Strasbourg played host to the Independent Wine Producers and Wine Fair last weekend. It was a great event: it not only gives wine-lovers the chance to sample hundreds of wines from every French wine region, it also provides an opportunity to meet the independents vintners who do the cultivating, the harvesting and the fermenting. Such encounters are often the starting point for lifelong relationships between wine producers and their customers.
I was there precisely to renew contact with vintners whose wine I have been drinking for years, as were undoubtedly many of the other visitors. But one doesn’t travel to a wine fair to load up on familiar vintages; one also wants to explore, taste and discover new wines, but which ones? The exhibition hall is huge. It is divided into five alleyways, each one lined with as many as 130 stands. How, for example, does one select between thirty producers of Saint-Emilion when time is a constraint?
One technique I found myself falling back on was to see how many people already stood at the stand. There were sometimes situations where an unattended stand was right next to one where visitors gathered three rows deep. The reason for the crowd could have been because the stallholder was particularly slow in filling glasses, or in retrieving cases from the back. Stalls where prices and availability were not clearly displayed also incurred delays as stallholders had to handle personally even the most rudimentary enquiries. In fact, there could have been any number of reasons for the apparent crowd that had nothing to do with the quality of the wine (or the difference in quality relative to the wine at the adjacent stall), yet people often responded to the cue as if it did.
Another cue was the physical appearance of the stallholder. I only recognised this during a conversation with one of them about a particularly interesting Chateauneuf-du-Pape. He confessed that he was not the vintner, but a neighbour. He was only helping out because, unlike the vineyard owner, he could speak German – a useful advantage at a wine fair in a border city. It was only then that I had to ask myself whether I had been attracted to the stall simply because he looks like a seasoned winemaker. Had his portly stature, weather-beaten complexion, and calloused hands, all conspired to draw me to this stall? I looked over my other the wine purchases and had to wonder how many Barbour jackets, full beards, and round-rimmed spectacles had drawn me to other stalls during my time at the fair?