Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Wine Spectator Grand Tour 2014 in May - It's Planning Time!

It is almost time for one of my favorite events of the year - Saturday May 3, 2014 brings us the next installment of the Wine Spectator's Grand Tour.  The Grand Tour is an annual event where over 200 wineries from all over the world come together - this year in Las Vegas, New York, and Washington D.C.  A fantastic opportunity to try new types of wines, new wineries,  and maybe even try the latest offering from some of your favorite wineries. 

I don't have the exact count, but after a quick mental review I think this will be the eighth time that Wino4Life Wife and I have tackled this event.  The first three times we went the Tour was at one of the ballrooms at the Venetian.  Now the Tour is at the Mirage, and has been for several years... a major upgrade!  The space is much larger, allowing you to easily roam the rows of friendly faces with wine to serve to you, better food, more tables to take a break and enjoy that food.  Also, although the hotel rooms at the Venetian are awesome, we typically stay at the Mirage whenever we go to Vegas, as I find the hotel rooms to be a really good value when compared to the other hotels in the same area of the Las Vegas strip.

The first couple of times at the Grand Tour, and we would just wander around - marveling at all the choices.  There is typically a good amount of familiar names, and many, many new names.  There are so many to choose from - sparkling wines, white wines, red wines, dessert wines...wines,wines, and more wines! Even with just a sip, you cannot put much of a dent in the more than 200 wineries who attend the event. 

Now that I am pursuing a second career based on my love for wine, this event is more to me than just a whole lot of fun - I do approach it as a "work" event... just work that is awesome and involves drinking!  I want to make sure and try new wines, visit winery booths to see people we've gotten to know over the years, and really make the most out of a great night.

So with that I wanted to share how I approach planning for this event.  You definitely do not need to go through this process to enjoy the Grand Tour, but if you become a repeat visitor I highly recommend having some plan of attack. A plan will help you to get the most out of your money, and help you to experience new types of wines from all over the world... where you just may find a new favorite.  

Step 1 - The Winery List
At least two months prior to the event, Wine Spectator will announce the participating wineries on their website.  This comes in the form of a list of winery names - no information on the winery or the wine they will be pouring, just all 200+ names.

When looking at a list this huge,  you need to have a plan.  Even with just a small taste of wine, you will have trouble hitting more than 30 spots in the three hours of the event.  That means you will need to have a way to focus on about 15% of the wineries, and eliminate about 85%.  Based on the types of wine you like, and the reasons you want to attend an event like this, decide on your goals:

  • Try a bunch of new wines?
  • Try the latest offerings from familiar wineries?
  • Try wines from specific countries?
  • Focus on mostly reds or mostly whites?
  • Focus on a particular grape, like Cabernet Sauvignon from around the world?
  • Wineries with cool names?
  • Wineries with un-pronouceable names?
It doesn't much matter what your goals are, you just need something to help you focus in on wineries that will help you achieve your goals.  For my planning purposes, my goals are a bit of a mix:
  • A good portion, close to half, of the wineries will be new to me. This event is a great way to try new things. 
  • Not only reds. Reds are by far my favorites, but I want to make sure and try some new white or sparkling wines, a white wine from a grape I've never tried or a region/country I've never tried. Trying new whites and sparkling wines helps build up my playbook for food and wine pairing.
  • Spain.  If you are going to attend a Grand Tour, you will most likely find us in the Spanish wine row.  Here is where we sample the latest offerings from some of our favorite wineries like Muga, Alto Moncayo, and El Nido. Wino4life wife's fluent Spanish, and the fact she grew up in Northern Spain make us quite a hit in this area!
  • Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Syrah is one of my favorite grapes, as it can produce very different wines whether made in an old world (France) or new world (USA, Australia) styles... and can have aromas such as raw bacon or smoked meat.  Cabernet Sauvignon with a great steak is one of my favorite pairings in the world. I am on the lookout for new and amazing examples of these wines.
  • Burgundy.  Good French Burgundy is just so darn expensive!  Any chance to drink an amazing red Burgundy will probably make the list.
  • Recruit more Winos. If we have any cohorts joining us for the Grand Tour, I also want to factor in wines that they will like, and at the same time challenge them to try new things.  Hearing things like "I don't like white wine, but this one is excellent"* when trying his first Italian Soave tells me I've succeed at this goal."
* Actual quote from actual cohort at the 2012 Grand Tour

A lot of goals to keep in mind, but these give me some direction when looking at the list. I next update a document that contains the list of alphabetized wineries that I use every year.  For each winery I research to at least find out the country, and if the winery specializes in a particular type of wine.  For the wines, I use a shorthand for the grape variety - like PN for Pinot Noir, CH for Chardonnay, etc.)
My Winery Notes
I also update my winery list with the following:
  • Strikethrough - a winery that attended the prior year, but was not on the list for the current year.
  • Bold - new winery that did not attend last year.
  • Highlighted Yellow - The contenders - based on my set of goals, the wineries I'd like to try. At this point I don't worry too much about the total count, that comes later in the planning process. Just make sure you are closer to 30 wineries rather than closer to 100 wineries. 
So you can see from my list for this year's Grand Tour there is a new winery called Adobe Road from Napa that makes small lots of Cabernet Sauvignon; a new winery called Bersano from Piedmont Italy; and a new winery from Sonoma that makes artisan Pinot Noir that all made the list. Also on the list are a favorite from Spain in Alto Moncayo, and another from Spain that we have not tried in Dominio de Atauta. 

I create a PDF from this file and put it on my iPhone so if there is a winery we are interested in at the event, I can pull up the list and at least see some information on the winery and its wines.

Step 2 - The Map
A couple of weeks before the event, Wine Spectator will email out the map of the wineries. Typically the layout will have white, sparkling, and dessert wines on the far left, usually taking up the first 3 rows or so. Next comes reds, reds and more reds, roughly organized by Country. 

The Plan of Attack Map
Here is where I make the final determination based on the highlighted wineries from my list.  I note on the map the wineries we want to visit,  if they will be pouring white vs. red vs. dessert wine, and note the likely type of wine they will be pouring.  Wine Spectator does not provide a list of the wines that will be offered, I just make my best guess based on my research into the winery.  I will circle more wineries than I know we can visit during the event, identifying the "must see" ones with an asterisk.  These extras give us some options during the night depending on how things are progressing and our mood at the moment.  

I also save this document as a PDF and put it on my iPhone. This is the document I refer to most throughout the night as our guide to the Grand Tour.

Step 3 - The Attack
The plan of attack is simple, typically left to right... sparkling, then whites, (skip the desserts for now), then the reds, then back for dessert wines.  This approach is good for the palate, to make sure you can enjoy the subtle flavors of the lighter wines before diving into any monster red wines. 

When updating the winery map, I also make sure and identify at least one extra sparkling wine stop, because these wines are a great way to reset your palate after a bunch of red wines, or after enjoying the buffet.  Who knows... your palate cleanser may turn out to be a great find!

Wrapping it Up
Is all this planning overkill for the Grand Tour? Maybe, but I was an Information Technology Project Manager for a lot of years, and still dabble in it part time - so it is the way I know to attack a complex (but fun!) problem - how to choose a reasonable number of wineries to sample, and what order to approach it.  Like any plan, this one is just that - a plan. If we see happy people gathering around a particular winery, or anything else that catches our eye, we will give it a try... and then get back to the plan later. I encourage you to do the same... lot's of happy wine drinkers can't be wrong!  But I do recommend you have a plan to make the most of this great opportunity, but treat it as that... just a plan. Opportunities to meet and chat with winemakers, make new friends with other winos, all these are very important and are part of what makes the world of wine so awesome.  Just think a balance of fun, learning, exploration 

Oh and did I mention that it's the weekend for the Kentucky Derby?  Head to the sports betting area of whatever casino you happen to be in during the race - if you like crowds and lots of yelling.  I will share with you my highly scientific process for picking a horse to bet on, as the Grand Tour is typically in Vegas on Kentucky Derby weekend. I look for horses with wine related names!  A few years ago... Barbaro... sounds a bit like Barbera, so I bet and ... winner!  In 2012, there was a horse called "I'll Have Another." Not exactly a wine term, but a drinking term for sure... so I bet, and .... winner again.  This year, a couple contenders may get a bet from me, "Wildcat Red" or "Albano" (close to Albariño) or even "Hopportunity" to add a beer term to the list... we'll see when the final list of horses is published. Wish me luck as I will be betting big... $5 or even $10!

I hope to see you there! Look for the wife and I in the Spanish wine row!

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