Mar 262013
 
UGC Tasting San Francisco

Photo Credit: Richard Jennings – Huffington Post

The Garden Court at the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco began life nearly 140 years ago as an open-air courtyard where well-to-do guests could alight from their horse-drawn carriages. Modeled on the architecture of the Paris Opera House, the Palace enclosed the courtyard in 1904 and covered it with a glorious expanse of Belle Epoque stained glass. Today the Garden Court is a restaurant that serves breakfast and lunch to hotel guests. But on January 18, 2013 the Garden Court is closed for a private event.

Twenty-four hours earlier, more than one hundred and ten owners and winemakers of the top chateaux in Bordeaux left their homes to drive to the airport, where they would catch a plane for London Heathrow. In all, between flights, connection times, and airport shuttles, they would be eighteen hours in transit before reaching the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, just in time for dinner on January 17th.

By eight o’clock the next morning the Garden Court is a flurry of activity. Fifty-five tables are draped with white linen and arranged throughout the room, each to be shared by two of the chateaux. The sequence must be matched exactly to the catalog, with each sub-region of Bordeaux in alphabetical order. The regions themselves follow a pattern: from Graves and Pessac-Leognan to St. Emilion and Pomerol, through the Médoc, and finally Sauternes. It’s a grand tour of France’s greatest wine region.

A team of sommeliers and wine students works its way around the room, carefully setting each place with a table sign for the chateau, a burgundy napkin, two wine glasses, a bottle of water, the name tag for the chateau owner, and a list of the trade and media who are planning to attend. Another team is breaking down three pallets of Bordeaux from the now-famous 2010 vintage, delivering the cases to the appropriate tables, and placing three bottles of red wine next to each winery sign. For those chateaux with white wine, only one bottle of it is put on the table; the rest are placed in ice in the bus tubs behind. Corks are pulled on two of the red bottles at each chateau, to allow the wine to breathe. Each table setting is exactly the same.

The tasting will begin at 1:00 p.m., and by 12:30 the room is perfect. A few chateau owners stop in briefly on their way to get a quick bite of lunch before the crowds arrive. A frantic text message arrives from Bordeaux:  one chateau owner’s flight was delayed, and she won’t arrive until after the tasting has started. She promises a couple of bottles of her Margaux to the sommelier who volunteers to pour for her until she arrives. There is no shortage of volunteers.

At 12:50 the chateau owners begin to arrive at the Garden Court. Outside, a crowd of more than 200 importers, distributors, restaurateurs, retailers and media have already registered and are anxiously waiting to get in. The last few chateau owners push their way through the crowd and take their positions at their tables.

At one o’clock, the members of the crowd walk briskly into the Garden Court, glasses in hand, and work their way around the tables. It’s a constant stream of traffic that won’t slow down for the four hours of the tasting. In all, more than 600 wine trade members attend the tasting, and there is rarely more than a minute or two when a chateau owner is not pouring a wine or talking to someone. Larger crowds gather at some of the more famous wines, but every chateau has its fans. During the last hour of the tasting, the crowd slowly lays siege to the Sauternes producers. At five o’clock, when the tasting ends, they are standing five or six deep at each of the five tables there.

By five-fifteen, the room is empty of both chateau owners and tasters. The hotel staff hurries in, clearing the tables of empty bottles, and replacing any stained linens. The chateau owners race to the bar, where they hope to get a quick bite to eat. A new set of wines arrives and is delivered to the tables.

At six o’clock, the consumer portion of the tasting begins, with another 300 people—top customers of a local retailer. Each chateau owner is back at his or her station for another two hours. Many follow that with a winemaker dinner at a local restaurant, and don’t fall into bed until midnight.

The next day they leave early for Los Angeles, where they pour at a consumer tasting for more than 2,000 people that afternoon. January 20th is a travel day to New York, followed by a trade tasting in the ballroom at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square on Monday, with more than 900 top trade in attendance. One hour later, the consumer tasting brings another 300 wine lovers into the hotel. Winemaker dinners fill more than twenty restaurants in Manhattan that night.

In Chicago, the legendary Drake Hotel has their staff set up the Gold Room the night before to make sure that everything goes smoothly. A malfunction in the fire sprinkler system soaks one end of the room in the middle of the night. The staff works through the night, and by 11:00 a.m., when a few Bordelais arrive to inspect, the room is flawless. The trade tasting packs the room to its limits for four hours, and an hour later the largest retailer in Chicago has 350 more customers march through the doors. There are winemaker dinners in Chicago as well.

The group leaves early the next morning to fly to Washington, DC, for a consumer and trade tasting in the nation’s capital, followed by Toronto and Montreal in the next two days. The following day they fly home, via Heathrow, into the winter weather of France.

The trip lasts ten days and visits seven cities, with two of the days dedicated to transatlantic flights. More than 2,500 people attend the trade tastings, as well as another 3,000 at the consumer events, not including the more than fifty winemaker dinners.

Sixteen days later, one hundred and five chateau owners fly to China.