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Smiling Through Gritted Teeth

Vinexpo draws wine producers and buyers from 48 countries, but attendance is down and business is slow

Thomas Matthews
Posted: July 1, 2009

The wine trade threw its biannual party in Bordeaux at Vinexpo this June, as producers and buyers from 48 countries gathered to assess the wine industry's future. Despair and optimism battled to a draw.

The trade fair, which debuted in 1981, featured a record 2,400 exhibitors, according to its press office, with Poland, Belarus and Sweden presenting for the first time. However, many important companies were absent, including Gallo, Constellation Brands, Torres from Spain and Boisset from France.

Officials announced that attendance was down 6 percent from 2007, to 47,000 visitors. But the traffic in the three main exhibition halls seemed even lighter than that, and restaurants that in previous years had waiting times of an hour or more were imploring customers to fill their seats.

"No one is looking for new brands," said one importer, who asked to remain anonymous. "We're begging for orders for those we have."

But not everyone was struggling. "We are having a fantastic year," said Marcel Guigal, the star Rhône Valley producer. "We can't keep up with demand from the Far East, and our North American business is excellent."

Asian visitors seemed more numerous than ever before, not only at the fair, but also at the dinners organized by leading Bordeaux châteaus, testifying to the growing importance of their regions to the wine trade.

"Thirty to 40 percent of the visitors to Cos-d'Estournel were from Asia," said Jean-Guillaume Prats, general manager of the St.-Estèphe château. "I had more visitors from Hong Kong than the U.S."

The splendid dinner parties thrown by leading châteaus demonstrated Bordeaux's continued strength, despite a difficult futures campaign for the 2008 vintage. Highlights included a musical soiree at the Bordeaux restaurant Le Chapon Fin by Lynch-Bages, a black-tie dinner for 600 at Ducru-Beaucaillou, and the traditional closing party, the Fête de la Fleur, which gathered 1,500 people at Issan for a beautiful evening on the grounds of the moated 17th-century château and a delicious dinner by star chef Michel Guerard.

"Business has its ups and downs," remarked Archibald Johnston, whose family has been an important Bordeaux négociant since the 18th century, at the Fête . "But still, life is good." As fireworks soared over the imposing château and cellar masters marched through the huge tent carrying endless bottles of Mouton-Rothschild 1988, few people seemed prepared to argue the point.

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