The Boston Phoenix
January 27 - February 3, 2000


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Expo(se) yourself

Surviving the city's biggest wine fest

by Thor Iverson

Back in December, the griping started. Jaded wine retailers, wholesalers, and writers were already complaining about the Boston Wine Expo, which returns to Boston's World Trade Center February 5 and 6. Wine insiders offered dozens of explanations for their grumbling (and their plans to skip the event), but no one actually came out and admitted the real one: the public.

I think my associates in the trade are a little piqued that the vinous world that is their gravy train will, for one weekend, be open to anyone who can front the admission fee. If you've got $50, the Expo will give you an unparalleled opportunity to experience the life of a wine insider, with hundreds of winemakers eagerly pouring their best stuff into your outstretched glass.

In one respect, this is even better than most insider events: at the Expo you aren't limited to trying wine from only one producer or store. Want to taste barrel samples of next year's zinfandels? Chardonnays from 12 countries? Wines beginning with the letter "B"? It's your call.

This is not to say that the Expo doesn't have its problems. Overcrowding, overheating, and lack of crowd control are chief among them. The price of entry has also gone up; admission costs about twice what it did a few years ago. But even with all the annoyances, there's really no other event like it. And if you're a wine lover in Boston, there's very little reason to be anywhere else that weekend. Because despite the carping of the industry folks, surviving the Expo is really pretty easy. All it takes is the proper attitude and a little planning.

And, actually, it also takes a third thing: spitting. Yes, yes, I know. Spitting is gross. Your mother told you not to do it. But when you're tasting this many wines, you can get drunk in a hurry -- and you simply can't appreciate good wine when you're blotto. Plus, it's no fun mingling with several thousand drunk people in a stifling, enclosed area. There are spit buckets on every table, and your fellow attendees -- and your taste buds -- will thank you for using them.

Okay, sermon over. When you arrive at the Expo, you'll be herded toward someone passing out free glasses and a catalogue with a map. Take the time to peruse the map; consult the list of wineries, note their locations, and plan a route that will limit the amount of time you spend crisscrossing the convention center. Also note that the tables along the main center aisle will be very crowded all weekend (the wineries at them paid for those positions, after all), so if you're there early, hit them immediately. Tables along the sides and in the corners will be much easier to get to in the midday rush. In general, the biggest crowds congregate around well-known American producers and the area devoted to French wines. But truly excellent wines at tables sponsored by less-promoted countries (such as New Zealand, Greece, Switzerland, and Portugal) get overlooked, and small producers not under big countrywide banners are often completely ignored. Usually, your time is better spent at these tables.

Venders at the Expo won't like this advice: pack a lunch. If you think people pushing and shoving for a taste of zinfandel are annoying, wait until you see the mid-afternoon frenzy at the New England Cheese table. There's a good deal of free snack food at the event, and some more-elaborate edibles for sale along the perimeter of the room, but a quick sandwich from home will save you both time and annoyance.

Definitely break up the day by doing something besides milling around the tables. Attend one of the wonderful sit-down seminars offered by both world-renowned and local wine experts. Take in a famous chef's cooking demo (you'll get free food here, though not much of it).

And take the time to talk to the people pouring the wines. Sometimes they'll just be part-time "hired guns" reading from a script. But more often, they'll be wholesalers, importers, winery owners, or winemakers who really know the wines. Approach them with an open mind, and you'll learn more in a single day than any book or class can teach you.

Now, about that attitude. One piece of motherly advice that you should remember: be considerate of the people around you. Once you've acquired a glass of wine at a table, step back. Not only are others waiting for a chance to taste the wine, but standing directly in front of a table, the chances are great that you're blocking access to a water pitcher or spit bucket. People with their mouths full of wine can't ask you to move; if they do, they're likely to spit all over your back. (Having seen this happen at last year's Expo, I can't stress this point enough.) Also, remember that there are a lot of people at this thing. Be patient. No one is going to run out of wine until very late in the day on Sunday, and even then there will still be more than a thousand wines to choose from.

A couple other suggestions: don't wear white, and don't wear expensive clothing. Murphy's Law guarantees that if you do, you will leave with unintentionally wine-colored accessories. And please don't wear any kind of scent. Perfume and cologne are deadly for delicate wine aromas.

Finally, remember to have fun. If the Expo doesn't put a smile on your face, then you're one of those wine-trade sourpusses I mentioned earlier. And, really, who wants to be one of them?

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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