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Published:  23 July, 2008

Tastings are the social and professional lifeblood of the wine trade, where wines are discovered, contacts made and opinions formed. But how do you ensure that an event goes to plan? David Williams talks to event supervisors to find out how to put on a successful tasting, and how to avoid a disaster

Like them or loathe them, for the wine trade professional, tastings are unavoidable. So, whether you're a retailer, an importer, or an agent; a journalist, a PR or a sommelier, the chances are that a considerable part of your working life will be spent hanging around communal spittoons. If you're exhibiting, you go to find new listings, or get your wines into the hearts and columns of the press. If you're visiting, you're looking out for new discoveries and a chance to meet the people who make or supply them. And whatever side of the trestle table you're on, you go to meet up with old or make new contacts, and have a good old-fashioned gossip. For the most part, tastings aren't particularly memorable as events in their own right. You go, you slurp and spit and chat, you might even have a spot of lunch, but when you leave it should be the wines and the people that you remember, not the tasting itself. Sometimes, however, tastings do stick in the mind, and that's usually for all the wrong reasons. As Katharine O'Callaghan, of PR agency Callaghan Communications, says, When you organise a good tasting, people think it's really easy. It's only when you go to a bad one that you realise how many things can go wrong.' O'Callaghan's own tasting nightmare revolves around freeloaders, and one legendary and colourfully-named freeloader in particular. There is one guy, and everyone knows him but I won't name him, who somehow manages to push himself into many of the tastings despite being banned, and proceeds to get pissed and nick half-empty bottles of wine at the end of the tasting (even topping up bottles with the remains of others!) after having stuffed himself with as much food as he can get his hands on,' says O'Callaghan. Then there's the other undesirables who spend their lives trying to gatecrash all the tastings in order to eat and drink as much as they can. You can always spot them, as they arrive at 12 noon, when lunch starts, they're usually male (although there are exceptions) and between 50 and 70, with a red nose and a shabby suit that has seen better days. They are normally extremely obnoxious and rude to staff, indignantly protesting that they used to write a column in some local newspaper in some village nobody has ever heard of.' Touch! The behaviour of ageing drunks isn't the only potential pitfall beyond an organiser's control, however. Sometimes, the reputation of a tasting is made or broken by events in the wider world. The most infamous example in recent years was the Wines of Argentina tasting, which fell on 11 September 2001. Needless to say, tasters found it difficult to focus their attention on the delights of the Malbec table. Six months later, it was the Germans' turn to fall victim to non-vinous events, when the death of the Queen Mother meant the annual German generic tasting coincided with a state funeral. Nicky Forrest, director of Phipps PR, which looks after the account, had to take the decision to postpone the event. It was an enormous task,' she says. All the producers had booked their flights months ago, the caterers had already bought the food and the visitors were practically at the door. We had just a couple of days to ensure that everyone who had been invited was contacted to ensure that they didn't come. The producers were contacted personally to let them know about the decision and the date was re-arranged with the venue.' But even assuming you're lucky enough to avoid freeloaders, royal deaths, terrorist incidents or fire and Tube strikes, there is still plenty that an organiser can do (or not do) themselves to ensure infamy. Overflowing spittoons, no spittoons, warm whites, labels lost in ice buckets, not enough wines, overcrowding, undercrowding, lack of wine glasses, unsuitable glasses, smelly food in the tasting room the list goes on. With this in mind, Harpers decided to ask the specialists what it takes to put on a successful tasting, and how to avoid a public relations nightmare.

Planning According to Nicky Forrest, there are two key ingredients for a successful tasting - good wines and the right crowd'. Of course, ensuring that those two key ingredients come together in a harmonious way requires careful planning - of around three months, on average. Sue Harris, director of Westbury Communications, puts the figure at two months for a brand tasting and four months for a big generic tasting, such as Wines of Argentina or Chile, although she also stresses the importance of putting the date in the WSA Wine Trade Diary at least six months before the event. Needless to say, it's also vital to check that your event won't be coinciding with any other major tastings, and to avoid school holidays. As Sue Glasgow of Spear Communications points out, it's also worth looking into when buying decisions are going to be made, and when the press are likely to be covering a subject.

Invitations It's vital that you have a clear objective: why are you organising a tasting? What do you hope to achieve?' says Glasgow. And it's only once you've decided on your objective that you will be able to draw up a list of invitees. For Tesco's PR and product development manager, Helen McGinn, the list is made up entirely of press and wine educators. At Phipps, Forrest deals with a much wider variety of tastings, each with a different focus. The invitation list depends entirely on what you want to get out of the tasting,' she says. I've organised tastings with small groups of press, I've done one-to-one tastings with journalists and the winemaker and then, of course, there are the big generic tastings, when press and buyers of all description are invited.' Harris, meanwhile, stresses the importance of attracting quality as much as quantity. It's vital to establish who the key people are, and while it's important to fill the venue, to provide atmosphere, you need a good dose of key customers to make sure people feel it's worthwhile.' The invitations themselves should reflect the theme of the tasting and should be clear and uncomplicated', says Glasgow, who also stresses the importance of including a map with directions. And the consensus seems to be that the invitations are sent out six weeks in advance, with an RSVP deadline which gives you carte blanche to chase up any non-respondents immediately before the event.

Venue Harpers' very own event supremo, Alison Mann, says, the fundamental factor when looking for a venue is that it is geared up to a tasting: so it should be light and airy (with natural light being best); there should be room for the guests to move around; it should be easy to find and near to public transport; and there should be staff on hand who know what's going on. Sometimes it can be good to use a venue that has a particular theme or feature (such as an art gallery or a theatre), as it brings added interest and drama, but the main thing is to ensure that the wines are shown off at their best.' Harris is even more prescriptive. A good venue should have high ceilings, plenty of space, an ability to control temperature and natural light,' she says. It's also important that it's in a central location, with parking for agents, and that there are helpful and efficient staff, including an efficient on-site manager. There should also be a positive approach to offering simple but very high quality food for lunch, but with no kitchen smells, and it's absolutely essential that the venue has had some experience of hosting wine tastings.'

WHAT YOU NEED ON THE DAY Glasses Well, obviously, but it's important to have enough (allow for at least two wine glasses and a water glass for each guest', says Mann), to ensure that they are ISO or comparable standard and to make sure, as Glasgow says, that they are positioned in key areas around the room'. It's also important to check that they are clean. We've had trouble with dirty glasses in the past, and we now have a system which means that all glasses are smelt before they are laid out,' says Harris. We always order 30% more than we will need, just in case there is a rogue batch.'

Spittoons You can never have too many', says O'Callaghan. It's also important to spread them out around the room and, says Glasgow, to put them close to the tasting tables, but not up against them'. And never allow them to overflow! Some people prefer polystyrene to sawdust to prevent splashback.

Tasting booklets The key thing here is to make sure that the wines in the booklet correspond to the wines on show, and in the right order. It's also worth including: stockist and price information; contact details; a floorplan for larger tastings; and space for tasting notes. Finally, it's a good idea to make the book solid enough to write on without a clipboard.

Food Helen McGinn thinks that guests should have plenty of food', but stresses that lunch facilities should be flexible, with the option of hot and cold food available for a couple of hours'. Sue Glasgow agrees and thinks that formal lunches are a thing of the past at tastings. We find that people tend to like something light, which does not take up too much time. It's a good idea to stretch times to allow for late arrivals and to avoid exhibitors leaving their tables at the same time.' And keep that smelly food out of the tasting room!

Other things to remember Corkscrews, a registration desk, water biscuits, white table cloths, guest-list badges, pens, dripstops, bottle-bags or sterile bottles for blind tastings.