Eat, Drink and be Wary: The Prose & Cons of Wine Shows

Wine illustration - sketch and art style isolated on white background
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in Ottawa Magazine, the sister publication of Toronto Life several years ago. The statistics are not current, but the insights are.

The Ottawa Wine and Food Show is the opposite of the Betty Ford Center: lots of booze and free advice, but no beds. (Why isn’t there a napping booth?) It arrives just in time to launch my fall re-toxification program: I come from a long line of hard drinkers, and a summer of sound sleep, diet and exercise has made me irritable.

In the exhibit hall, gastronomic gusts waft up and over me from different corners — some carrying alcohol laced with spicy meatballs, others sweat and cheese, new leather and yeasty crackers, perfume and vanilla waffle cones. Sounds, too, come in layers, with words such as “vintage,” “malolactic” and “whoops” heard between clinking glasses and sprays of laughter.

Everyone here is friends for the moment. In fact, instant friendship seems to be the main difference between wine shows and other types of shows: people who go to home shows love comfort, people who go to boat shows love adventure, but people who go to wine shows love life.

Although wine shows are held in cities around the world, they are not a recent phenomenon: it’s believed that the first show, the Fête des Vignerons in Switzerland, was held in the seventeenth century. (The challenge then was to dip your quill pen into the portable inkwell to jot down tasting notes on rolled parchment, while holding on to your goblet of wine.) That show is still held today, but you’ll have to wait until 2021 for the next one: it’s held only once every twenty-two years.

The Ottawa show, held every year at the Congress Centre, attracts both connoisseurs and novices, as well as those in the wine trade – vintners, marketers, importers, liquor store staff, even wine writers trying to make their drinking habit look respectable. It’s hard to imagine these people in any other place — their mischievous grins and winks would look downright disturbing in the grocery store or bank.

Last year, 26,200 people attended, an 80 per cent increase over the 14,500 who went to the first show in 1985. (At this rate, I calculate that everyone in Ottawa will have gone to the show by 2088.) And representatives from 105 wineries poured some 950 different wines, about 10,000 bottles in total, over the weekend. You can’t taste a broader sample of wines in this city short of raiding recently-vacated reception rooms next door at the Westin Hotel.

With so many wines, the show can be overwhelming: to try them all, you’d need to taste about two per minute. So you need either the tactical training of a Special Ops Navy Seal or the constitution of a plough-horse. Champing at the bit, I toss the show guide and lean into the crowd.

I drift up behind some people standing in front of the Australian wine booth. “Pour well, Stewart, my boy,” a red-faced woman in her forties exhorts Stewart-of-the-Heavy-Hand. Stewart is one of the army of young men and woman whose work as wine sales reps means driving thousands of miles a year, lugging hundreds of cases of wine out of their trunks and into events, restaurants and liquor stores. And even though his shoulders are starting to round slightly to the front, he’s still young enough to love the camaraderie of this business.

At another booth, Ottawa native Andy Trottier pours Niagara wines. This isn’t Trottier’s job, though, it’s his passion. Many wineries depend on volunteers like him to work at these shows. As Trottier describes the wines, one acolyte scribbles down notes and another asks where he can buy them.

Excellent producers from southern Ontario such as Inniskillin, Malivore, Peninsula Ridge, Cave Spring and Henry of Pelham, are increasing their presence on this city’s restaurant wine lists and liquor store shelves.

I wander down the aisle and spot a Vinous Venus – an ornamental subspecies of the Booth Babes found at car shows. Her coquettish smile radiates the confidence of the young and underdressed who demand to be admired despite their lack of intellectual daring. (Beauty is indeed its own genius.)

A few stalls down is a careworn woman in her late fifties. She’s been a professional demonstrator for nineteen years – cheese biscuits in Price Club, the amazing slice-dice machine in Zellers, effortless vacuuming in Sears — and now booze. She settles into her mental armchair and looks out at me with glazed, ancient eyes as I drink my sample. The splintered lines between her brows mark how many times she’s smiled at people who did not return the smile.

The thunder of village drums breaks my concentration, and I wander over to the centre pavilion where this year’s theme country, South Africa, has set up camp with ten vintners. (It seems the distinction of being the host country goes to the group that coughs up the most sponsorship cash. This year, Chile will be the host country.)

In fact, the show’s organizer, Halina Player, has such an exquisite mind for commerce that almost seems wasted on the show: she’s even signed up an Official Show Cracker, which provides comforting crumbs of continuity amid so many different wines.

South Africa is emerging as one of the best New World wine producers, and here at the how, the vintners are pouring some wines not yet available in stores. Wine shows are like fashion week in Paris: you see the new collections before everyone else. The buzz is that riesling is making a come back. (But for some of us, riesling — along with every other type of wine — never went away.)

The show is a vinous United Nations: most of those staffing the booths are passionate ambassadors for the wines from many countries. For the nations that make it, wine is part of their culture: literature, arts, customs, religion, science, geography and trade. In fact, a river of wine flows through most of human history from the ancient clay jugs found buried beside the Nile to the cabernet you just tipped over beside your laptop.

It’s a loss, then, that the organizers don’t permit parents to bring children to see how wine is part of everyday life in many countries not corseted by Victorian attitudes that ferment into alcoholism. Only a frothing neo-Prohibitionist would assume that we’d get our three-year-olds tanked in public, any more than we would at home. Not allowing children into a wine and food show, for fear of creating a den of inebriated toddlers is as logical as getting rid of cars to eliminate road accidents or banks to stop robberies.

And some people extend that irrational killjoy attitude toward adults. At one booth, a crotchety woman fumes as she pours miniscule samples — giving the impression that she never agreed to Repeal. She would have been a superb president of the Christian Temperance Union: her lowering glare reduces me to a quivering bootlegger at the boarder. She calls to mind the entire category of people who are suspicious of fun: bouncers, customs agents and elevator operators.

Tasting tickets are fifty cents apiece: most wines require four to six tickets, but the fine wines can command as many as forty. When you combine the cost of tasting tickets, food, parking and entrance fee, it’s easy to spend $100 at the event. And it’s even costlier for exhibitors: $13,500 to set up the booth and almost as much in wine that’s poured, although they get back the proceeds from the tasting tickets they sell, less five per cent that goes to the show organizers.

In addition to tasting many wines, attendees can chat with some of the faces behind the labels — the vintners, about twenty-five of whom participated in last year’s show. The winemakers, in turn, can connect with their customers and meet with others in the industry to catch up on gossip.

Of course, there’s no stronger grapevine than that of the wine trade.

Friday afternoon is best time to go, since most people are still at work then — except for those who have fabricated a long lunch meeting that won’t allow them to return to the office before the weekend. As well, the exhibitors are still optimistic and chatty, and willing to pour the best wines. (Many exhibitors save their best bottles under the table for those who can appreciate them. The trick is ferreting out who has what, without being so déclassé as to actually ask what they have hidden.)

Early Saturday afternoon and Sunday are also good bets. Even at such congenial times, though, I still needed to take legs-and-liver breaks – nipping over to the Westin to read snippets of Virginia Woolfe. She’d probably be pleased to know that I had a bottle of my own.

In this windowless hall, time is measured out in shot glasses. The most visible sign of evening’s approach is that wine glasses start to get filled with beer or vodka. The other marker is a steep drop-off in the average age of the participants: Friday and Saturday nights are for the young, and predators of the young.

“I met a guy at one booth who chatted me up about the wines and offered me a sample,” says attendee Sheila Thomas. “Later I found out that he didn’t even work at the booth — it was an interesting way to pick someone up. At least he didn’t ask me if I’d seen his corkscrew.”

Those actually pouring the wines can start to feel like bartenders as the day wears on. “One guy demanded a round for all of his friends,” says one. “It’s usually harmless, but one year someone took a large bottle of sake and whacked another guy upside the head – he needed thirty-eight stitches.”

(On a more positive note, the show is excellent conditioning for the holiday season, when many of us may have to deal with annoying people who’ve had too much to drink — only they’ll be our relatives.)

I bob along through the thickening crowd like an empty wine bottle in a drainage ditch. The scene starts to blur from crisp oils into runny water colours. Diogenes and Dionysus battle for control of my senses. To resolve the conflict, I borrow Somerset Maugham’s logic: occasional excess prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of habit.

I wander up to another booth where two young men are arguing whether screwcap wine, like beer, can be opened with one’s teeth. I begin to realize why so few radio dramas are set at wine shows.

By now, I’m marinated enough to give off aromas of brambleberries, wet violets and very toasted oak. With new clarity I realize that the road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom: suddenly I feel BRILLIANT. And everything is SO funny. A flowering tenderness draws me closer to ALL these BEAUTIFUL people.

It’s clearly time to go. It occurs to me that chardonnay, like marijuana, must be a gateway wine that leads to harder stuff: I find myself arguing with the life-size Johnny Walker cut-out about the difference between Scottish and Irish whiskies.

As I teeter out of the show, feeling as though I’m coming back from the front lines, I pass the fresh-faced, firmly-enameled recruits lined up to go in. Their effervescent gaiety reminds me of wedding guests waiting to bestow their congratulations and envelopes on the happy couple at the entrance.

Like the Ancient Mariner, I want to run up to them and warn of what lies ahead — but they too must pass through the gates of experience.

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