COVID-19 means no wine tasting at the California Wine Convention

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Liz Avalos, left, and Lisa Brand of Lodi examine wine bottles on display at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016.

Sacramento Bee File

One of the largest wine industry trade shows in the world kicked off Tuesday in Sacramento. But one key element of the festivities will be largely absent: wine tasting.

Due to COVID-19 concerns, organizers of the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium — Sacramento’s largest convention — have canceled Tuesday’s opening wine reception at the Sheraton Grand. Finished also the regional ones we wine tastings on Wednesday and a wine luncheon on Thursday, both in the SAFE Credit Union Convention Center exhibit hall.

That leaves only one opportunity for wine tasting: a Tuesday sit-down lunch at the downtown convention center. And even then, it will only be two varieties.

Holding the three stand-up wine tasting events would get people packing together — a no-no for social distancing with COVID-19 raging across the country, said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of WineGrape. Growers, one of two conference sponsors.

“It’s one of the frustrating accommodations that have to be made with COVID,” he said. “Let’s hope 2023 is a different story.”

Aguirre said the decision to cancel the wine tastings was made about a week ago.

Tuesday’s lunch will feature only the two wines, a stark contrast to the hundreds of wines that have been available for tasting in the showroom in the past. .

The 2020 regional wine tastings at the conference featured wines from 16 different wine regions across the United States, including eight from California. Many wines come from lesser-known wine regions that try to promote their product, such as Amador County near Sacramento, New Mexico and New York.

“I’m disappointed, but I’m not going to scream,” said John Martini, a representative for the New York Wine & Grape Foundation.

He said the cancellation was a reality of COVID, and the annual opportunity to showcase New York wines to thousands of convention attendees will be a lost opportunity.

Normally, Martini said he would offer samples from 20 different wineries, including his own Anthony Road Winery in Penn Yan in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.

“It broadens people’s horizons about New York wine,” he said of the tastings. “And that’s what you want to do.”

Wine tastings aren’t the only thing missing this year.

The general convention will continue, but attendance is also expected to be down. Conference organizers are expecting 9,000 attendees this year for the three-day event which ends Thursday. That’s a far cry from the nearly 14,000 in 2020 before COVID-19 hit.

Despite the drop in attendance, hotels and motels in the area say they are still selling out their rooms as they did during pre-pandemic shows. Restaurant owners say they expect a strong turnout for evening wine dinners, although business may be down slightly from previous years.

Last year, the conference, which is also sponsored by the American Society for Enology and Viticulture, was held virtually.

This year, protocols have been put in place according to California law for participants. Attendees must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test before entering. Masks must be worn except for eating and drinking.

Aguirre said he understands that not everyone might be comfortable attending the show, but there won’t be a virtual option.

“I think the virtual thing works reasonably well when you just want to convey information,” he said. “But if you really want to see gear, talk to people and just experience the chance of meeting someone unexpected, that’s hard to do online.”

As part of its efforts to increase attendance, conference organizers have engaged Epistemix, a modeling company that analyzes COVID data and safety protocols, to calculate the risk of attending the show.

The company maintains that attendees are eight times less likely to be exposed to COVID-19 than at a local Sacramento-area grocery store or doing daily activities.

“The salon can create a more controlled environment,” said John Cortier, CEO of Epistemix.

The firm estimates there should be one to two cases of COVID-19 per 10,000 participants, a factor that Epistemix says is 95% reliable and above the high-risk threshold set by the Centers for Disease Control. .

It is not known how many participants will not be vaccinated. If the convention was held in San Francisco or Los Angeles, where stricter local rules are in effect, only vaccinated people would be able to enter the show.

Cortier said the safety projections at the Sacramento convention are also based on the calculation that attendees are carrying valid vaccine cards.

“The worst case scenario,” he said, “would probably be something like, everybody lies about their vaccinations and shows up, and it’s a big, superspreader event, but I don’t think whether it is a likely or probable outcome.”

Security concerns or not, show organizers had no problem filling all 600 exhibitors for the two days the show hall is scheduled to be open Wednesday and Thursday.

Organizers say this is the highest number of exhibitors ever, noting that a recent expansion of the convention center has allowed for 10% more exhibitors than before.

Exhibitors include water treatment companies, wine bottling companies, storage companies, insurers and wine equipment manufacturers.

Hoteliers say conference activity is welcome again after last year’s virtual conference kept everyone out.

Doug Warren, who runs three Marriott-branded hotels in the Sacramento area, said all of his rooms were sold out for the wine show, but sales only happened in recent days instead of early January, the practice of wine fairs. before COVID.

He said he thought customers made sure they were healthy because hotels like his have a cancellation penalty two weeks before the show.

“There are a lot of pent-up requests,” said Warren, regional operations manager for the Welcome Group, “but people are booking last minute to make sure they can go.”

This story was originally published January 25, 2022 5:00 a.m.

Randy Diamond is a business reporter for The Sacramento Bee.

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