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Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Harsh, Drunken Truth on Wine Trade Tastings

We like to think of grand wine tastings as classy events where the people in the trade gather to act all classy and taste the classiest form of alcohol. Lamb chops, bacon-wrapped scallops and stuffed mushrooms are delivered right to you as you peruse your options.

The truth is it's usually a room full of drunks being impatient because they can't get a pour at a packed table. The food part of the room is always fun to watch because that's where you really get to see how intoxicated one is. Lots of struggling to get food in the mouth.

At a trade tasting I recently attended I saw a few men clearly under the influence of alcohol purposely bump into or press up on highly attractive women and then act surprised like they didn't see them there. Scouts honor. "Oh, I'm sorry!" they said with a sleazy smile. Congratulations! You're a pig!

Back in May of this year a man driving home from a wine festival in Livermore, California killed a woman and her 14-month-old daughter, and injured two other children. The photos from the accident were absolutely horrific. That was a festival and I'm specifically talking about trade tastings, but this incident is the reality of what can come from these things.

I'm not coming from a place of holier-than-thou, believe me. I've gotten pretty drunk at tastings and the worst of them was two years ago. We had taken a limo into Boston, which is about an hour and half from Cape Cod. I spit plenty at the tasting, but started swallowing towards the end... and then I visited the Port table. Things went down-hill. I drank way too much at dinner and I wasn't even close to sobering up by the time we got back to the Cape. I was cocked and needed a ride home. I can't remember ever sweating so much in my sleep, and the next day was all head-pounding and vomit.

That was me being an irresponsible adult when I could afford to be, because it was a fun night out and at no point was there even a chance of me harming anybody else. Still, it wasn't the way that the daddy of a three-year old should be acting.

But then there is the dumbest thing I have ever done. This tasting was here on the Cape on a beautiful day this past March. Things were starting to warm up from one of the worst winters ever to hit the northeast, but there was still plenty of ice and snow and the nights were still freezing.

The place was packed, making it hard to move an inch from the spot you fought for at each table. Spitting wasn't much of an option unless the bucket was right in front of you, so I ended up swallowing regularly. When I got home I was accused of being drunk. I knew there was enough alcohol going through my blood to be off but "drunk" seemed a bit overboard. Can you tell me what alcohol does, kids? That's right! It impairs your judgment! So instead of agreeing like I should have I went the how-dare-you-accuse-me-of-such-a-thing route and left. That's right. I got back behind the wheel like a douchebag. And I grabbed a beer at a bar.

When I was cooled off I made my way back home and decided for whatever reason to drive down some random roads. Then I was on a road in the middle of the woods that turned out to be a dead end. When I backed up my wheels slipped on a patch of ice and I went right into a tree, doing some ugly damage to the passenger side of the bed and folding in the side panel. In return, my truck just died. The nine-year-old battery gave up on impact. I had absolutely no idea where I was so instead of calling AAA I called the police.

It was really cold that night, and I was out there for two hours while the cops tried to figure out where I was. There wasn't anybody home in the few houses near the truck and no evidence of the street's name. Mailboxes were empty and Google Maps didn't even cross my mind. A state police officer eventually pinged my phone for my location. By the time they arrived any effect of alcohol had left my system but I was shaken from being in freezing conditions in the middle of the night for two hours. A situation like that really gets you thinking about putting a book of matches in your glove compartment. They had my truck towed and brought me home.

I'm pretty damn good at poker when playing for meaningless chips or Oreo's but I've never been a real gambler. The entire concept doesn't make sense to me. I've seen too many scratch ticket transactions in my life. All the time I see people get excited about winning $100, when in the last week I personally sold them $200 in losing efforts. And, on top of that, they spend that winning $100 on $100 worth of more scratch tickets. I would rather keep my $5 than get wrapped up in that bullshit to chance a rare increase.

So, in turn, my rock bottom is shallow. I don't take getting away with something for granted and it usually takes just one or a few screw-ups for me to hit the sand and cut the shit. I regret that night and I aim to regret it for the rest of my life. That guy who killed that woman and baby could have been me. Even though I wasn't "drunk" in the traditional sense of the word, I was pretty buzzed and that's all it takes. I could have killed somebody.

Some people do go to tastings just to get all shitty on the free alcohol but most are there to work, like myself. I'm not forgetting the fact that, yes, they are also supposed to be fun. And, ultimately, to sell wine. But how does this happen? How does a trade tasting, put on by professionals, let its fellow professionals and clients just walk out, setting them free to  drive at will?

The answer is simple: trust in spitting, pacing and responsibility. We like to believe that spit buckets are being used but they're really not, and we as adults aren't nearly as responsible as we think we are. The one-spit-bucket-at-the-table system is futile. It's really not easy to get to that bucket when it's a crowded table so you swallow and keep swallowing. That's a broken system.

Yes, of course you need to take on the responsibility yourself. Since the dead-truck incident I've carried a tall plastic Starbucks travel-mug (without the cap on) with me. I spit into that and dump it into a bucket when I'm near one. As a bonus I've noticed that without a buzz I'm much better at doing what I'm there to do: find good wine and remember it.

The industry knows that there's a lot of liquored up people at these things (how can it possibly not?) but it won't admit to it because that's the business. Right? We get people liquored up. That's literally how we make our money. But we want to get them liquored up at home and we're not at home, Dorothy! We need to take care of each other and make it clearly known that there's a taxi service or shove the presence of spit buckets down some throats. Because, correct me if I'm wrong, if the buyer of an important account drives into a pole and dies after leaving your company's tasting that's not a good thing, right?

A new strategy is needed. Here's my proposal, and it's rather simple: The #1 reason why people don't spit is because they don't want to intrude on the people near the spit bucket. It's embarrassing. Place tiny little satellite tables with the sole purpose of holding a spit bucket about six feet in front of the tasting tables, behind the people tasting. That would do wonders. It's far more easily accessible, providing the option to be less intrusive on the other tasters and people wouldn't be as pressured to swallow.

But backsplash is gross, you say? Nobody wants somebody else's spit coming up in their face. Well... mostly. Anyways, you're right! Jail is a better option! Or bringing your own personal spit cup.

I'm not trying to tell anybody what to do here. I'm sure that someday when I don't have to worry about getting myself home I'll blissfully be trying to figure out how to get roast beef on ciabatta in my mouth without dripping mustard all over my spring jacket. But we need to stop denying that this doesn't happen and start finding ways to look out for our peers and ourselves, and make sure that they don't and we don't do something stupid that will be regretted forever.

A little interesting note: Hello Vino is an app that helps you pair wine with food, food with wine, it allows you to speak to an expert live on the phone, and even buy wine all in one place. The coolest, most thoughtful feature is that it will also search for transportation services with a GET A SAFE RIDE HOME option. Uber can pick me up right here in 8 minutes. I fully intend to get this feature on The Wine Stalker app as well, if it's at all possible.

Do you have any ideas on how to bring down wine tasting intoxication, or identify those that need help getting home and getting them there? Leave a comment!

- Joey Casco CSW/CSS

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  1. This is an excellent article. It really is. Your suggestion is fantastic and Kudos to Hello Vino for having that feature (and you too, if you can get it on) Hopefully with the advent of Uber, this occurs less frequently, but the biggest problem is what you stated- Your judgement is impaired- so many think they are ok. I am a paranoid person when it comes to drinking and driving, I lost a friend in college because of it and I always have that in my mind when I drink. I am more terrified of injuring someone else than injuring myself and that keeps me from getting behind the wheel.
    Again, EXCELLENT article!

    1. Thank you for the compliments and for commenting!

      I received an email from a reader that was getting aggravated constantly not being able to get to spit buckets or finding THAT THERE WERE NO SPIT BUCKETS AT ALL. They're going to be bringing their own spit cup with them now.

      And like I said, safety is the #1 concern in doing this but you'll also be better at doing what you're there to do if you bring your own spit cup: taste a lot of good wine and find the ones that you want to sell. And actually remembering it.

      Thanks again, and I'm sorry to hear about your friend.

  2. When arranging wine tastings I like to provide a car service for all guest for the night as an option..the car service offers discounted rates for all attendees..and has even provided me with coupons for each guest swag bags..and are strained in from of our events as guest leave as a just in case..we do not want our guest drinking and driving and find that it has been a successful feature during our events

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