Much like love, wine can be a powerful thing. It can brighten a meal, it can bring people together. It can help a nation reemerge on the international stage after years of isolation. It can even bring hundreds of people to their feet to dance, provided it has the help of Huey Lewis and the News. That’s the power of wine, and the 35th-anniversary Wine Experience.
For three days in October, 5,000 wine lovers from across the United States and abroad gathered at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square for two Grand Tastings, 15 seminars and two wine-packed lunches, capped by a black-tie banquet and a thrilling set from Huey Lewis and the News. All told, almost 360 wines were poured from more than 7,850 bottles into 64,500 glasses.
"Every year, I am amazed at how many people come and how this event brings both winery people and consumers," said Guido Orzalesi, managing director of Altesino in Montalcino. "But this year seems even bigger than usual." Indeed, the event had completely sold out.
The vintners, merchants and wine consumers who attended know that wine does more than please our palates and take the edge off a long day. But the event offered constant reminders of how wine can do much more.
The Wine Experience also raises money for a worthy cause. All proceeds go to the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, which over the decades has raised more than $20 million for scholarships and grants for the hospitality and wine industries, including organizations such as the Culinary Institute of America, the University of California at Davis’ enology program, Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute and Florida International University’s hospitality school.
Those donations would not be possible without the generosity of countless vintners, who share their wines and time, and Wine Experience attendees.
On Thursday, Oct. 22, those folks kicked off the event with the first of two nights of Grand Tastings, which gave 2,500 wine lovers each night the opportunity to taste 267 wines selected by Wine Spectator's editors and rated 90 points or higher. Many in the crowd went straight for the bubbly to start, then moved on to compare Pinot Noirs from Burgundy and California, or Bordeauxs from different vintages and appellations.
Italophiles had an entire section of 2010 Brunellos, including Altesino Montosoli, rated 98 points. Valdicava took a different approach, offering its Brunello Madonna del Piano Riserva 1990. Tuscany’s Avignonesi offered its rare, painstakingly crafted Vin Santo Occhio di Pernice 2000. (For more wines and photos, check out our Grand Tasting gallery.)
"If I'm able to walk out of here, I haven't done the wines justice," joked attendee Shiel Edlin of Atlanta. "The wines each have different personalities. Some are sweet, some are sexy, and I am looking for a wine to fall in love with."
Tasting was just part of the event, however. Each wine was poured by an owner or winemaker, giving consumers the chance to meet vinous heroes or learn more about a region or grape unfamiliar to them. "To meet the winemaker is just amazing," said Edlin after sampling the 2005 Château Pontet-Canet and taking a photo with owner Alfred Tesseron.
That was just the evening events. The days were filled with 15 seminars, where winemakers shared their insights, pouring their wines for a ballroom of nearly 1,000 people to taste. Even the lunches were self-serve seminars allowing diners to compare around a dozen top-flight wines, with both Argentina and Washington showing off a bounty of reds and whites, such as Achával-Ferrer Malbec Finca Mirador 2011, Baer Ursa 2012 and Reynvaan Syrah In the Hills Foothills In The Sun Vineyard 2012.
The panels included an exploration of 2012 red Burgundies and some of California's brightest Pinot Noirs, a look at various producers’ takes on Barolo’s terroirs and in-depth examinations of Vega Sicilia and Penfolds wines, including four vintages of Unico and three of Grange. The audience got the chance to taste Wine Spectator’s Top 10 Wines of 2014, a fascinating mix of highly rated offerings from Old World and New. It also proved to be a recognition of the remarkable resurgence of Portugal’s Douro Valley—source of three of the Top 10 entries.
In between the longer seminars were visits from “Wine Stars,” legends of the industry like Italy’s Angelo Gaja and his daughter, Gaia, Oregon’s Ken Wright and Napa’s Bill Harlan. Château Lafite Rothschild CEO Eric de Rothschild spoke with the audience while they tasted his 2003 Lafite, currently averaging $771 a bottle at auction, and reminisced about how the wine has developed, great events at Lafite and previous trips to the Wine Experience. "The great strength of wine is that you can get people together,” he said. “The real pleasure of wine is sharing."
For Jean Engelbrecht, proprietor of South African winery Rust en Vrede, wine and its vast reach has brought more than just pleasure. When South Africa ended apartheid and re-entered the global market, its wine industry went from isolation and stagnation to innovation and quality in just two decades, thanks to interaction with the rest of the wine community. “For me, drinking wine from different parts of the world is like reading books. It expands your mind,” he said. “As a wine-producing country we have had one of the best breaks a region can have: a second chance.”
The final tasting on Saturday also provided a chance to celebrate a life and the continued greatness of one of Bordeaux’s greatest estates. Baroness Philippine de Rothschild, longtime leader at Château Mouton-Rothschild, died last year. But her son Philippe Sereys de Rothschild took the stage alongside veteran general director Philippe Dhalluin and showed the Baroness’ legacy is in safe hands.
After that came a chance to party at the Grand Award banquet, a rock 'n' roll–fueled celebration of the weekend and of the eight newest winners of Wine Spectator's highest honor for restaurant wine lists. The ballroom was packed by people who have been moved by the power of wine, dancing to "The Power of Love." As Marcello Fiorentino, co-owner and chef at Marcello’s La Sirena in West Palm Beach, Fla., remarked upon accepting his Grand Award, “We just started buying wine and we’re so grateful that we did, because people come to enjoy it.” Wine brings people together. Powerful stuff.
All photos by Shannon Sturgis