Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Opportunity Lost at Executive Wine Seminar's 1986 Bordeaux Tasting

I was driving between Orlando and Miami when I received a call from my wine bud Russell. "I just found out about a 1986 Bordeaux tasting in New York City in April," he said.  "We have to attend."  Russell is a little intense when he gets the bit between his teeth so I had to spend a little time calming him down after which I told him I would look into it and get back to him.  "Don't delay," he said.  "There are only 16 spots."  I had my wife and my trusty iPad in the car so I put them both to work to find out more about this tasting.  After grumbling about her peace being disturbed with more "wine stuff" my wife took to the web to find out more about the event and the offering organization.

My wife's research showed that the tasting was being offered by Executive Wine Seminars (EWS), a NYC-based organization that had been conducting business- and individual-focused wine tastings since its founding in 1981.  The organization appeared to have some repute as its tasting notes have appeared on since 2004 and Robert Parker himself has participated in EWS tastings at least once a year.  The specific tasting that Russell had brought to my attention was a 25-year retrospective of 1986 Bordeaux wines to include Chateaus Vieux Certan, Raysan-Segla, Pichon Lalande, Cos d'Estournel, Ducru-Beaucaillou, Gruad-Larose, Leoville Las Cases, Talbot, Haut-Brion, Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild, and Climens.  This was right up my alley so I had my wife sign me up on the spot and called Russell to let him know that I was in.  I called some other friends here in Orlando and they also signed up so it was a six-person contingent that made its way from Orlando to NYC for this event.  Little did we know that the high point of the tasting was already behind us.

The tasting was scheduled to be held on the premises of New York Vintners (21 Warren Street) and to run from 6:30-8:30 pm.  The EWS web site advised: "Attendees are encouraged to arrive 30 minutes early (6:00) for time to unwind with hors d'oeuvres and an aperitif."  Russell and I arrived at the designated location at 6:00 pm.  The location was at street level with a wine shop at the front, which then gave way to a control-room-type office and then the tasting room.  The tasting area itself was rather compressed and was made to appear even more so by six to eight tightly packed circular tables, each attended by six or seven chairs.  Each table had a number of settings equal to the number of chairs.  Each setting included five small wine glasses and a water glass.  The tables also held bottles of water and slices of various types of cheeses.  There were no mats below the glasses with names of the wines that would be in each glass.

All of the wines to be tasted were standing upright on a table at the front of the room and one of these wines had already been poured into one of the glasses at each seat.  The pour was minute.  I had two thoughts as I surveyed the scene: (i) This does not look like an appetizing setting for the level of tasting I was expecting and (ii) the room was not set up for 16 people as initially advertised.

We were approached by one of the individuals pouring wine.  He asked for our names, checked them off on a list, and told us we were too early and should come back later.  This after the web site told us to come half-an-hour early for aperitifs and hoes d'oeuvres.  Another couple from Arizona was also there and in the same pickle so we repaired to the sidewalk to talk about what had brought us to this tasting. After about 10-15 minutes we were asked back inside to partake of a glass of bubbly and to take seats if we so desired.  All during this time the wines for the tasting was being poured and I noticed that they were being decanted just immediately before pouring.  The wines were all being poured by the two EWS co-Directors and was proceeding very slowly.

Finally everyone was in a seat and the first flight had been poured.  Robert, one of the co-Directors, kicked things off by letting us know that the tasting would proceed in three flights of four wines each followed by the Climens.  The second flight would include all of the St. Juliens while the third flight would be the first-growth wines.  The first flight would cover the remaining wines.  After he finished his short remarks, he turned it over to Howard who welcomed us and then provided the Parker and Wine Spectator scores for the first four wines.  He said a few more words and then sat down.    I looked around waiting expectantly and then noticed that people had started tasting their wines (It should be noted that most of the attendees seemed to be "regulars".).  I was flabbergasted.  The tasting had begun without a starting gun being fired.  This was not going to be a guided tour.  I was on my own.  I had to navigate recently decanted, mini-pours of 1986 Bordeaux in even mini-er glasses.

After what seemed like 5 minutes, but I am sure it was longer, Robert got up and stared soliciting comments on the wines in the first flight.  The tasting of this flight had ended just as abruptly as it had started.  How could comments be solicited?  These wines all smelled the same.  I could not tell whether I was smelling Bordeaux funk or taint of some type.  To add insult to injury, I had to pour my unfinished mini-pours in to the dump bucket to make room for the next flight.  So I would not get an opportunity to determine how the wines would evolve over time.  Further, the same two guys were pouring the new flights and it was just as agonizingly slow as for the first flight.  At one point in the proceedings, Ron Siegel, one of my Orlando travel mates, told one of the co-Directors that he thought a particular wine was corked.  His observation was greeted with a shoulder shrug.

All in all not a good experience.  The event was advertised for 16 and then expanded to 39 with no expansion in the support staff or the available wine.  This translated to mini-pours and not enough staff to pour the wines efficiently.  The wines should have been decanted a minimum of three hours before the event and was not and so showed poorly across the board.  I have been to a number of high-end tasting events where I paid a lot less for the privelege and got better results. 


  1. Sorry for the bad experience.

    Could you post your notes or impressions of the wines, especially the first growths? Or do you feel it is pointless because of the lack of decanting etc?

  2. I was so steamed that halfway through the tasting I stopped taking notes and when I got back to the hotel I discarded the notes that I had taken. I felt that it was a non-representative exercise.

  3. I have been attending EWS events since 1986. Howard and Bob are good friends and colleagues. Your account is disturbing and though I did not attend the 86 Bordeaux event---
    The general format of these events is:
    EWines are often double decanted. That is they are poured into decanters, then poured back into the clean bottles and often back into the decanters.
    The photo of the pours seems to be in line with these things, in fact photos of pours from other events you have posted are similar.
    You were clearly lost--Each flight is poured--you may as many do begin to taste as the wines are .....

  4. ....poured.
    After the complete flight is poured the wines are discussed by Howard and Bob and the group.
    You can continue tasting while the next flight is being poured. Usually people discuss the wines among the attendees while the wines are being poured.
    Your comment about a starter's gun is funny. How much hand holding do you expect or need?

  5. I should also point out that EWS events are regularly attended by members of the wine trade-wine makers, importers, writers and critics (Parker would not lend his support to any group), retailers and serious aficionados/collectors. (as well as novice wine lovers).

    They must be doing something right.

    You are entitled to your opinion and I am sorry you did not have a good experience. Would love to see you at some future event--I can give you some tips!!!

    1. John, as you have stipulated, you were not at the particular event. However, I am always looking for opportunities to learn so look forward to the opportunity of receiving some of those promised tips.

  6. Very Interesting Post. I have many rules before paying for any type of wine tastings. I usually make a few phone calls, ask the same questions at least twice with hopes of hearing the same answer. I also communicate via email as well. If you paid for this with a credit card and I'm guessing you did, you should have requested a refund. I'm sure you would have received one.

  7. I forgot to add that I love your response to John. It was just perfect.