plays they are going to execute in their first 15 snaps. For you, plot out your first 20 wines. Look over the program, and decide what particular wines are the ones you must really try. Know where they are, and don’t miss them. No.4 : That being said, as you move along with your Top 20 list, don’t pass up other wines that pique your interest. They may not be there when you return.
No. 5: If champagnes and sparkling wines are your passion, you should begin with as many of these as you can. These wines are the first to run out. It is correct for any tasting that you begin with these wines. Most experienced wine tasters know this. Grand Tastings mean a room full of wine, after all, so it follows it will be a room full of wine tasters. They know to begin with champagne. Now you do too.
If you are not an experienced wine taster but you want to learn, a NOWFE Grand Tasting is a great opportunity to extend your knowledge. You may be puzzled as to where to begin. Well, so far, in your wine journey, what have you found that you like? Napa Valley merlot? Oregon pinot noir? Chardonnay from Burgundy? Wherever and whatever, use your appreciation and prior knowledge of that wine, and then taste wines from the same region that may be new to you. Maybe you have not even heard of the winery or the grape. Try them.
Then you can branch out. If you like merlot from Napa, try a few from Sonoma or from France. If you don’t know what the wine is called in the Old World, where the wines are identified by the village and/or region where they are made rather than by the name of the grape, here’s your chance to learn. That’s what Grand Tastings are about, after all. Don’t spend every moment of your time tasting wines you have already enjoyed. You will want to find them and visit your old friends. But use this experience to also make new friends among the wine labels. Just FYI, a merlot from the Bordeaux region of France, where merlot achieves one of its greatest heights, will go under the name Pomerol or St. Emilion, which is where the wines are made.
A wine tasting is more fun when you have some knowledge of what you are enjoying. There are professionals behind every table pouring wine. Ask them questions. No question is stupid. And that is the truth. The people pouring the wines are anxious to assist you in understanding more about wine in general and the wines they are pouring in particular. No one is born infused with wine knowledge or any knowledge for that matter. You have to learn. An important aspect to learning is to ask the question, hear the answer and then drink the wine. Way cool. Also, you may want to just eavesdrop along the way and hear what questions others are asking. It’s not rude. It can spark in you an interest and another question – or a need to drink more wine. Still way cool.
A piece of knowledge will probably spark a question from you. It’s called wine tasting and learning. Much better than that other form of education you suffered through. Ask the questions. Listen to the answers. Drink the wine. Now you’re learning.
A side note here: I will be moderating a seminar on Friday afternoon at 4:45 at the Marriott, 859 Convention Center Blvd., called “Mountain High, Valley Low.” We will be tasting red wines from Napa Valley, some made with grapes grown in the mountains surrounding the valley and others made with grapes grown on the valley floor. Winemakers from Spring Mountain Estate Vineyards, Miner Family Wines, Grgich Hills, Sterling Diamond Mountain, Cade Howell Mountain, Markham Vineyards and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars will be presenting their wines, discussing the value of terroir and explaining vineyard practices. Should be interesting. If you wish to attend this seminar and taste some great American wines, you must purchase tickets. Information is at the end of this article.
That “focus” comment above brings me to my last suggestion for conquering NOWFE: Be very careful. You are ingesting alcohol in small tastes, but the conglomerate of what you will swallow is quite a bit of wine. It may be more wine than you have ever had in your life. Don’t take this advice lightly. Just be very, very careful.
I strongly suggest you take a taxi to and from the event. Then I strongly suggest you take full advantage of the great food that will be at both Grand Tastings. Finally, I strongly suggest that you drink a lot of water along the way. There will be cold water dispensers or bottled water bottles in bins. Use all of those ancillary aids to minimize the effects of alcohol.
Even if everything else I have recommended makes no sense to your overall plan, take this last piece of advice to heart. No wine tasting is worth injuring yourself or putting others at risk.
Have a great time. Have a safe time. And enjoy one of the great wine festivals staged in America, our very own New Orleans Wine & Food Experience.
The New Orleans Wine & Food Experience Grand Tastings take place at the New Orleans Convention Center, Hall J, on Friday, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m., and on Saturday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The cost is $89 per person per tasting. All information about NOWFE, including ticket purchases, is available at www.nowfe.com. If purchasing tickets online is no longer accessible, tickets will be sold at the door of most events not previously sold out.