The 2012 Houston Wine Fest was held on September 29, 2012 from 12pm-10pm. The festival this year was held at Tranquility Park in downtown Houston.
I was really not sure how to write about this year’s festival. I could be totally positive, totally negative, both, and then I read the comments on Facebook on the Houston Wine Fest page. The majority of comments were negative and some had questions and concerns. Since I know a little bit, I decided to try and be the voice of the people. Perhaps any negative comments can be used as constructive criticism if indeed the festival’s planners decide to try it again next year.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Facebook’s Houston Wine Fest page advertised in July they were going to have a special tasting on July 29th to help decide on the 100 wines the festival was going to present. We paid $44.18 for two tickets to the special tasting and as a result of the tasting, we received two General Admission tickets to the festival, a $20 per person value. After meeting the planners at the tasting, I told them about this wine blog and requested media passes to the festival. They ended up giving us two VIP tickets for the festival so we could have access to all areas of the festival.
To show you the difference between tickets, the General Admission cost $20 and included admission to the festival, a tasting cup, 10 tasting tickets, and a Souvenir Wine Glass if you purchased before September 11th. The VIP ticket cost $100 and gave you admission to the festival, a tasting cup, 20 tasting tickets, a special selection of wines in VIP, free food from 4 restaurants, and a Souvenir Wine Glass. The VIP also included a bottle bag and a bottle closure which looked like an inline skate.
After attending the first two years of the Houston Wine Fest and seeing better changes every year, it was going to be interesting to see what happened this year. I talked to three Texas wineries who were at least year’s festival to see if they would be attending this year. What I heard back shocked me with all three wineries answering the same thing: No. I learned from them that in 2011, it took months for the Texas wineries to get paid from the Houston Wine Fest (one winery’s first check even bounced), and in fact one Texas winery never got paid at all. Update: I heard now that 3 Texas wineries never got paid last year.
I kept asking on Twitter and elsewhere to the Houston Wine Fest how many Texas wineries were going to be at this year’s festival and never got a reply. I realize now why sometimes you don’t get replies to questions. I got in touch with my contact for the festival and received the answer there would not be any Texas wineries this year, except one (more on that later). I was told last year the Texas wineries put the Houston Wine Fest in the hole by many thousands of dollars. I could state the number but I’m trying to be discrete. As such, the Houston Wine Fest decided to change their business model and present only 100 wines, non-Texas. I was told when we arrived at the festival, my contact would be glad to explain the process. We saw him a few times when we arrived at the festival but he was so busy trying to get things organized and he never tried to pull me aside to explain.
The day of the festival came with a 90% chance of rain. This was going to make things really interesting. The festival’s hours were from noon until 10pm. Saturday morning the Houston Wine Fest Facebook page posted the status: “Looks like the rain will pass us over. Gates open at 1pm!!!!!!” Huh? Everybody was then confused as to the opening time. Was it noon or 1pm? There never was a correction or statement back to those questioning.
I printed out the festival map which was on the website and we headed to Houston Wine Fest. The best part about having the festival at Tranquility Park is the underground parking is right underneath the festival. After paying the $7 event parking, we went up to the street, discovered we were at the gate at Bagby and Walker, and the time was around 12:10pm. Thankfully the rain looked like it might miss the festival. The people at the gate were just starting to set up and one guy told us we should probably head down to the gate at Walker and Smith as they may be ready to accept people. He told us to walk around the block instead of just down the sidewalk. I don’t know why because the sidewalk worked perfectly fine to get us to the “main” gate.
After we arrived at the second gate, a small line had formed because it too had not yet opened. Maybe it really wasn’t going to open until 1pm. But at 12:23pm, the gate opened, people received their tasting cups, tickets, and wristbands, and were off. When we got to receive ours, they gave them to us and after seeing our tickets were VIP they took them away, gave us the tasting cup, 20 tasting tickets, and said to get the wristband and other things at the VIP area. Just to explain the tasting cup, they had the same cup at last year’s festival, and I mean literally the same cup since it had 2011 on the plastic cup. We learned last year that apparently between the first and second years, the city had banned glass from the parks which meant we went from a real wine glass the first year to a plastic cup the remaining years. At least there would be a real wine glass on the way out because of the VIP ticket (more on that later). We went to the VIP area, got our different wristbands, the bottle bag, and the bottle closure.
The 100 wines which were selected this year were divided up into different booths: Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Chardonnay, International, Italy, Merlot, Moscato, Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Roses, Sauvignon Blanc, and Zinfandel. There was one booth per type of wine which meant later on in the day, lines were longer depending on the kind of wine people wanted to taste. For the VIP tickets there was also a selection of wines under the VIP tented area which were only available there. We decided on our first booth and the girl working the booth had one taster so far. We chose different wines and she had problems opening the wine bottle which had a cork and even had problems with a screw cap. She said the first taster had to open their bottle and I volunteered to open the ones we wanted to taste and every other type of bottle she had there so the next tasters wouldn’t have problems. It was interesting the paid employee, these were not volunteers just like last years were paid, could not even open a wine bottle.
We met up with some friends then and went around the rest of the festival with them. We reached another booth and asked some questions about the wines to the employee. She said she didn’t really know because she was told they could not taste any of the wines. In fact on the job application is this statement: Drinking while on shift is prohibited. The Houston Wine Fest has a zero tolerance policy and will immediately terminate any employee caught drinking or intoxicated during their shift. If terminated, the employee will not receive compensation of any kind.
I certainly understand about intoxication and if the employee drank their entire shift. However, anybody who has worked or will work a wine festival, or even knows anything about wine knows you need to taste the wine you are presenting to your customers. You are going to get questions like, “Is it too sweet?”, “Which one is drier?”, etc. If you can’t taste the wine, you can’t give them an answer.
We then asked what to do if we wanted to purchase a bottle of wine. The employee showed us a plastic bottle and said she would have to pour the wine bottle into the plastic bottle as we were not allowed to have glass. We were really questioning this because nobody is going to buy a few bottles of wine to take home in plastic bottles. If you didn’t drink them soon after you arrived home, they would go bad. But she said that’s what she was told. When we got to the next booth, we asked the question again because we just couldn’t believe that could be true. Sure enough, we were told it wasn’t true. If you wanted a bottle of wine to drink on the premises, you had to take it in the plastic bottle. But if you wanted to buy a bottle to take home, they would handle the transaction (for example 20 tickets for one bottle) and then they would send a runner with the bottle to the “main” gate where you could pick it up on your way out. Okay, now that made sense.
During our travels among the booths, the rain started and stopped requiring us to open and close our umbrellas. It didn’t seem to deter too many people as when people imbibe, they will eventually be happy and ignore the weather conditions. The longest lines were at the booths near the “main” gate, probably because those were the first booths people saw when entering.
We made it to the vendor area which was on Walker Street. There is where we encountered the one Texas winery, Texas South Wind Vineyard & Winery, and met owners David and Regina Staggs. They did not attend last year’s festival so they were not involved in the issues with the Texas wineries last year. The first thing we learned though was a tasting was $5. We couldn’t use our tasting tickets from the festival so they really were being treated as outside the festival. We enjoyed the tastings with Texas South Wind and look forward to re-visiting the winery in the future.
The vendors and food booths were very good on the street. We ate some food and then I realized the VIP area was supposed to have food from four restaurants so we said goodbye to our friends briefly while we went to visit the VIP area. There was food in the VIP area: 2 trays of sliders, one turkey meatloaf and one beef. I’m not sure if this was the food from the four restaurants or maybe they showed up later in the day. A wine tasting table had the other wines which were available only in the VIP area.
It was time to check out the Craft Beer Garden which according to the map was across Rusk Street. We asked one security guard how to get there and we were pointed to the first gate we tried coming in. Actually according to the map there was supposed to be a gate at Bagby and Rusk but apparently that never transpired. We made it to the gate and when we asked about re-entering because we were heading to the Beer Garden, they told us all the beer was inside the one park. I said the map showed the Beer Garden on the other side of the street and was told it was not anymore because it was too muddy on the other side and he should know because he drew the map. I had seen a few beer booths by the music stage so we headed back that way.
I tried some of the craft beers which were 4-5 tickets each for a glass of beer. I tried a couple Texas craft beers. After tasting the beers, we headed back to meet our friends. I realized later one Texas beer I wanted to try was Southern Star which I saw on the map but don’t recall seeing it in the booths, so I must have missed it.
The bands which were trying to play in the rain were sounding good. Again with the map there were supposed to be two band stages so I do not know how they squeezed two sets of bands into the one music stage.
One other thing we noticed there were no dump buckets available on the tables in case you did not care for a particular wine. There was a jar which could have been a dump bucket but the tables were using it as a tip jar. It’s a good thing it was raining and the grass needed some watering too.
On the way out of the festival, we remembered the VIP tickets came with a wine glass you could pick up on the way out. We went to the booth but for some reason they had checkmarks next to our names as if we had picked up our glasses already. I do not know how that mistake could have happened.
One thing about the Houston Wine Fest was the website was constantly changing. Sometimes Texas wineries were listed, even up to the last week before the festival, and then they were not listed. Even when they were listed, there were “New to the festival” images next to some wineries and since I knew they were at last year’s festival, it was definitely last year’s list of wineries. When I did my preview post earlier, the website said there would be over 20 breweries, and now it has been updated to say over 10 breweries.
Even the Press Kit on the website is for the 2011 Houston Wine Fest. According to last year’s press kit, the first wine festival had over 12,000 guests. I never heard how many guests were at least year’s festival, but I’m sure the rain affected how many people attended this year’s festival. But the real interesting thing will be to see how the new business model eliminating the Texas wineries affected the Houston Wine Fest bottom line profit.