The UK wine trade would still exist without the London Wine Fair, but it wouldn’t half be a drearier place. As this year’s show approaches, anyone who doesn’t feel at least a brief frisson of excitement has arguably chosen the wrong career.
Business will be done, contracts signed, follow-up meetings scheduled. But commerce is not the sole purpose of the London show. It’s a chance to meet old friends, stumble upon unfamiliar wines and to open your mind to new ideas. You can make all the appointments you like, but there’s a lot to be said for a serendipitous stroll through the aisles. You never quite know who, or what, you’ll bump into.
Despite all that, there’s no question that the fair has had an identity crisis in recent years. Most of that was resolved when Brintex abandoned the idea of being the British answer to ProWein or VinItaly, and took a more parochial line: a local fair for local people, if you like. By focusing squarely on the needs and quirks of the UK market, the fair has reinvigorated itself and answered the question: who and what is it actually for?
This year’s show will as always feature the sideshows, masterclasses and debates that add colour to the event, and are signally missing from, say, ProWein (the Düsseldorf show may be big on scale, but its no-frills approach makes it short on laughs).
It’s a sign of the times that there’s no West Hall this year – exhibitor numbers were always unlikely to hold up in the face of the duty increases and currency disaster that have befallen the trade since last year’s fair. But two of the show’s most relevant areas for independents (who have their own lunch on the Tuesday) will be as lively as ever.
The Esoterica zone, at which smaller-scale suppliers ply their wares from behind tables, is hardly the most high-tech innovation the fair has introduced, but it’s certainly one of the most popular. On the other side of the upper level, Wines Unearthed features 100 export-ready producers who are as yet unrepresented in the UK.
The show has attracted some new names this year, but as always some will abstain. That’s their right, and many of these refuseniks spend countless thousands on putting their wines before independents throughout the year and on supporting those customers in myriad ways.
What’s sad is when suppliers that don’t come to the fair bad-mouth the event. It may not be perfect, but it’s not the job of Brintex alone to make it a success. Exhibitors and visitors alike have a role to play to maintain the London Wine Fair as the most important and commercially relevant wine show in the country. It should also be – and this is so easily overlooked – the most fun.