Sunday, August 05, 2007

Connecticut Festival Off to Shaky Start

Most of the wine writing out there is...well, nice. Sometimes too nice. You hardly ever see the kind of caustic, flaming prose typically used by movie reviewers applied to wine reviews. It's probably analogous to the difference between spectator behavior at football games vs. country club sports such as tennis and golf.

Wine writing can especially descend into boosterism when it comes to writing about small fledgling producers or up-and-coming wine producing regions that face steep obstacles to gaining critical acceptance and market share. I try to maintain a critical eye, and palate, when it comes to evaluating local wines, but I find myself nonetheless pulling for Connecticut's wine industry, which is better than ever but still has a way to go.

I was thrilled recently to hear that Connecticut was about to trumpet its up-and-coming wines with the first ever Connecticut Wine Festival. But I'm afraid I just can't be a cheerleader for the event I attended yesterday. I know a first-time event of this kind can have a few rough spots, but I was extremely disappointed in the way it was run and in the people responsible for some of the bone-headed decisions I witnessed. And, I would not recommend it to any locals in the future.

First, the festival offered tickets in advance on its website for $5 less than the price at the door. I tried to purchase tickets online for two days prior to the event, and could not get the right page to open. When I arrived at the door, I thought they might honor the online price when I explained the issue, since they evidently had problems. But, no.

When I explained the issue to the manager he could not have been less friendly or accommodating. "We shut it down because we had to move it to another server." He did not elaborate, but that, I guess was supposed to explain it. Not, "I'm very sorry, but we had technical problems that shut us down." I might have been sympathetic in that event. Just, we decided to change servers -- two days before the event. I suggested the customer-friendly thing to do would be to give us the online price anyway, but no. The people taking tickets "are audited. They can't take a dime less." It was a very bureaucratic experience.

I then took my premium tickets in hand and marched off to the first tent where I discovered that I was entitled to taste wines from exactly five of the 17 wineries there. That was news to me (you can bet the first thing I did when I got home was doublecheck the website, where I saw no mention of a limit. $25 is supposed to allow you taste from all the wineries present). This struck me as the very height of cheapness. I've been to a fair number of wine festivals in my day, and I've never seen the like before. One admission fee usually covers winetastings -- period. Granted admission fees are higher elsewhere, but you can taste more than 100 wines if you like. Only the food or gifts cost extra. Here, we would have to buy extra tickets to taste more than a handful of wines -- what a racket!

Perhaps they were concerned about guests getting inebriated? I doubt it. Again, bigger and better festivals don't seem to have these issues. I chalk it up to greed.

Also, each and every winery was offering a tasting of exactly three wines. This, of course, greatly limited the choice of varietals that one could taste. From what I saw, the wineries for the most part offered their three most popular varietals but not what might be the most interesting varietals to experienced tasters.

In addition, plastic measured pourers that attach to the top of wine bottlers and dispense such small tasting samples were in use everywhere. I hate those things. I find it very hard to get a good sense of the aromas with the samples they provide, especially served in the cheap glasses they hand out at the gate.

As for the wines, I made an effort to try a couple of new wineries that were not around when we did our Connecticut wine tour a year ago. I saw some potential in them, but like most new wineries, their wines just aren't all there yet.

Three wineries I've liked in the past, Stonington, Hopkins and Sharpe Hill, had very good wines as usual. But the winery that really was the most refreshing was Chamard. I get tired of singing their praises because they are so often praised in the local media. But they really are good at what they do. The chardonnay and the rose were the best among all we tasted. And, our pourer took great care to explain the characteristics of the wines and the growing conditions for each vintage.

When my wife complimented her for the job she did in talking about the wines, she explained that it's essential because so many people come in expecting a California-like product and that is the yardstick they use to judge the wines. She wants people to know that Connecticut and the Northeast makes a different product because of its different climate, one that shows varied but very worthwhile flavors given what winemakers have to work with. If they understand the wine in its correct context, they'll likely enjoy it more.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not sure where you found out you could only taste wine from only 5 wineries. There was unlimited amount of tasting being offered both Saturday and Sunday (Aug 4-5th). They did give you 5 tickets to get punched, but those were for 5 stamps in the passport book which is for a chance to wine to trip to Spain as well as others. Once you had your 5 stamps, you could still go and taste wine from any of the vineyards you wanted to. They just limited the number of stamps for the passport since you need 12 to enter the contest. How would it be fair to get 12 stamps in that one day when other people travel to 12 different vineyards to get their stamps?
Also, I only saw a few vineyards that were offering 3 or so wines to try. We went to a couple that had 5 or more wines at least. And the for the amount they poured....some did give a little bit, but we had many places give us 1/2 of a glass or so to taste. And if you wanted more, you just asked.
I am not sure who you spoke with this weekend, but from my experience as well as others I talked with, it was worth way more then the $25 they charged to go in. Any other wine event like that in CT cost $60-$100 per person.

10:41 AM  
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12:22 PM  
Blogger JD said...

Anonymous, don't be afraid to leave your name next time. Interesting comments. I might be afraid I assumed way too much incorrectly, but for a couple of things. First, I was told the situation was exactly as I stated it was by festival people in the green shirts. Second, there was a booth set up on the premises for the expressed purpose of selling tickets for additional tastings. Something wrong somewhere, but I can tell you that the officials we spoke to were not helpful nor cordial. If they were, there would be no misunderstandings. The folks from the wineries, I'm glad to say, were a different story.

7:17 PM  
Anonymous Arie (AKA anonymous) said...

Sorry you most of had a different experience that I did. When I went, we were handed the 5 tickets but were told they are only for stamps, you can taste as much as you like. And we did. We received our 5 stamps in the book and then went on to more vineyards. A few asked if he had any tickets to punch for stamps and we said we already used them and they said ok and begun to pour. I guess there was a lot of confusion between the ones running it (who were volunteers) and the ones at the vineyard tables. You cannot expect everything to run smoothly the first time around.

9:16 AM  
Blogger JD said...

Fair enough. We were there in the first hour, and it sounds to me like there were changes, or clarifications, made as things went along. I'm very glad your experience was better than mine. Thanks for the comments and follow-up.

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