By the numbers: larger public wine tastings

If you are a wine retailer, wine group, or wine organization that puts together the occasional wine tasting for the public, here are some ideas to keep in mind for a successful event.

This essay is focused on the small to the mid-sized event, for attendance in the 80 to 800 person range. Large convention center style events, the biggest ones that happen in most major markets, are a different animal entirely and this essay doesn’t apply to them.

But before we do the math, ask yourself the big question: what is the goal of the tasting? Is it to get orders? Is it to raise money for a charity? Is it to have a party? Is it to build your brand? Is it to help the attendees drink more wine than they ever thought possible? (Don’t laugh … plenty of large tastings seem to have this as the unspoken goal.) Figure out what the goal of the tasting is first. Write it down. Put it in front of you to remember as you start your planning.

Now, on to the organization.

Question one: how many wines?

It’s a question of quantity vs. quality. The fewer wines you have, the higher the quality level should be. The more wines you have, the more of a spectrum of quality and price should be shown. Knowing that a percentage of your ticket buyers take it upon themselves to taste every single wine, you owe it to them to police the number of wines being served. For most bigger events, 30 to 70 selections is a good number. I’ve found 40 or 50 to be just about right for most events in which you want to have a big room, lots of impact, but not a drunk fest. It’s enough wine to make attendees say “wow, look at the selections!” yet not be overwhelming to the senses because of too many choices.

For a smaller event, 50-100 attendees, shrink the number of wines of course. For an intimate event such as that, 25 to 40 wines is a great range.

But for a larger event, 100 to 500 attendees, don’t be tempted to simply add more wines just because more people are going to be there. Figure out a cap, say 50 to 70 wines, and stick to it. More wines are not better, and more selections don’t justify letting more people in the door. The number of people invited is based on how many tables and the size/flow of the room, not the number of choices to drink.

Question two: how many tables?

Take the total number of wines being served and do the simple math. If you’re serving 60 wines and plan on three tables, you’ll have a mess on your hands, with 20 wines per table (too crowded at each table). If you are serving 60 wines over 30 tables, you’ll have a beautifully spread out tasting but two new problems: finding enough good help to run the tables, and a sense with the crowd that there’s not very much wine. The slight push of the crowd will be too dissipated.

A good general formula (with six or eight-foot tables): between 4 and 8 wines per table. Do the math, now you have your number of tables.

Question three: how many attendees per table?

Start with a base of 10 to 15. Stand at one of these tables and envision 10 to 15 people at it, glasses in hand, leaning forward, asking questions. With 10 wines on the table, and 15 people asking questions, you need at least two people working the table. Now envision 20. Now envision 30.

An ideal number to aim for is 10 attendees per table. So if you have 300 people attending, you should have 30 tables (spread out) to make for a peaceful event, with 4 to 8 wines per table.

The total number of attendees you allow in is based on the number of tables, not on the number of wines or the legal capacity of the room. Want to invite more people? Add tables and spread it out.

Question four: how many people are you going to let in?

The number of total attendees is based on the number of tables and the room you’ll be in. Ten attendees per table make for a room with elbow room and discussion. Twenty attendees per table make for a crowded room and some lines at the tables. More than thirty attendees per table make for problems. Add in a room with bad flow, barriers to movement, or a confusing layout and you have a shit show.

At this point (and only at this point) can you do the math to figure where to cap ticket sales. Say you landed on 60 wines but are doing only six tables. In this case, somewhere in the 60-90 person range is good. But spread that to 10 tables, and suddenly you can handle 100-150 people.

If you want to up your attendance ceiling, more tables (not more wines) is the only way to do it.

Question five: quantities

How much of each wine should you have on hand for the event? Here’s the simple formula:

Smaller events (up to 20 wines presented): one bottle per 25 attendees.

Medium events (20 to 50 wines presented): one bottle per 35 attendees.

Large events (50 + wines presented): one bottle per 40 attendees.

(These estimates should always leave you with some wine left over. Ensuring that you won’t run out is of course important.)

All of this assumes you are using pour restrictors and keeping the service to about an ounce of wine per person per sample. This is a rough guide but will work for most events. Your goal should be that everyone gets at least one taste of everything they want to experience.

You can never have too much water available. Hint: have a big pile of bottled water at the exit, putting a bottle into each hand on the way out.

Question six: how much time for the tasting?

It seems that this should connect to the number of wines being served. Fewer wines, smaller window. More wines, more time.

Not true.

The problem with extending a tasting to the three or more hour mark is twofold: you’ll have vendor burnout from a grueling non-stop pourfest (or hours of foot tapping boredom if not well attended or too spread out), and you’ll have customers that drink too much. Never forget that a percentage of the attendees are there to drink as much as they can to justify their ticket price. You are in control of them, by keeping the tasting window a bit tighter.

Advice? A two-hour tasting that you actually start 30 minutes earlier than the published time. Those that arrive early or right on time tend to be the ones that are taking notes, will taste what they want to taste, then leave. Those that arrive late sometimes stop for a drink or two on the way in. Compress the timeframe, stay serious on the end time, and you end up with fewer problems. Speaking of which…

The multiplying effect of problems

So here is where things can go sideways.

Have too few tables and each table becomes a log-jam feeding frenzy, where people can’t move. If you have 20 or more people at one table trying to drink their money’s worth (and believe me, that’s how they are thinking), they will be stuck and unhappy. If you hear customers say “fill er up, give me some more” it’s often because of this. Who wouldn’t want more when it takes five full minutes between pours to get another taste?

Have the tables too close together, or no ability to get a sip and duck out, and the same thing happens, but with an added impact: increased volume levels. When customers and vendors can’t talk, that’s a problem because it quickly becomes a ‘drink your ticket’s worth’ event. Tables should have space between them.

If the tables are not labeled well, or the bottles are not organized and numbered in a program, nobody will take notes and nobody will know what to order.

The multiplying effect of the problems is real: if people in the crowd start to converse with fellow patrons leading with “what a crowd, eh?” or “this room is crazy and I can’t handle it” or “Jesus, what a mess” or “What did you say? I can’t hear you!” then you have a multiplying problem because the patrons are finding a tribe in their frustrations.

If that problem goes onto social media it multiplies exponentially.

What do I mean by a ‘multiplying problem’? It’s that your events now have a stigma. A reputation. “Don’t go to that unless you want to feel like you’re in a sardine can.” If you’re trying to attract a crowd that likes the chaos and the noise, then go for it but don’t lie to your other patrons about having an opportunity to taste through 60 marvelous selections. Hard to taste and think about wine in a sardine can.

The perfect event

How would you define the perfect event? One in which the vendors, the customers, and the host site all said the same thing: that was awesome and we can’t wait to do it again.

And look back at your goal of the event. Did you achieve it?

Lastly, take notes after your event. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Be honest with yourself. Then do more of the good.

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