09 Jun A Beer Guy Goes To A Wine Fest… And Learns To Like It… Mostly
Every time I watch Tyrion Lannister reach for a jerkin full of wine, I always catch myself thinking, “He makes wine seem so appealing.” I will occasionally help myself to a sip of my
fianceé‘s Pinot Grigio the moment after I pour her a glass, but outside of that…no thanks. Even though I’m not the savviest wine drinker I am a damn good fiancée, and when it’s Wendi’s turn to pick the weekend event—and when she picks Vintage Indiana’s 16th annual Wine Fest to boot—then a damn good fiancée is going to go.
Held at the Circle City’s incredibly convenient and expansive Military Park (for the 12th largest city in the nation, the ease with which you can ditch your wheels and access the park should be selling point number one for the city’s leaders), as soon as I entered the facility I noticed that Wine Fest shared several characteristics with its beer sistren. While those similarities were easily spotted, the differences jumped out as well. With a few exceptions – well…actually with one exceptions – those differences struck me as pleasant amenities which would enhance even some of the strongest beer fests.
Feature #1: Pretty Women in Sundresses.
While many pretty women show up for the beer fests—many of them adorning sundresses as well—the sheer number at wine fest was staggering. I get it: contrary to the image conveyed by Paul Giamatti in Sideways, wine is a female-centric beverage…at least in the Midwest. And although several dudes were in attendance at the wine festival, it “paled” to the number of ladies. So even though I spent the better part of the day in line, stuck only five or six feet away from the booth tables watching Sigmund and Frieda go into an extended conversation with Eric the wine-seller as they sampled their eleventh glass of Moscato (just to make sure their palate wasn’t fooling them, of course), I was at least able to appreciate…how do I say this…”the beauty of the Midwest.” Before I get too caught up in my self-absorbed sense that they were there to appeal to me, Wendi—an astute psychologist actually—pointed out that women dressed up for these events to impress other women. While I can live with that, I still want to say to all those ladies: thanks!
Feature #2: Fewer Operations in Much Larger Set-Ups.
While the major brew-fests often house as many as a hundred breweries, usually crammed into tiny booth set-ups next to each other, like all those New England states on the map, at Wine Fest, there were only 29 wineries. Even though not all of the wine-makers in the state showed up, most of them did, and this speaks to the difference between the growth of wine-producers versus brewers. The disadvantage, from a beer-lover’s point-of-view, is that fewer opportunities existed for experimentation and variety. However, that’s a not a fair comparison because the trade-off came in the form of the extensive varieties and options from each wine producer. From the chocolate port which tasted like a Tootsie-Roll to the many delicious types of blueberry, strawberry, mango, and peach wines available, several inventive and tasty confections awaited once you reached the table.
Feature #3: The Leisurely vs the Frenetic Experience.
With the notable exception of the Fishers on Tap event (happening this month), most beer fests tend to move at a hurried pace: get in line, move, choose your beer, take your sample, and get the hell out of the way. For the most part, it’s a system I respect. But unlike the beer festival, the wine event left lots of expansive room for lounging. Many patrons brought their own fold-up seats, formed social circles in shady expanses and sampled the glasses or bottles they’d purchased. Given that Wine Fest was a six-hour day rather than the standard three-hours at a beer event, attendees had ample opportunities to step out of line, grab their seat, and enjoy the wares they’d purchased. It was a beautiful day, and had I not showed up with a beer-fest mindset, I would have gladly taken time from the line to line to line approach and settled down for a tasty glass of blueberry or a long bottle of vignoles.
Feature #4: Beer Festivals Share their Products, but Wine Festivals Sell Theirs.
Make no mistake about it the Wine Fest was a sales convention. Very likely the reason the Wine Fest tolerated the long lines and long sessions at the table was because the wine producers hoped, if not expected, to sell a bottle or glass as result of the visit. And based on the number of nearly empty bottles dangling from the fingers of causal patrons strolling away from the pizza stand, I’m assuming it was a strategy that worked.
I’m not sure what to make of this. I’m logically assuming breweries are barred from sales at festivals. But expanding the Guild’s festival to six hours and allowing people to sit down and enjoy a growler…? Given that a bottle of wine is statistically more potent than the 5+ bottles of beer in each growler, the decision to allow one but prohibit the other seems so cryptically Indiana.
Feature #5: The Talbot Street Effect
One element which clearly separated the wine festival from its hoppier counterpart was the artsy, crafty vendors section on the northeast corner of the park. Again, the very fact that this sort of art-festival element exists speaks to the event’s appeal to women because, no matter how peculiar the crowd may be at a beer festival, beer people don’t show up to check out the newest selection of growler-based wind chimes or melted bomber serving trays. And while I doubt that this would transition well to the beer crowd, I still respect it. At a wine event, it works. It suggests that drinking wine is about listening to the wind and smelling good food. Among many beer drinkers the only wind we feel is what Frank sends around the poker table after he’s lifted his left hind-quarters, and the closest thing to exotic food we enjoy is a 2AM run to Taco Bell.
Feature #6: The Lines
I’ve already alluded to the line issues, so I won’t rehash my opinion. What I don’t know is whether this is a problem the wine festival organizers want/need to fix, or whether this is a deliberate move to promote longer stays, and more bottle/glass sales. If it’s the former…fix it. Look to the beer festivals as a guide: Yes Burn ‘Em Brewing may have 23 taps, but you’re up there to pick one. Pick it, get out of line, drink it, talk about it, get back in line, and pick another one. The slowest beer festival lines were like the USS Enterprise on quick Warp 9 trip to Centauri 12 compared to the fastest wine line. If the strategy is sales, then I will consider my lesson learned. I’ll bring my chairs, pick a shady spot, stand in a line or two, and buy a bottle instead. From a marketing standpoint, my sense on this is mixed. It’s great for the wineries. But to ask someone to pay $35 to enter, then create an environment which encourages more spending in order to really enjoy the drinking…? I think the beer festivals win on this count.
Final Tally: It’s a Different Cultural Experience, so Enjoy It as Such.
As a beer guy, I didn’t appreciate the wine experience at first. But once I was there, once I understood that it’s not the same, I liked it very much. When Wendi asks me to go with her next year, I will. I’ll take some chairs the next time, and bring the cash for a bottle or two, and I’ll throw out all the good Tyrion Lannister one-liners I can think of as I drink. Tyrion does have good taste, after all, but I bet he’d have different preferences if Westeros had a brewery or two.