None of the fun of the fair

What is the point of a wine trade fair? it’s a question that can take on an almost existential quality when, let’s say, you’re wrestling with the 3am demons in a hotel room with wafer-thin windows overlooking a roaring périphérique in the light-industrial banlieues of a Fench city.

A hotel you chose for its proximity to the aircraft hanger venue you spent the previous day trudging around in a fruitless search for a purpose. A venue where natural light is banished, along with any chance you had of remembering the rural romance that made wine seem so special all those years ago, you think, as you uncap another over-priced whisky miniature from the mini-bar.

OK, I realise this is a single, rather sad and certainly partial description that won’t fit with everybody’s experience of every trade show. But, as a veteran of more large-scale showpiece wine events in more cities than I care to remember, I don’t think I’m the only person to wonder from time to time what I’m doing there.

In part it’s the scale of events such as Prowein, Vinitaly and Vinexpo that makes them so hard to love and understand. When confronted with a choice of hundreds of exhibitors and tens of thousands of wines, it’s very hard not to feel daunted. And once you’ve come to terms with the idea that you can’t do everything and begun the process of making yourself some kind of itinerary, whatever you end up choosing to do inevitably feels a bit random.

Then there’s the distracted and distracting atmosphere that makes it very hard to actually do what, presumably, is the primary purpose of these events – taste some wine. As a journalist, rare is the wine I’ve discovered from a trade fair, where it’s all but impossible to taste unimpeded by winemaker input or background chatter. More seriously, when I speak to buyers, rare is the wine they’ve bought or deal they’ve made – all the important work is done in private, either at the producer’s estate or, just as likely, at the buyer’s head office.

None of this seems to be putting people off attending or exhibiting, I should say. Prowein and Vinexpo are getting bigger – and more international – by the year, reflecting the expanding global reach of the wine trade. They thrive because there’s a sense (still, just about) that, as one UK merchant put it to me: “People feel they have to go, have to be seen and have to share in the gossip, or somehow they’ll be out of the loop.”

And yet I wonder if there’s a limit to the all-things-to-all-wine-buyers approach of these two behemoths in particular. Clearly, the organisers of the London Wine Fair thought so. Having spent years adding international exhibitors and touting its appeal to global buyers, it has become a very different event since dropping the ‘International’ from its name and relocating to the more soulful environment of Olympia from that paradigm of the soulless aircraft hanger conference centre, east London’s ExCeL, a couple of years ago.

Now the focus is on UK trade, specifically independent restaurants and merchants. And the result, to judge from this year’s event in May, is a much more focused, easily navigable and appealing show where it is actually possible to taste and where, for me at least, the existential despair – and the consoling 3am whisky – was kept to a minimum.