"When we walked into the room, it felt like I was walking onto the field at a Super Bowl," said Jim Nantz. The longtime sportscaster knows what that is like. But last night he wasn't on the 50-yard line. He was pouring his wine, The Calling Chardonnay Russian River Valley Dutton Ranch 2016, at Wine Spectator’s 38th Wine Experience at the New York Marriott Marquis in Times Square.
For many wine lovers, the Wine Experience is the big game—three days of tasting rare and aged wines with leading winemakers, lunches showcasing the wines of different regions, and the black-tie Grand Award Banquet, celebrating the best restaurant wine programs in the world. And kickoff is the Thursday night Grand Tasting, the first of two evenings where wine lovers can taste 269 of the world's greatest wines, all rated 90 points or higher by Wine Spectator editors.
Fitting an all-star show, the tasting had been sold out for days. More than 2,400 guests packed two ballrooms, eager to taste everything from Burgundy to Barolo, from Washington Syrah to a Greek white, from California Cabernet to Bordeaux-style blends from Israel, Japan and Virginia. Some had drawn up detailed game plans for tasting what they thought would be the most exciting. Others just wandered freely and explored.
"It's overwhelming, it's exciting. I don't know where to start," said Allison Pitts, 25, a New Yorker attending her first Wine Experience. "I feel like I'm learning a lot. There's different wines from all over the country I never thought I would have the chance of tasting. It's amazing."
Many opted to go bubbly, trying Krug's Brut Champagne Grande Cuvée 163ème Edition NV or Schramsberg's J. Schram North Coast 2004 from California. For elegant whites, they could sample Pascal Jolivet's Sancerre Le Grand Chemarin 2015 from the Loire or Forge Cellars Riesling Finger Lakes Dry Les Alliés 2016 from New York or Château La Nerthe's Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Clos de Beauvenir 2013.
For reds, you could compare benchmarks like the 2008 vintage from both Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Margaux. For something untraditional, you could sample Orin Swift Cellars' Abstract California 2016, a Grenache-Syrah–Petite Sirah blend. You could base your tasting on exploring a range of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese producers, or opt for a New World bounty from Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
For vintners, the evening was a chance to meet customers face to face and perhaps win new converts. "'Exciting' is the word," said Larry McKenna of New Zealand's Escarpment, who was pouring his Pinot Noir Martinborough 2015. "It's always exciting to be here with the A-class producers. Especially exciting coming from a town of 1,000 people!"
"This is one of the last places in the world where you can meet all of the owners and winemakers," said Stephan von Neipperg, co-owner of Bordeaux's Château Canon-La Gaffelière. "And we come here not just to drink the wines but also to touch the people—they put their hand out and say 'Hello, Stephan, how are you? I like your wine …' or they say, 'I don't like your wine!' And we talk. But everyone is happy! You look around and everyone is smiling."
The Wine Experience happens thanks to the generosity of the countless vintners who share their wines and time. All net proceeds go to the Wine Spectator Scholarship Foundation, which has raised more than $20 million for scholarships and grants for the hospitality and wine industries, including Washington State University's enology and viticulture program, Sonoma State University's Wine Business Institute, the viticulture and enology program at the University of California at Davis, Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and Florida International University's hospitality school.
To the people at the Grand Tasting, the focus was on trying new wines and making new friends. Unlike the Super Bowl, everyone was a winner. "In a very short period of time, in a very small space, [you] have the experience of really top wines around the world," said winemaker Sebastian Zuccardi of Argentina's Zuccardi Valle de Uco, who was pouring for the first time at the Wine Experience. "When you see the brands that are here and the people that are here, it's fantastic to be part of."
—With reporting by Brianne Garrett, Ben O'Donnell and Robert Taylor