Fall is arguably the most important time of the year for wine. For the northern hemisphere, it’s harvest time. The grapes are being picked and pressed, the wines a-fermenting. What’s more, it’s when importers and retail wine shops prepare for the holiday season, which is traditionally the busiest buying and selling time of year. If you’ve ever wondered how wine gets from wineries in Europe, South America and Australia to your favorite wine shop or the wine cellar of your favorite restaurant, the answers can all be found during portfolio tasting season, a two-week period where importers, government wine boards, journalists, buyers and deeply entrenched wine geeks converge on New York City.
The importers are really the stars of the show as they present their wine portfolios to the masses, which include representatives from retail wine shops and restaurants. The importers have already by this point traveled to wine salons and wineries around the world – or in the particular region that is their specialty – selecting wines they think they can sell to wine shops and sommeliers, who will in turn sell those wines to you and me.
“Autumn traditionally reawakens the wine industry,” says Giancarlo Luiggi, the wine director for Heritage Wines, a boutique wine shop in Brooklyn. “Part of that is the weather. In the summer, people tend to drink beer, cocktails, some whites and rosés. But as the weather cools, people want more substantial wines.”
Luiggi, like other wine buyers, tries to make as many portfolio tastings as possible each year. He’s looking for wines that his customers might like and that he feels his shop will be able to sell. Heritage specializes in small-producer, organic, biodynamic and natural wines, so the tastings Luiggi attends tend to feature those wines prominently.
“Another reason the fall is so important to us is that a lot of wineries are bottling their wines in order to make space in their cellars for the new vintage,” says Nicolas Mestre, CEO and co-founder of Charlottesville, VA importer Williams Corner Wines. “But the main reason is that we’re gearing up for October, November and December, which are generally the busiest for wine sales.”
Mestre says that, being a smaller importer specializing in small-production artisanal wines, his sales staff take the wines out to shops and restaurants rather than the company hosting a big portfolio tasting event. Many shop owners and sommeliers prefer this; it allows for a quieter, more intimate tasting. (Read: portfolio tastings can be kinda bonkers.) Mestre is especially excited about showing off several of the newest additions to his portfolio, including a Pignoletto Frizzante by Vigneto San Vito, Castell d'Age Cava, and Champagne Charles Dufour NV Extra Brut Bulles de Comptoir. Look for them at specialty wine shops and restaurants in the greater D.C. and New York areas.
“I absolutely love attending portfolio tastings,” says Eamon Rockey, the general manager of Betony in New York, who made the switch from cook to sommelier years ago. “When I have an opportunity to attend a grand tasting, I immediately grab a portfolio guide that outlines all of the producers and bottlings that are represented. By taking the time to go through it and ascertaining exactly what is important to taste, I ensure that I'm able to experience the most important wines and spirits for my restaurant.”
The most exciting tasting for him? Terry Theise’s catalog, which is focused on German and Austrian wines. Theise is also known for his killer champagne portfolio, specializing in grower champagnes that he famously refers to as “farmer fizz.” As an importer, Theise cultivates strong relationships with producers and gets many of them to attend his portfolio tastings so that they can interact with his clients directly.
It’s a good idea to get to know a couple wine importers; they often are cited on the wine’s back label. If you like one or two wines from a certain importer’s portfolio, you might find you like a lot more of them. So, if you come across a wine you’re unfamiliar with, but you recognize the importer’s name on the bottle, there’s a good chance you’ll like the wine. At Son of a Gun in Los Angeles, the wine director Helen Johannesen, who made a splash two years ago with her shocking all-champagne wine list, likes Neal Rosenthal’s portfolio. It’s focused on terroir-driven wines made organically and sustainably.
“Oftentimes, I’ll start with red Burgundy and end with champagne,” she says of her portfolio-tasting strategy. “It depends how big the tasting is, but I usually try to taste everything.”
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