How to Navigate Large-Scale Alcohol Festivals: A Guide

Drink Features Festivals
How to Navigate Large-Scale Alcohol Festivals: A Guide

When I attended my first Taste Washington Grand Tasting in 2014, I bonked. Halfway through sampling offerings from 200+ wineries and around 75 restaurants and other food vendors, I stopped in my tracks. Even though the event was only halfway over, my palate was shot, and I was more than slightly buzzed. 

Since then, I’ve lost count of the many booze fests I’ve attended, ranging from events attracting international players such as the Artisan Cider Summit, Seattle Cocktail Week’s Carnival of Cocktails and the now-defunct Feast Portland to more regional events like Oregon Distilled (and its counterpart in Washington State, Proof WA), Brewstillery and the forthcoming Portland-based Malbec in the City fête. In the process, I learned how to navigate these events so that I emerge more enlightened than inebriated. 

The following are some tips to help you maneuver your way through the crowds so you can have an enjoyable experience at the next beer, wine, cider or spirits festival you attend.

Pre-Festival Preparation

Before booking an event, do a bit of research so you can avoid what event designer Rusty Hoyle terms the “Fyre Festival” effect. In particular, confirm that the event is legit by reviewing their sponsor page, and always buy your tickets directly from the website to avoid scammers selling fake tickets. 

Kevin Siegrist, director of sales & events for Bell Harbor International Conference Center, recommends checking to see if there are specific educational/tasting seminars or presenters you’re interested in, as well as assessing if the VIP ticket is worth the extra cost in terms of swag and early event access. If VIP or early access tickets are available, Jana Daisy-Ensign, marketing director of the Northwest Cider Association, suggests going with this option. “The extra cost is often worth it for the ease of navigating the space with fewer bodies. Similarly, plan to call it a day before peak hours.”

Amie Fields, partner at Botanist & Barrel advises attendees to get their festival pre-plan down so as not to become overwhelmed. “Research the attending producers, wineries, and restaurants and make a list of what you are most excited about!” Daisy-Ensign adds, “If the producer is popular, plan to visit these folks first, recognizing they may run out of specialty items.”

Before attending any alcohol event, Karen Locke, founder & owner of High-Proof Creative, a branding and marketing agency for craft spirits, recommends eating a solid meal beforehand even if the event will have food or small bites. “You’ll get distracted, or there will be a long line, and you’ll wish you had a solid base in your stomach.” She says that the day before an event, she will usually drink an electrolyte drink mix like Liquid I.V. and then take vitamins the day of the event to prevent any ill effects from imbibing too much. 

As you get ready for the festival, Tracy Parmer, development manager of Walla Walla Valley Wine recommends dressing in layers. She notes, “Make sure you’re prepared to enjoy your time, regardless of what mother nature is serving. Crowded indoor spaces can make for a warm setting, and getting overheated can ruin a lovely tasting experience. On the flip side, many events are hosted outdoors, and the fine print usually says rain or shine.” 

Also, review the event’s website so you know whether you can bring items like a water bottle, lawn chairs or outside food to the event.. While events and vendors often distribute bags, bring along a bag to carry around any papers or gifts you collect just in case. In addition, download any applicable event apps so you can make note of any last-minute changes to event scheduling.

Navigating the Festival  

When you’re checking into the festival, be sure to photograph any raffle or coat check tickets. The odds of losing these tickets (or mistaking them for a drink ticket) are such that it’s better to be safe than sorry.  

During the event, Kelly Woodcock, partner and vice president of guest experience & whiskey club at Westward Whiskey, recommends drinking lots of water and factoring in both sun exposure and heat when calculating how much to drink. Also, she looks for drinks that aren’t spirit-forward. “I like to drink things like highballs and spritz drinks when I’m at a long festival—it helps ensure I’m not drinking too much too quickly.” In a similar vein, Daisy-Ensign suggests tasting from lower to higher ABV (alcohol by volume) to reduce the likelihood that your palate will be fatigued. 

Jaime Dutton, the executive director at Pressoir Wine, an organization that produces the annual La Paulée, La Fête du Champagne and La Tablée wine festivals, encourages attendees not to be afraid of an empty table. “Think of it as an open table,” she says. Conversely, Dutton recommends being mindful of those tables where people are crowding. “Keep an eye on that space. The line will probably never die down until it is out of what was so exciting to everyone. But the crowd will surely ebb and flow throughout the event.” 

Along those lines, don’t get stuck at one table or feel obliged to taste all the offerings. Woodcock says that you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) finish everything. “Take a sip or a bite, and move on. Finishing drinks will quickly lead to overconsumption, which is always a bad look.” 

When going from a white wine or a light beer or cider to a red wine or a dark beer or cider, you don’t need to rinse your glass. But when going from dark to light, it’s best to give your glass a quick rinse. Also, don’t feel like you must taste all of the lighter drinks before starting on the more full-bodied pours. As Dutton notes, “In  Burgundy, you often taste reds first (à la bourguignonne), and switching back and forth can help avoid fatigue and reset your palate.” 

During the event, Parmer advises taking notes and photos so you can remember what you like. “Ask questions, take photos of your favorite bottles, jot down information and capture tasting notes. A full evening of tasting generates a lot of information and can be hard to remember the next day—don’t lose track of your favorites!” 

Many festival events have a to-go bottle/can shop that will offer you a selection of limited releases that may be hard to find elsewhere. According to Daisy-Ensign, “Shopping on-site supports the producers participating in the event, as well as giving you a perfect parting gift to your experience and can encourage you to feel great about leaving the event early.” She also suggests having a designated driver or hiring a transportation service, as having your ride home handled ensures you’ll truly enjoy your tasting. 

Post-Festival Protocol

Once the festival is over and you had a good experience, Hoyle recommends leaving positive reviews to help the festival grow. “Only leave a negative comment if there’s something that people need to know about, like no water stations, or something that the producers forgot that is crucial to event-goers. People searching for fun events are more likely to see the festival when they do a Google search.”

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